How Rio changed me

Injury may have extinguished my chances of competing at the Rio 2016 Olympics but the silver lining was that I had the holiday of a lifetime in Brazil instead!

In my dreams I’d seen 2016 as the year I’d go to the Olympic Games, competing for Great Britain in one of the greatest moments of my sporting career. I hoped to follow in the footsteps of my training partner Robbie Grabarz in making a big impact at my first Games and had no doubt in my mind that 2016 would be a significant year. In my dreams I didn’t see myself witnessing nine Brits claim gold in the men’s rowing; one lady and her horse win the dressage or a certain Jamaican make Olympic history on the track. I’ve come back from Rio full of inspiration and enthusiasm for sport, having seen others realise their lives’ ambitions. This just goes to show that there isn’t only one way to define a successful year.

Now I’m back in the UK and I feel that the summer of 2016 has changed me forever. In the week after we landed I was eager to get back to training whilst also missing Brazil intensely. This made for some pretty extreme emotions which were a rollercoaster of their own! Now that the dust has settled, I’m realising that my self-confidence has increased and I’ve got more faith in the positive attributes I possess which are unrelated to athletics. I can now see that I’d neglected important aspects of life during the years of intense training: things like seeing my little sister grow into a woman, taking time for others and bonding with my parents, the most important people in my life. Bizarrely, I’d lost some of my own identity whilst building up an athletic persona, meaning that when I couldn’t perform as high jumper I felt as though I had little else to offer.

Mixing with a diverse and impressive range of people in Rio made me realise that what really draws people together is not their sporting prowess but something else, something less obvious but infinitely more valuable. In a world where everybody is physically exceptional, it’s easy to overlook fundamental characteristics like humility and compassion. Putting the value of sport in context made me realise that not being able to compete didn’t mean I was a waste of space and that maybe people wanted to talk to me just because of “me”, not because I was an athlete. Out and about in Rio I was asked endlessly “what sport do you do/are you an athlete/are you competing?” despite being very clearly injured with a massive Aircast boot on my foot! Usually  I’d reply that I was watching, yes I was an athlete and did high jump but I was there on holiday. It began to annoy me that some people seemed to rate me on my sports ability rather than whether I was actually a decent person. It also didn’t help to have to say “I’m injured” over and over! Worse than that was being asked “would you have been competing if you hadn’t got injured?” and people’s awkward mumbled sympathy at my affirmative reply. After a while I tried saying I wasn’t an athlete, which most people didn’t really buy! In happy contrast, when I was with athletes I felt totally included, no questions asked. Of course, people were very sympathetic, but I was overwhelmingly grateful just to be able to have a normal conversation for a change. Sportspeople seemed to understand that last-minute injury could have happened to any of us – plus it’s fine to say “glad it’s not me!”. Sometimes you’re successful and sometimes not, that’s the way it is… I can’t believe that luck doesn’t come into play at some point too!

Since being back I’ve been helping my Granny, who’s been struggling with the news that she’s losing her sight to macular degeneration. We’ve been house-hunting so that she can move closer to my parents and we are all helping her to sort through a lifetime’s worth of possessions in her lovely home in the Cotswolds. In between I’ve caught up with friends and been out for some lovely meals too. My sister and I have been going to the gym together and I’m learning the subtle differences between “training” and “exercise”. There’s not much I can physically do towards high jumping at the moment so instead I have been nurturing what’s inside. I’ve had time off before, but it now seems that a couple of weeks isn’t long enough to allow long-forgotten feelings and ideas come to the surface. Lately I’ve been thinking about life in general i.e. alongside and beyond my athletics career, which is new and scary but exciting too!

“We are all just people”. This might sound totally cliché, but it’s one of the most lasting impressions I gained from Rio.

Watching Olympic sport on TV creates the sense of a sharp division between those observing and those competing. It’s a feeling of “us” and “them”. Over the years that line has been blurred for me and I can now see that anybody can be side-lined, just as almost anybody can break through! This shift in perception started when I began training in Loughborough and regularly coming into contact with our country’s top sports stars at the High Performance Centre. When I was chosen for my first international I joined a number of others who all have GB vests at home – something I’d always wanted as a child. Suddenly becoming a world-class athlete felt more possible. Next was watching Robbie competing in the 2012 Olympics and winning a medal. I was fortunate (?) to get to know him before the Games, well enough to realise that he’s just an ordinary guy, albeit with awesome talent and drive.

Since 2012 I have been to several major international competitions and experienced a wide range of circumstances: from medal glory at Glasgow 2014 to injury anxiety at Beijing 2015. In 2016 the World Indoor and European Outdoor Championships were both tainted by my ankle being sore and by July I’d reached the point where I just wanted answers as to where the pain and swelling were coming from. I knew that I would go to Rio either way: as a competitor or as a spectator, since my parents had bought tickets and had space in their accommodation for me just in case.

I’ve been wearing a supportive “Aircast” boot for two months now and am strangely fond of it after all this time! “The boot” almost became a fifth member of our family out in Rio and I am deeply moved by how my parents accepted the situation and relentlessly made the best of it. It stopped me from doing some things, but they never made a big deal of it so that I didn’t feel like I was being a pain or holding us back. The other thing they totally accepted was my having to be available for doping-control during my daily time slot. I went and sat in a nearby hotel’s lobby at a specified time for an hour every day, just in case the anti-doping agencies wanted to test me. Not doing so would have risked missing a test, which is something I definitely do not want on my record! It’s not easy living with an athlete’s particular needs and family holidays aren’t always friction-free, however my family were absolutely amazing out in Rio and we had a brilliant holiday against the odds.