“I always boxed because I loved the sport. Training, fighting, everything about it. But now, after what Nicole and I have been through together, I have got a reason. When things inevitably get tough for me in my career, mentally and physically, I have a partner at home who has shown me getting through anything is possible.”
It has been eleven months since Ciaran McVarnock climbed through the ropes to compete as a professional boxer.
A fighter being out of the ring for an extended period isn’t uncommon. Injuries, lack of motivation, lack of discipline, managerial or promotional disputes or a lack of desire to compete again can all play a factor.
However, for McVarnock, who hails from Belfast, was kept out of the ring by something that was simply bigger than boxing.
His partner, Nicole, is living with Cystic Fibrosis. For anybody living with the condition, life can be challenging at the best of times and last year she faced the toughest battle of all.
Agonisingly, for a short while, life itself was placed in the balance.
“I had a lot of dates given to me by my manager but I just couldn’t fight because things with Nicole were getting worse.
“I wanted to get back in the ring but looking after and standing by Nicole was more important. We couldn’t have predicted just how bad things were going to get.”
When the couple first met, McVarnock admits he didn’t understand the complexity of Cystic Fibrosis. Like the majority of people, he had never encountered the condition or understood the effects it can have on people.
“When I first met Nicole, I never knew. I was away in Manchester at the time training with ‘Arnie’ [Anthony Farnell]. When I moved back to Belfast we met up more often and I noticed she had a cough but I just thought it was a cold or the flu.
“That’s when she told me she had Cystic Fibrosis but to be honest, I didn’t really know much about it.” McVarnock explained.
“When we began seeing each other more and stuff, I didn’t really want to ask any questions. So I researched myself and it scared me. The life expectancy is so short and although researchers are progressing with medication and treatment now, to read things like that is terrifying.
“As our relationship progressed, I’d seen the amount of medication she had to take and the precautions she needs to take in everyday life.
“I am still learning more and more about it now but I understand just how serious Cystic Fibrosis is and it is just a whole different side of life, that many people don’t see.”
Around Christmas time last year, Ciaran and Nicole should have been spending quality time together and enjoying the holiday season. However, one evening Nicole fell ill and her condition deteriorated, quickly.
“You know, at one point, things were really, really bad. It was around Christmas time. We were sitting at home and she couldn’t really breath and I was asking her if she wanted me to ring an ambulance. But, she didn’t want to with it being the weekend she thought they wouldn’t take her in.
“It just kept getting worse for the rest of the evening and eventually, we had to call out a doctor who then sent for an ambulance, straight away.
“She was rushed to hospital and by time we got there they were talking about life support machines and intensive care and from there, we didn’t leave the hospital for seven weeks. The whole thing was absolutely terrifying.”
During her time in hospital, Nicole remained in a serious condition with her lung capacity falling to just 20%. Desperate to do what he can to help, McVarnock began working to raise awareness and to campaign for Nicole to be given a drug called Symkevi, which is designed to vastly improve the day to day life of anyone with Cystic Fibrosis.
The campaign attracted the attention of national outlets, including BBC and in the end, Nicole was prescribed the drug on compassionate grounds. She became the first woman in Ireland to be prescribed Symkevi.
“I had to do something, she needed the drug and we didn’t really have time to waste. I can’t thank the press enough because without them, I don’t think we would have got the drug.
“The platform for me to basically beg for them to give it to her meant that the world was getting to hear about our situation. [Then] they had over 400 emails from people who had seen the story and were begging for them to give it to her.
“She finally got it, becoming the first woman in Ireland to be prescribed it and you know, she was as close as 10-12 hours away from death and the difference this drug has made, is mind blowing.
“The things we can do now, it is just amazing really. Everybody who has Cystic Fibrosis needs this drug and I am going to be campaigning for that, until it happens.”
After a turbulent few months, the couple were finally home and looking towards a brighter future. Like the rest of us, they were blindsided by the outbreak of Covid-19 and another hurdle was placed in their way.
The current lockdown restrictions are foreign to the vast majority of the population. However, for a family living with Cystic Fibrosis, things have not changed a great deal.
Just like COVID-19, Cystic Fibrosis attacks the lungs of the people who suffer with it and therefore things like a regular common cold, can cause incredibly dangerous side effects.
“Lockdown isn’t much different for us. We have to be so careful of germs all the time but we are taking even more care now. If Nicole was to attract Covid-19 then things would get serious again very quickly.
“But, even in our day to day life we have to keep things clean. Washing down our shopping, keep distance from people, all these things that come with Cystic Fibrosis is what people don’t see. That is why growing awareness around it is probably the most important thing in my career now.”
Time in lockdown has given McVarnock time to reflect and decipher exactly what himself and Nicole have been through.
Through all of this, their remains one thing that could provide the couple with a bright and happy future, boxing.
As the dust settles, the Irishman is excited to shift his focus back towards the competing again. He has spent the last couple of months rearranging his team, ready to attack the next stage of his career with vigour.
“As I said, I have always loved boxing and I have always been dedicated but now I just feel so motivated. Nicole is the reason for that. In the past, I wanted to win belts and become world champion and I still do, of course I do. But, its bigger than that now.
“I will wear the colour yellow in every fight I have (the colour of representation for Cystic Fibrosis) and I will spend the rest of my career raising awareness about our situation and added to that, I feel like I am about to make my debut all over again.
“I have got Kevin [Murray] now managing me and he is already working on dates for me, behind the scenes. When we return it will only be my second fight with Gerry [Storey] training me and with me in the corner.” Ciaran continued.
“After what we have been through, I am a different person now, no doubt about it. I have more motivation, more determination and this is all going to show. I am going to be fighting at featherweight going forward and I want to make presence known in that division.
“No matter what happens now, I won’t have any regrets. I am out there, spreading awareness and showing people what I can do. I know now, that life is bigger than boxing, I can relax and enjoy my career and this whole thing is bigger than just me now.”
One day in the near future, normality will return. There will be boxing shows worldwide and the sport will recover alongside the rest of society.
As all boxers slip back into training camp, Ciaran McVarnock will do the same. However, as he reiterates himself, things are different now.
The person he shares every day of his life with will provide him with all the inspiration and courage he needs, to attack the sport he loves with more ferocity than ever.