Once the Games spotlight fades it’s easy for elite athletes to feel lost

Once the Games spotlight fades it’s easy for elite athletes to feel lost

Nearly one year ago, I woke up filled with the kind of hope that you only feel on days where dreams might come true. That night, I went to bed broken, exhausted and defeated. I’d run in the T13 5000m at the Paralympic Games, winning silver in the blistering heat of Tokyo. But for a lifetime, it had always been about winning a gold medal. As a 14-year-old, I’d been told at the Athletics Australia offices in Melbourne that I’d been “earmarked” for Tokyo. From that moment onwards, I dreamt about that race every night. Almost a decade later, I was finally in that moment, but those dreams didn’t come true. In the final strides, I knew that moment had slipped through my fingers.

I had emptied the tank. I had absolutely nothing left to give, and I’m so bloody proud of the way I kept fighting until the very end. I crossed the finish line, staggered around and then threw up. Time blurs in these moments, but I eventually found myself on a stretcher underneath the stadium. Later, I sat in an ice bath, my mind numb, my upper-body leaning outwards as I threw up into an empty shower cubicle. I felt nothing, but when you dream about a moment for so long and then it happens in the blink of an eye, what more can you feel?

At some point, I found myself back out on the track talking to Australian reporter Matt Carmichael. I spoke about how hard it had been, my family and the people without whom I wouldn’t have been there, and then my Pa who had passed away before the Games. I’m really proud that I was vulnerable and that I cried – I was true to myself in that moment. I look back at that race with so much pride, but also so much disappointment. I can’t pretend otherwise, and I think that interview captures that feeling.

I went on to win bronze in the 1500m and silver in the marathon, falling short two more times. I had so much fun in Tokyo, but after a year away from home and the people I loved, home was the only place I wanted to be after that week. This is the story I want to tell, or at least the feelings and learnings, because people often don’t get to see the aftermath of moments they witness on TV. People think athletes are always motivated, that they are hyper-determined individuals who can always keep on keeping on. Truthfully, that is sometimes far from how we feel. I think we need to be honest and vulnerable so that people don’t compare themselves to something that doesn’t exist.

The day I got home was one of the best days of my life. It was all over, and now it was time to rest. I took almost a month away from running, but it’s taken me until now – one year later – to realise that one month wasn’t enough. I thought that rushing forward would help me move on from Tokyo, but I’ve realised these last few weeks that slowly is often the fastest way to get where we want to go. At times this year, I’ve felt pretty broken, definitely lost, and always searching for the moment that helps me turn the page. I’m getting there.

I haven’t felt this way because I didn’t win, and I want to emphasise how proud I am of those medals. It’s simply the fact that I had this singular event in my future for so long – my entire teenage life – and suddenly it was gone. I’d reached the top of one mountain, but found myself at the bottom of the next.

I promise I’m OK. People might watch me at the 2024 Paralympic Games and just not think about the years in between. Not only the hard years of training, but the hard years of finding that purpose to get up every morning to run thousands of kilometres in a year. We don’t just wake up the next day and it’s all OK – we are like everyone else. At the end of the day, it’s just sport, but we are like anyone who dedicates their life to anything. We feel the euphoria and heartbreak of living life to its fullest. If I’ve learnt something from life, it’s that everyone is going through something, everyone has a story that they are writing. Sport is at its most powerful when people can take hope, inspiration, or belief in themselves from what they witness.

I read a quote the other day. It said that in times of darkness, sometimes we might think we are buried, but really, we’ve just been planted. That’s how I feel now. This is the start of something new. With help from the incredible team around me, I’ll keep working hard, I’ll keep loving what I do, and I’ll keep looking after myself.