Northern Ireland man helping Uruguay with Rugby World Cup prep decade on from hitting depression and alcohol low
A series of injuries wrecked the promising sportsman's on-field career causing him to turn to booze but, as he tells Leona O'Neill, going back to college turned his life around
Ten years ago injuries sent Armagh sportsman Dean Lester spiralling into an abyss of depression and alcohol issues that almost ended his career. Today he is one of the key backroom staff of the Uruguay rugby team and is preparing them for the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The 36-year-old, who is engaged to special needs teacher Linsey, currently lives at the team's stadium in Montevideo.
Sport has always been in his DNA and after a few bumps on the road, he has finally arrived at his dream job.
"I was introduced to both rugby and cricket at a very young age by my dad," he says. "He didn't play much sport but was extremely proud of myself and my brother.
"I made my debut for Armagh under-12s in cricket when I was six years old. I think I was the youngest player to represent a team at a competitive level.
"I went on to get selected for representative sides through to under-19, I also played for numerous senior cricket teams in my time as well as rugby for Armagh Royal School.
"I played my club rugby at Armagh on and off in between serious injuries. I was 19 years old when I dislocated my right shoulder, 22 years old when I dislocated my left shoulder, and 26 years old when I dislocated my hip and fractured my pelvis. And that was really it for me in terms of playing sport.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
"I was told by the surgeon that there was a high chance I would always walk with a limp. However, not long after surgery I started rehabing in the pool and gradually started getting stronger. I set myself a goal to take part in the Run Armagh 10km race the following year and managed to complete the course in under an hour. I'm now better physically than I was before my injury."
However, Dean says that being ruled out of playing competitive sport sent him spiralling into a depression which led him to turn to alcohol as a crutch.
"While alcohol never took me out of sport I always had a problem saying no," he says. "I would often turn up worse for wear or maybe not even at all. I have a lot of regrets about my behaviour over the years and I know I often let my team-mates and myself down.
"I can use this experience now to level with young athletes if I see them going in a similar direction. Building trust and showing vulnerability goes a long way in building a relationship with an athlete, I feel. Potential is only a word unless it's actually used.
"I know after my injury I probably drank a lot more, I was definitely depressed and used it as a way of avoiding how I felt. My lowest was probably sitting in my local cricket club at 10am one Sunday morning still drunk from the night before and just topping up. I was in tears as I felt completely lost with no direction. I was due to work in my second job that evening and I didn't show up. It was for a good friend of mine and I really let him down. He understood where I was at and never judged me for it, he has always backed and believed in me ever since. Although it wasn't possible to keep my job."
Dean says that at 30 he decided to turn his life around and go back to school in a move that was to completely change his destiny.
"I suppose when I turned 30 I had another speed wobble," he says. "I was sharing a house, in a job I didn't really like, and decided I wanted to work in team sport and to do that I had to go back and study.
"I got in touch with Setanta College, an online sports college that is headed by a legend in the field of strength and conditioning, Dr Liam Hennesey. I started the BSc in strength and conditioning degree via the distance learning and haven't really looked back.
"I graduate next year and will go straight into the Masters programme, and who knows after that, maybe I'll do a PhD.
"Through the college I put my name in the mix to go to Bath Rugby Club in England for a season as an intern. I missed out on that to a guy who was already on the Masters programme, but I was delighted to get shortlisted and have my name out there.
"Two weeks later I took a call from Dr Liam saying that Craig White - another huge name in the field who has headed up the strength and conditioning department for the British and Irish Lions, Ireland, Wales and Bolton Wanderers, to name a few - had been in touch and wanted a coach to go out to Uruguay to help with the preparations for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
"The draw of working with Craig and being involved in a World Cup campaign, well I couldn't say no. Of course, I had full support from my fiancee Linsey, who came out here with me and worked in the British school for a while."
Dean is currently based in Uruguay as one of the key backroom staff of the country's international rugby team, living at the team's stadium and working with the players as a coach and sports scientist to get them ready to take on the world in Japan.
"My role here is as a strength and conditioning coach and sports scientist," he says. "I do a lot of the work with the GPS technology. I also support the boys in the gym.
"I'm currently based in Montevideo. I stay on site and live in the stadium. It's not that different here to Northern Ireland. One thing I would say would be that the rich are rich and the poor are poor. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground. The people are amazing. I flew home two weeks ago as my father isn't very well and every single player sent me a message of support when I found out. The afternoon I left for the airport they lined up at lunch to give me a hug. It really moved me to tears.
"At the moment we are in the third week of phase two of the preparations, so we are really coming to a conclusion.
"The boys are working really hard with a mixture of gym-based and pitch-based conditioning with an emphasis now on the rugby rather than physical development.
"We just had our first pre-season game against a South American side. It was a tough game but we got over the line 24-20. It is going to be an incredible experience in Japan for the boys playing against some of the best players in the world.
"It is fantastic having Craig here leading the performance team and I'm working alongside Ben Pollard, who is currently a senior strength and conditioning coach at Saracens, the current European Rugby Champions Cup holders based in London, and was lead sports scientist for England in the last World Cup. I'm in good company and learning every single day.
"For me as a coach here, yes there is a scientific side, but the biggest thing I have learnt is that it's not about working with high performance robots. No matter what level everyone has - their insecurities, worries and back stories -we are all human.
"Being able to get on a level with these guys and no matter what's going on in their life you make them smile when they come in, you become a huge contributing factor that they enjoy coming in every morning despite the hard work. For me that's a job halfway there. You become someone they trust and they'll happily follow your lead."
Dean says he has come a long way from the man who sat crying on the benches of his cricket club and has this advice for anyone navigating dark times.
"The advice I would give others is that there is always a way out," he says.
"There is always a light. First of all, I would say you have to take responsibility for your own decisions and if you want things to pan out differently then perhaps it's time to evaluate what it is you need to do differently.
"Being honest with yourself is never easy, but it is necessary. I was lying in a darkened room with a crate of Coors Light beer wondering why things weren't going my way. The answer was right there in front of me. I couldn't achieve what I wanted to displaying those behaviours.
"With a bit of hard work and being open to and taking opportunities, I'm happy with the direction I'm going.
"If I can do it, anyone can. And if anyone wants to reach out or I can help in any way, I'm always open to chat."