The Road from Rio – 79 Degrees

Sport is full of extreme contrast: one moment you feel indestructible, the next you are almost weeping; one day you feel amazing, the next you feel wrecked. A few weeks ago I became a Paralympic champion. I felt physically fit and mentally strong. Now I feel exhausted; my body the most broken and tired I can remember, and mentally everything feels discombobulated. My head has been spinning – actually a positive sign, as it means my brain hasn’t settled into the cabbage-like state it was so often in whilst training for the Paralympics. It also seems a good indication that I haven’t sunk into the POD (Post-Olympic Depression) state apparently so common amongst athletes after a major event that has absorbed them for a chunk of time. (Apparently, Michael Phelps struggled for two years after London 2012, with depression and rehabilitation from recreational drug addiction). However, it seems unbelievable that last month I won a gold medal, given that a few mornings ago my arms and shoulders felt so heavy and sore that I struggled to get myself out of bed.
Sport and high performance are usually billed as good things, held in high esteem, presented as something to aspire to. And sport at an elite level may well begin rooted in passion and enjoyment, but at what point does it becomes a form of addiction or obsession? Training hard is a habit that is difficult to break. In these post-Paralympic weeks, the only way I feel able to give myself the rest I need so much is to go away somewhere, without my bike and with no easy access to a gym. If they are anywhere near me, I will surely be tempted.
As I rest up, I reflect on the pros and the cons of my chosen path as an athlete, on the amazing journey it has been so far but also the more challenging aspects.
On the good side, my job is to ride a bike every day. I am an active person and happiest when outside, and it is a privilege to be able to do what I love, and love what I do. Gone are the days when I was chained to a desk for forty hours a week. I get to ‘live my dream’ in so many ways. For the most part, sport keeps me fit and healthy, I get to see the world, and I meet people from so many different countries, cultures and backgrounds. I mean, how good can it get? How can there be any downsides?
Well, I live out of a bag for most of the year. I am nomadic. Last year I spent approximately five months in rented apartments or hotel rooms. Athletes are relentlessly structured in their training but have little structure in the rest of their lives. Socially and in other ways, things have felt somewhat out of balance for a while. I’ve missed weddings and funerals, family occasions and special times with friends. What kind of person does this make me?
I suppose that if we’re going to strive for anything good or surprising in life, then focus is bound to be required and some things will have to be sacrificed. It’s always going to demand hard work, perseverance, pushing through when we’d sometimes rather not. It’s always going to draw blood, sweat and tears alongside moments of passion, excitement and euphoria. How sustainable is it though, if our life is out of balance for too long?
The same two questions are fired at me almost every day right now.
“How does it feel to have won gold?”
“What next?”
These questions trigger an avalanche in me every time, though in truth they are already constantly tumbling through the gullies of my mind. I just don’t have answers to them yet.
How does it feel to have won gold?
That’s the easier one to answer. For a few hours, it felt fantastic. I experienced a cocktail of surprise, relief and happiness; a mission accomplished, a dream achieved. With that successful race, I became the guardian of a gold medal, and that is a special and privileged thing. It carries magical powers. People’s faces light up when they hold it. They want selfies with it. They tell me things they might not otherwise. It’s an honour to experience the magic of the medal at work.