Fran Kirby's ultimate battle: How the Chelsea women's star beat heart disease to get back to the top

Kirby: I nearly picked up the phone and quit (4:15)

Chelsea's Fran Kirby reveals how she overcame a potential career-ending illness and returned to the top of women's football. (4:15)

Fran Kirby's postmatch routine stays largely the same. Whether she's breaking the goal-scoring record at Chelsea, scoring four times against Reading or collecting another Player of the Match accolade, it's a straightforward agenda: sofa, meal, Netflix. She especially loves true crime documentaries, and, for a week last year, Kirby played detective when she sought out a recording of the emergency call that her friend made after she fell gravely ill in November 2019.

Kirby had collapsed. She was eating dinner with her closest friends and teammates, Beth England and Maren Mjelde, at home, and suddenly felt awful. "The colour just emptied from her face," England says. When Kirby later listened to the call to the emergency services, she heard England telling the responder how "Fran's eyes are rolled back into her head." The pain in her chest caused her blood pressure to rise to such an extent that she passed out for 10 seconds, then another 15 seconds.

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As she reflects on that frightening moment, Kirby laughs a little and contemplates where she is ... and where she was. On March 3, she scored Chelsea's second against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinal. This time last year, she was contemplating retirement, unable to believe she could fully recover from pericarditis, a heart disease, and return to professional football for both club and country (she has 45 caps for England).

Kirby, 27, was nervous about telling her Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes, that she was considering hanging up her boots, but at that point, she couldn't get up the stairs and was sleeping 18 hours a day. Talking was a mission. Football was a world away.

She kept her diagnosis private and retreated into her shell; all the while, speculation grew on social media over her absence. By December 2019, Kirby left Instagram and Twitter. "I just needed to get away from the negativity and my phone," she tells ESPN. Even she was starting to doubt herself. She read how she was finished, how Chelsea had replaced her with superstar new signings.

"I sat there thinking 'Are they right? Am I overplaying this? Am I as ill as I think I am? Are Chelsea done with me?'"

Yet here she stands today, fully recovered and still one of the most talented forwards in world football.

"In the course of my 25-year career, I've never seen a player transform their life as much as I've seen her... from a place of difficulty, disruption, despair to joy, to gratitude, to application," Hayes tells ESPN. "So, we must celebrate her but we also must look after her. She's a special, special talent."

In a life with plenty of grief -- Kirby lost her mother when she was 14 years old -- injuries and illness, she has learned to anchor herself in the present. She doesn't compare her form to the past, nor does she look to the future of a possible Olympics or get caught up in the hype of her match-winning performances for England and Chelsea. She takes everything day by day.

MONDAY, NOV. 18 STARTED like any other day after a game. Kirby did some upper-body work in the gym and felt OK. She followed up with extra shooting practise afterwards, and then some sprint work. "I had to prove myself again," she says. But she'd been battling a lingering cough and flu-like symptoms for the past few weeks.

"I should have seen some of the warning signs: my energy levels, my overall demeanour, my attitude, everything was very sluggish, I was tired and ... angry, just really angry."

She went from the gym to a sponsor appearance with England, her Chelsea/England teammate. She was excited for it; there were dogs involved (she has a 4-year-old cockapoo called Cody). "If you look at the video from it, I was laughing around... you wouldn't have known I was going to be severely ill hours later."

She remembers coming home and sitting at the dinner table as Mjelde and England chatted away. She could feel her chest tighten.

"I just started to get extreme chest pains," Kirby says. "Like when you get indigestion, but like times 100 worse, it was just so intense. I just couldn't work out what was going on. I was hanging onto the table like ... I don't know what's going on."

"I knew I needed help, that something really bad was going on. Everything started spinning, I felt like I needed to lie down so tried to get to the sofa. And yeah, I actually collapsed. That was quite scary, because obviously it kind of came out of nowhere. I genuinely thought I was having a heart attack."

She woke up 10 or so seconds later, to England and Mjelde slapping her face, trying to wake her up.

"Maren caught her -- it happened so fast," England says. "I did the call [to the 999 emergency services number in the UK] to explain what had happened, her name. It was scary to see how well she was in herself during the day, to seeing her from a full, well, fit, healthy person -- to collapse. She went downhill so fast." The paramedics arrived, as did Chelsea's doctor, Francisco Moreira.

Kirby remembers the ringing in her ears and trying to tell the emergency responder how she felt. "I sounded like a zombie," she says.

