World record-holding race walker opens up on dealing with the mental struggles that drove him to attempt to take his own life
To Tom Bosworth, race walking was everything. After a superb sixth-place finish at the 2016 Olympics he had hoped to win a medal at the world championships in London the following year but was left distraught after being disqualified while leading the 20km race.
That moment, Bosworth explains, started a “downward spiral” and “complete self-loathing” which eventually led to him attempting to take his own life.
With professional help as well as the support of family and friends, the 30-year-old is now in a much better place and has balance in his life which means he is no longer “just Tom the athlete”.
To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Bosworth shared his story with UK Sport chair Dame Katherine Grainger on the Medals & More podcast, offering his experiences and advice to others who may find themselves in a similar situation.
The podcast also includes discussion on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and how athletes can stay mentally positive during these uncertain times.
“It had all come to a perfect peak on the streets of London and then it went so spectacularly wrong on a Sunday afternoon live on TV and it broke me,” Bosworth says, reflecting on his world championships disqualification in 2017.
“I felt like I had let a hell of a lot of people down and that I wasn’t worthy. It started a winter where I didn’t want to go training, I started drinking. I didn’t care about anything and I certainly didn’t care about myself. It just spiralled.”
A successful return to racing saw him secure silver at the Commonwealth Games in Australia in April 2018, but, he adds: “I was going from competition to competition not addressing anything else, not happy in anything I was doing.
“I got far too caught up in that ‘I’m an athlete, results are all that matter and it defines who I am’ and not having anything else outside of training. I was just ‘Tom the athlete’, in my head, and that was so unhealthy.
“When I came home at the end of 2018 it just got to a point where I was once again faced with no distractions in terms of competition, no training camps to go on. It led to a point where I found myself trapped, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, because there wasn’t anything else. Athletics, I didn’t enjoy, I was ruining my relationships with my family, my friends. It took me to a point of wanting to take my own life and on a couple of occasions I tried.
“I look back now and think, goodness me, I don’t even feel like I was the same person that is sat here. It really is something that takes over your mind completely and all of it I can see is stemming back from that moment in the summer of 2017, as the ball started rolling of self-destruction.”
“It took me to a point of wanting to take my own life and on a couple of occasions I tried”
Grainger asks what it was that helped Bosworth to get out of that hole.
“Harry (Bosworth’s fiancé) had tried his best to support me as best he could but as most athletes know, until you start winning again there’s not much that you can do to change that, when it is so tunnel vision,” Bosworth replies. “That’s why it’s so unhealthy because there is nothing else to save you, in a way.
“Harry made me ring one of the doctors at British Athletics, I got in contact with one of my physios who I trusted who put me on to a psychologist at British Athletics who then escalated it really quickly. Between British Athletics, UK Sport and everybody else, the support has been absolutely fantastic and they got me help outside of sport.
“I feel like I am past it, pretty much, and very much have an understanding of why and what happened and have safety nets in place. But it was 18 months, easily, of a learning curve that I had to rebuild, not just myself but everything around me, everything I worked so hard for that I quite quickly was pushing away. Thankfully, I have.”
Offering his advice to others, he adds: “Athletes should still be encouraged to do other things because throughout the whole period from 2014, I had nothing else but ‘Tom the athlete’.
“Nobody saw the pressure was getting to me (in 2017). Maybe my coach did but it was almost too late. I wasn’t talking to my sport psychologist I had in place then. We didn’t realise how much of a big deal the last 12 months had become in my life.
“Now I am committed to my training but I care about Harry, my dog and my home life. If I am doing everything right at home, then I can go and flood myself in training and if it goes wrong, it doesn’t matter because I come home to a really healthy environment and that’s what I never had before.”
“I was just ‘Tom the athlete’, in my head, and that was so unhealthy”
Joining Bosworth and Grainger on the podcast, which also featured former Winter Olympian Lizzy Yarnold, was English Institute of Sport head of performance lifestyle, Jo Harrison.
“There is so much support out there for athletes, either from their own friends and families or the professionals and the performance support staff that are around them,” says Harrison.
“Life has to have meaning and purpose beyond sport. It has to be more than that. Sport is something that you are doing and you are committed to do it and we want you to do it incredibly well. There isn’t a performance lifestyle practitioner out there who doesn’t want you to win but we want you to be successful for the long haul and ultimately we want you to be happy and that needs a bigger picture and a bigger sense of support.
“There are points in an athletes career, of course, where that tunnel focus has to be absolutely on but it’s not sustainable the whole time, there has to be other outlets and other things going on so that you’re not just solely defined by a medal or not.
“This is a chapter in your life, it isn’t your whole life.”
Visit eis2win.co.uk/service/performance-lifestyle to find out more about performance lifestyle support.
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