Tommy Frank revelled in the glory, surrounded by his friends and family, as he became the first-ever flyweight from Sheffield to win a British title in September. Plenty of heart required; plenty of heart shown. But how different things could have been.
Travel back 23 years, a five-year-old Frank lay on the operating table, putting his young life in the hands of the trusted surgeons at the Leeds Children’s Hospital as he was given an operation to correct an atrial septal defect, or in layman’s terms, a hole in his heart.
It was three years prior that Frank’s condition was discovered; heart murmurs are a common tell. But at just two-years-old, he wasn’t quite the prime candidate for open heart surgery. Frank spent his early childhood blissfully unaware of what lay ahead – for his parents, however, it was a lingering concern.
Tommy Frank is now the British flyweight champion, despite needing surgery aged five having been born with a hole in his heart
‘Between the age of two and five, my parents knew I was going to be having heart surgery,’ Frank recalls as he talks to Sportsmail. ‘They had to build me up and prepare to have it. Quite fortunately I can’t remember any of it but I’m sure it was hard for my mum and dad. Watching your five-year-old have heart surgery can’t be easy.’
Certainly not, even with the radical improvements in cardiology we see today. In 1998 when Frank had the surgery, the risks were more prevalent.
‘At the time when I had the procedure it was fairly new,’ he said. ‘They’d just mastered this new surgery; I was at the stage where they were still learning really.
‘I’m sure my parents were really worried, whether they’d mastered the procedure or not, open heart surgery is open heart surgery, you can’t really get around that.’
The day finally came. Frank was placed under general anaesthesia, an incision was made and the surgeon patched up the hole in his heart. A success. A full recovery. Potential future difficulties, including extreme tiredness, shortness of breath and lung infections swatted away.
‘The surgeons that work in these places are just absolutely amazing, they’re saving lives every day. I can’t thank them enough,’ Frank says wholeheartedly, quite literally.
Frank became the first flyweight from Sheffield to win a British title back in September
Frank now faces a different fight ahead: of course, much of that will lie in the ring, but also – and more importantly to the Yorkshireman – to show those suffering with heart conditions today that they don’t have to be life-limiting.
‘Who would have ever thought, looking that picture when I was five after I’d just had surgery, that at 28 I’d be a professional boxer, a Commonwealth and British champion?’ Frank asked.
‘No one would have thought that. I’m the proof, and I want to be an inspiration to kids and adults as well. If you’ve made a full recovery, you shouldn’t let anything hold you back.
‘I want to get that message across, and the bigger I get and the bigger platform I get the more I can do that.’
Frank is already using his growing profile to help those in need today. As an ambassador for the British Heart Foundation, he spoke to those living with ongoing conditions throughout the pandemic – via Zoom, of course – telling them of his story.
He also got in touch with Heart Research UK after winning his first amateur titles. And upon doing so, Frank was quickly taken back to where it all started.
The Yorkshire-based charity last year set up a remarkable meeting with Karen Van Gorn, who performed his surgery all those years ago. It was a poignant moment in the lives of both Frank and his family. For his parents, reuniting with the surgeon who had fixed their child’s condition; for Frank, in his mind anyway, properly meeting her for the first time.
Frank returned to the Leeds Children’s Hospital to visit the surgeon who patched up his heart
Frank also visited a number of patients who are currently battling with similar heart conditions
Frank wants to be an inspiration to others who have and who are dealing with heart conditions
‘It was just surreal as I can’t remember when I had my operation, but it was also surreal for my parents,’ he said. ‘They came along and they met Karen again. I think she actually remembered them.
‘I went to visit some of the kids on the ward. Some of their parents were there, which gave my mum and dad a chance to speak to them about what their children were going through.
‘They were able to offer some comfort and I felt like it really helped. It’s a very traumatic thing watching your child going through something like that.’
‘I want to be a role model, because my story’s pretty unique,’ he continued. ‘I don’t think there’s any other professional sportspeople who had the surgery I had when I was little and go on to be a success.’
For Frank, it’s about giving those with heart conditions the belief that their dream remains possible. And for the 28-year-old, his dream has always been boxing. After lacing up a pair of gloves for the first time, aged 12, he was instantly hooked.
‘I’ll always remember walking in and hearing the noise of the bags being hit and there was a certain smell in the air,’ he recalls. ‘I wasn’t super talented naturally, I think I liked the idea of boxing more than actually getting hit!
‘But once I got over that, I started taking it seriously around 14 and then got going with my amateur fights the next year.’
‘I’m living my childhood dream,’ he added. ‘I wasn’t the most academically gifted; I actually did two years of plumbing in college as my dad’s been a plumber all of his life. I enjoyed it but that was never my intention. It was always while I was training, and in my heart my goal was always what I’m doing now.’
Frank insists his biggest inspiration is his not a fellow champion boxer, but his fiancé Charlie
Now, soaking in the achievement of becoming British champion after defeating Matt Windle in his home city of Sheffield, the hard work truly starts. He admits he ‘was in a bubble for a good few days’ following his latest feat, particularly having fallen to back-to-back defeats beforehand.
Frank will be back in action on December 17 as he bids to become a two-time Commonwealth champion. He targets a massive 2022 ahead, even keeping a keen eye on world champion Sunny Edwards, who defends his IBF strap against Jayson Mama next month.
Drawing inspiration as he embarks on the latest chapter of his career, who does he look to? The great flyweight Jimmy Wilde? Perhaps fellow Sheffield star and former champion Naseem Hamed? No, in quintessentially humble fashion, it’s his fiancé, Charlie.
‘She’s absolutely brilliant,’ he said. ‘She’s a British Airways air hostess but she’s taken two years off flying to go back to university to do a degree in nursing.
‘On top of that, she’s picked up another job in Sheffield. She’s so busy, but she’s still such a big support to me. She’s a massive inspiration to me and I couldn’t do what I do without her.’
Frank certainly has a bright future ahead, with a British strap already in the bag and a genuine cause to fight for. But most importantly, he’s got a full and glowing heart on him.