It was baffling: An elite athlete shouldn't be having such pains and symptoms. And yet, Kirby felt well enough to go back into the club the following day.

"I tried to be as discreet as possible that something had happened last night, it was just kinda like 'oh something weird happened, I collapsed last night'. Everyone was like 'woah, what?' a bit like 'what's going on?' but in a humorous sort of way." She went for an electrocardiogram, and the diagnosis came back as pericarditis, a condition triggered by a virus that inflames the sac around the heart. Kirby turned to Google for answers, the words of friends and coaches blurring around her.

"I couldn't [find] anything where someone said 'this is what made me feel better'" she says. Kirby heard the doctor say if it was a mild case, it could take a couple of weeks to heal. If it was at the more severe end, it could be anything from six months to a year.

A fortnight later, having slept for much of last 14 days, she was back at training.

"I was sick everywhere," she says. "My body wasn't ready, at all." She used to go to Hayes' office to cry. Hayes and Kirby agreed the rest of the team weren't to know about Kirby's illness because, as one of the more senior players, Kirby didn't want to be a "drain" on her teammates' attention. So Hayes told the team Kirby was out with a virus.

"We didn't mention the heart because as soon as you say heart, alarm bells ring and people go crazy," Kirby says.

England remembers that time: "She [Kirby] internalised it quite a lot. Most of the time she kept it to herself as I think she felt she was going to be a burden, giving that info to everyone else."

But as the fatigue kicked in, and her symptoms remained, Kirby knew she needed rest.

"It [the illness] could have been worse," Kirby says. "I didn't want people asking me all the time how I was, how I was feeling. I just wanted to be allowed to get on with it and be sad for a bit."

IT WAS AROUND THIS TIME that Chelsea announced the signing of Australia's star forward, Sam Kerr. Kirby remembers reading the comments on social media, with people saying Kerr was signed to replace her.

"That played a big part in how bad I was feeling, seeing people write things about you like 'ah she's not committed, because she's not in training.' or 'Chelsea are signing these players to replace Kirby.'" Hayes and Kerr saw the speculation; Hayes phoned Kirby to say one of the prime reasons Kerr joined the team was so that she could play alongside her. Kerr messaged her to say the same.

"I was an advocate of getting [Kirby] off social media," Hayes tells ESPN. "She's been used to a life of being built up quite highly, but also knocked down really, really hard. Like, really hard. And I've seen that damage and what it's done to her."

Her recovery proved to be a daunting, frustrating experience. "In the first few months I broke down a lot," Kirby says. "I was still saying to people 'oh come round, it'll be great to see you!' But when they arrived, I'd sit with my back to them, doing a puzzle. I was hearing my heartbeat, rather than hearing what was around me.

"I had this chest pain 24/7 ... I was only allowed to go up and down the stairs twice a day. I remember on Christmas Day, I phoned Francisco [the Chelsea doctor]. I was not getting any better and remember calling him crying -- I mean, he was trying to celebrate the day with his family, but I just felt helpless. I remember saying 'What can I do? Nothing is helping me; can you help me?"

She went public with her illness in February 2020 and received messages of support -- including an email from a lady called Lilian, who said she had suffered from pericarditis and had put her own love of sports on hold. She had got in contact through Kirby's agent, keen to tell Kirby how she had got through it. It lifted Kirby's spirits. She exchanged thoughts and sought advice from Lilian: Avoid heavy weights and cold weather, Lilian said.

Kirby went on holiday before the coronavirus lockdown; the trip gave her some momentary relief, but it prompted another false dawn in her recovery.

"I had thought numerous times that I was going to have to retire," Kirby says. "There were times I messaged or nearly picked up the phone to Emma and say 'Look I'm sorry, I can't do this anymore'. I remember talking to Claire Rafferty [ex-England and Chelsea left back, now part of the Chelsea commercial staff] and I told her how ill I felt, and she said to me, 'If this is the end, what are your plans?' I'd not thought about it -- it was an eye-opener, how quickly football could get taken away from me.

"I also spoke to Georgie [Hodge, Kirby's agent]. I was thinking am I ever gonna be able to come back and train normally? Am I going to have this pain? You lose that touch on the ball, you know ...'"

Once COVID-19 hit, Kirby had no option but to stop. With Instagram and twitter on hold, she read book after book, with Jim Afremow's "The Champion's Mind" feeling particularly relevant after one of the Chelsea physios recommended it to her.

