It is astonishing how something which you thought you had buried can still come back to haunt you. The Commonwealth Games started almost two weeks ago and I was glued to the screen, listening to the action through the left earbud of my headphones, one eye on my work screen and one eye on the live swimming action. All the while, thinking of what could have been.
I remember touching the wall after winning the 200 IM at British nationals while the other two British swimmers were preparing to race the same race two weeks later at the Olympic Games. And in that moment when I saw my time and the number one next to my name, I knew that it was all over. I knew it deep inside my gut.
I still had the conversation with my coach four weeks later after the race, exploring the idea that I could possibly continue – with a view to qualify for the Commonwealth Games for England on the Gold Coast. It is funny how a lack of direction can pull you back to the place where you have absolute direction, absolute certainty.
But after more deliberation, I decided to move on, to stare uncertainty right in the face and be vulnerable. And boy was I vulnerable, crying at films like Eddie the Eagle, sobbing uncontrollably whilst looking at my best times on the British swimming database. It was good to cry – I felt like I was getting it all out. Processing what I needed to process. I felt relief.
There has been a lot of talk recently in the media about the mental state of our athletes, our heroes, our gladiators in the ring winning golds for the nation. We celebrate them then forget about them moments later. I sometimes think I have it easy – that other, more glorified athletes have it or will have it harder because they have been to the very top. And, they might do.
I thought I had processed everything, I even coached to be on the other side of it all, to submerse myself in dealing with that emotion. But since moving to London I turned my back on it once again. I started drinking more and going out more. I was in control I must add, but my emotions certainly were not. It really struck home when the Commonwealth Games started because I realised there was still more to process.
I started watching the Games, watching the BBC highlights and watching the raw emotion of people. Watching the shock, the elation of winning, the misery of defeat and the courage of individuals. I felt everything and it brought back everything for me. It brought back the fear. It brought back the sadness. But it also brought back the joy. And it all came back in a flood of tears of rage, sadness and happiness.
I think all athletes have it hard, no matter what the level. In fact, I think everyone has it hard. We all try to find ways to hide from the pain we have buried away. And sometimes that is necessary. You cannot process everything at once – it would be impossible. I’ve been lucky – I have had the support, the guidance to process my emotions in a safe environment with no judgement. But, it is okay to feel what you feel no matter what it is, no matter what you must process. Whether it be sport, your job, your upbringing, your scarring experiences, the hard decisions that we must face – it does not matter.
Know that you can hide, it is okay to bury your head in the sand, as long as you recognise when you do eventually have the strength, that you can take it out and face your emotions with the courage that we all have inside. Everyone is always given the same three shining gifts after tackling each of these seemingly endless experiences – healing, relief and growth. The latter, in my mind one of the most essential ingredients of life. Combined with living in the moment and finding the pockets joy – you cannot go wrong.