Picture by 2021 Getty Images

How Fran Kirby's tale of strength and determination inspires on and off the football pitch

Despite a recent heart scare, family tragedy as a teenager, and depression which almost ended her career, Chelsea star and England international Kirby will play in her first Olympic Games in 2021 after being selected for Team GB. Here's her incredible story.
By Courtney Hill

The night before the Team GB announcement would have been full of tension for Fran Kirby and her club and country teammates, knowing that when they woke up the next morning, they'd receive an email holding the fate of their summer.

For Kirby, excitement turned to joy and pride the next day, as she shared with her family that she had been selected by head coach Hege Riise to represent Great Britain in women's football at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in 2021.

The 27-year-old was at the forefront of a Chelsea side who stormed the Women's Super League in England this season and, although pushed to the end by Manchester City, ultimately came out on top to seal their second straight WSL title, to add to their back-to-back FA Women's League Cup wins.

Now, Kirby wants to replicate that club success on an international level.

"We want to get to a final, we don't want to get to another semi-final or get knocked out earlier. We want to make sure we push further and go one more." she told Olympic Channel.

Just getting to this point has required formidable strength and resilience from Kirby, who has had to overcome significant challenges, including serious health issues and periods away from the game, on her way to the top.

Why tragedy and depression almost ended Fran Kirby's career before it started

At just 14, young Fran was already destined to be a footballer. She was part of the centre of excellence at Reading FC in the second tier of the English women's game. But it was during a session there that Kirby tragically lost her mum, Denise, from a sudden brain haemorrhage.

Difficulty dealing with it mentally led the teenager to quit football: "When I turned 17, that's when it all got a bit too much," she told The Guardian.

"I decided to stop doing pretty much everything. I quit football.

"I wouldn’t get up in the morning, I wouldn’t go out of my room, I was very depressed."

But in 2012, she made the decision to return, rejoining her hometown club of Reading, and played her way into England's 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup squad.

The then 21-year-old was a standout player for an England team that went on to finish third in the tournament.

Despite her being ruled out at the quarter-finals stage due to an injury, Kirby had shown enough to earn a transfer to Chelsea.

The Chelsea star overcoming a career threatening condition

In late 2019, seemingly out of the blue, Fran Kirby collapsed.

What was intended to be a quiet night at home with close friends and teammates, Bethany England and Maren Mjelde, turned into a frightening ordeal as England made out a call to emergency services.

Kirby was subsequently diagnosed with pericarditis; a condition that causes inflammation around the heart, usually triggered by a viral infection.

As if out of nowhere, her footballing career was under immediate threat, and suddenly the player who seemed to have the world at her feet was faced with the reality that she may never be able to play again.

"Physically I wasn't able to do anything," she told Chelsea FC.

"I wasn't allowed to do any walking, anything that would stress my heart or stress me.

"I was so tired, I couldn't move really, I was fed up."

Determined to get back, she attempted to return to training on a few occasions and though there might have been positive signs, it also caused setbacks in her recovery.

There were moments when Kirby felt completely hopeless, even admitting to calling the club doctor on Christmas Day in tears pleading for any kind of help that could bring her some relief from the pain she was in.

At her lowest, Kirby had considered retirement more than once.

"There were times I messaged or nearly picked up the phone to Emma [Hayes, Chelsea manager] and say 'Look I'm sorry, I can't do this anymore,'" she revealed to ESPN.

Sheer strength and determination to be the best version of herself helped push Kirby through her diagnosis and into an eventual return for Chelsea; and a year on from considering retirement, she's at the peak of her game sweeping individual awards.

The comeback kid

After the world came to a standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic, so did football.

Chelsea were crowned WSL champions on a points-per-game merit when it was decided that the domestic season could not continue.

For Kirby, however, this meant she could target a realistic return to football for the following season, giving her a chance to catch up to the rest of the field in terms of fitness.

Just under a year on from a diagnosis that could have cost her the career she had worked so tirelessly for, Fran Kirby was once again lacing up her boots for Chelsea.

Making her comeback against Manchester United in the first game of the new season, she assisted teammate Sam Kerr for their only goal of the game; the blossoming start to one of the league's deadliest duos.

And that was just the beginning of a remarkable return.

Kirby would end the domestic season scoring 16 goals and registering 11 assists in 18 games for her club's second consecutive domestic title, as well as netting six times to help her side reach their first UEFA Women's Champions League final, where they were beaten by FC Barcelona.

The England forward picked up the PFA Women's Players' Player of the Year and the Football Writers' Association Women's Footballer of the Year for her club contributions; a testament to her character both on and off the pitch.

With attention now turning to the Olympic Games in 2021, Kirby is eyeing a successful run with Team GB as she continues to up her game.

Tokyo 2020 being postponed gave Kirby a second chance at making the squad following her return from illness.
Picture by NAOMI BAKER/GETTY IMAGES

Fran Kirby: "I'm not satisfied"

After being called up to the Great Britain squad for the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021, Kirby is determined now more than ever to keep pushing on.

"I'm not satisfied with how everything has gone this year," she told Olympic Channel.

"I want to push on and keep building, I know that there is still a lot that I need to work on in my game."

She has no intention of looking over her shoulder back on what was an impressive season with Chelsea, but rather keeping her focus in the present.

"That's in the past now, that's something that has happened.

"I need to make sure that I'm in the present and I'm ready to go for this Olympics."

Had Tokyo 2020 gone ahead last year as planned, Kirby admits that it is unlikely she would have made the squad given that she missed a section of the season.

But now she is relishing the chance to line up in only the second women's tournament that the GB women have competed in at the Games.

"It's such an exciting time and [it's] exciting to be a part of this Team GB history.

"It's one that comes with a lot of responsibility, but I know that this team can go to the levels it needs to and make sure that we are inspiring everyone back home like I am inspired when I watch all different Olympians on TV when I'm normally at home watching it.

"We all know the pressures that come with it [being selected for Team GB], but we are all really excited and just want to go out there and have fun and be an Olympian."

Almost two years ago, Fran Kirby was told she may never play the sport she loves again.

Now midway through 2021, after a season in which she conquered all now in her repertoire, Chelsea Women's all-time top goal scorer is bound for Tokyo, ready to introduce herself to the Olympic Games and aiming to add to her incredible story.