"I had learnt to accept who I was, and what my weaknesses were. I worked on them ... you know, I have always been able to complete a 90-minute game, or being able to sprint, recover and all that, but endurance was one of my weaknesses," Kirby says. "I'm not too proud to admit that it's something I'd struggled with. So, challenge accepted: I knew I needed to work on that."

"She needed that time during COVID to get to that point," Hayes says. "The illness, the injuries ... it was all a huge wake up for Fran about what mattered, about who mattered and about what she wanted from her career if she could get to back to the level that she saw for herself."

With the 2019-20 Women's Super League (WSL) cancelled in May, Chelsea were anointed champions; Hayes told the players over Zoom they'd won the league on a points-per-game basis. "It was strange; everyone had gone their separate ways. We were like, 'congrats' ..."

And then, one morning in mid-June, Kirby woke up and the symptoms had eased. She felt better. She tested herself with a jog. Then a little bit of outdoor training, then back with the ball, then upping the intensity.

"She was like a firecracker," Hayes says. "Even though we'd been trying to chart the right course to keep her in the right place ... everyone was asking if Fran would get back to the level she was before, and I was like 'no, she's even better.'" Kirby made the same promise to herself, and to her teammates. "I remember telling Emma, 'I'm going to come back and be the best that you've ever seen me. I promise you.' I said that over and over again: 'I'm flying, I'm going to be back, I'm ready.'

"Did I believe that myself? Yes and no," Kirby continues. "But it was all about positivity. We've been on this journey together. I knew I had to come back fitter than ever -- I didn't want to let anyone down."

Hayes doesn't want any credit for Kirby's return. "Everyone gets to where they want to go if they put the hard yards into it," Hayes says. "No one can do that for you. You must do that yourself; you must look deep within yourself, especially in troubled times in what you need to do to get out of it. Everything I say around Fran is around her, and what she did -- not what anybody else did, because she transformed her life."

Kirby is a reluctant inspirational figure. "I find it funny when people will say things like this ... I can never wrap my head around it because, you know, I'm just going out and playing football. And, of course, I want to inspire people as much as I can. But for me doing something that I love, and, you know, I'm not really ... it sounds weird, but I'm not really doing much."

England has seen Kirby at her lowest and at her best. "The things she's been through are hurtful things," England says. "Mentally she's had to fight to get over these obstacles. She probably doesn't see that as inspirational, but the outside looking in you think, wow, she's gone through this and she's at the top of her game. I know she wants her story to help people. Having a public figure like Fran to talk about these things is inspirational."

KIRBY HAS BEEN INSTRUMENTAL to Chelsea's success this season. Her official comeback was in the curtain-raising Community Shield at Wembley in August, her first start in nine months. They beat Manchester City 2-0.

"You could see the pride in her face, with that trophy," England says. "You could see her face beaming, knowing she'd done her job and it was the first of many." Chelsea went on a record-breaking run of 33 games without defeat and sit five points clear at the top of the league and are still fighting on the Champions League front. They want to win it all. "It didn't feel like we finished the league last year," Kirby says. "We won, which is amazing, but there's nothing better than playing that last game. We want to do it all for real this time.

"I'm still super, super competitive. I want to win every day, even if it's in-house games. I used to go around to my teammates that 'we don't lose, we're not losing, that's not going to happen.' But now I have a different type of fuel. I used to compare myself to other players. But now if I'm able to drive myself to be better than them, I'm going to be better for them. We've made incredible signings, so now I need to raise my level even further."

Kirby plays in a forward lineup that includes two-time UEFA Women's Player of the Year Pernille Harder, Kerr, Erin Cuthbert and England. She has 11 goals and six assists in 12 games. Chelsea are at the top of the WSL and have a 2-0 lead over Atletico Madrid in the last-16 of the Champions League.

"She'd play in goal if I asked her to," Hayes says.

The season's halfway done, but Kirby doesn't want to look ahead. She only needs a check-up on her heart if symptoms return, and they have been blissfully absent since last June. It's now consigned to a horrid part of her life, but equally fuelling her desire to make up for lost time. So it's full-steam on playing for Chelsea, and then maybe Team Great Britain and the Olympics.

"I've got into the state of where I'm not thinking about what's coming up, I'm thinking about what's going on right now. I've learnt not to get too excited, because as soon as something goes bad, it all changes," Kirby says. "I take everything with a pinch of salt. You just have to ride the waves."