Its time... to close a chapter, and start a new one
I've toyed with writing this for weeks, building up my confidence, working out how to say this, thinking about how it will be received, wondering what this means for me. I've known for months, but every time I go to write the words fail me. So here's me being honest, maybe it will help someone, maybe it will help me; to get it off my chest, maybe it'll bring some closure.
Today I announce my RETIRMENT from the sport of Athletics, "I'm hanging up my spikes".
I always knew this day would come, but never thought it would come so soon. As an athlete you spend your entire time training, focused on a goal, working towards the next goal, knowing one day you'll no longer get to live this life.
No one prepares you for your career to be over at 22, its not something you plan for. I've had many tough conversations throughout my career in sport, but this was by far the hardest. There's a difference in knowing its time to move on and accepting it. For 2 years I've been in denial, during that period I've been to some dark places mentally. For so long sport was the anchor in my life, it was the constant during times of uncertainty. The thing is the track doesn't judge, it doesn't care about your story, it doesn't care if your disabled, it doesn't care if you've had a good day or a shit day, if you've got the best equipment or nothing at all. The only thing that matters is your there. I said it once in a mini-documentary, when I'm on the track I feel free. Athletics taught me so much, gave me the confidence to be who I wanted to be, chase my dreams and dare to do the impossible. It kept me sane when all around me it seemed my world was falling apart. It opened my eyes to what the body can achieve if the mind dares to believe. I wasn't ready for it to come to an end...
30th January 2019 ...
Not a particularly special day. The start of the 2019 athletics season and my second competition of the year. We were looking ahead to a big season, targeting World Championships as part of my journey to Tokyo.
Little did I know, this would be the last time I jumped.
Something happened that day, something went wrong - to this day I'm not quite sure what or why. All I know is my knee hasn't been the same since. Initially we thought it was just a soft tissue injury or a minor strain. I followed the usual protocol and saw a physio, rested and then began loading to strengthen the surrounding muscles in the hope it would sort itself out. Within a few weeks I was struggling to walk and had to use a wheelchair to get around. I saw 2 different knee specialists who couldn't work out the problem, had 2 X-rays and multiple MRi's as well as seeing different physios for their opinion. Almost a year later we still didn't know what the issue was, but there was a bigger problem.
I was losing my sense of self, soon enough I didn't know who I was anymore. It didn't happen overnight but gradually I succumbed to depression. Initially I thought I was coping - trying to keep busy, focusing on rehab, thinking about getting back to training. I'd been injured before, I'd come back before, this would be no different. Except it was. I couldn't fix the problem if I didn't know what it was and this was crippling. I've always been solutions based, if there's a problem I fix it. I couldn't fix this. It was out of my hands, I placed my trust in specialists, blindly hoping they'd work it out. Clinging to the hope of a diagnosis. I kept telling myself, once we knew the issue we could start to treat it. Everyone in my team were positive, they'd seen me go through injuries and thought I'd come out the back of this stronger and hungrier.
The problem was, I was stuck in a cycle. Waiting for appointments, hoping for answers, pleading with specialists to find something. I'd done every rehab program under the sun, but as time went by I was slipping. Initially I drank because of pain. Very quickly I found myself drinking a couple times a week, then daily, then multiple times a day. I'd tell myself there's nothing wrong with having a drink (there isn't on occasion), but now I'd started to become dependant. I couldn't get through the day without having something. I'm glad now it was only alcohol and not drugs or things could have been worse.
Depression was one of those things I knew of but was ignorant too, growing up mental health was something that affected weak minded people. It didn't affect people like me... As an athlete I was strong... If anything I needed to toughen up.
During this period no one really knew how bad things got apart from my partner. For a long time I kept up the façade, I was fine. Still working, going to lecturers, coaching. Initially I thought by keeping busy I'd distract myself. Things soon caught up with me. Before I knew it I stopped functioning, I went from balancing training 20+ hours a week/ studying and working 5 different jobs to not being able to get out of bed. Some days I couldn't even go from the bed to my desk, in a tiny university room. I stopped going to classes and to the track, not being able to face people or their questions. I stopped living for a period, cooking, cleaning, eating - basic things became impossible. My partner would come back from a week away at training camps to find my desk covered in chip boxes, beer cans and spirit bottles. I laugh at it now but when we spoke on the phone about what I ate, cleverly I'd say fried vegetables. This in reality was chips, for whatever reason my brain knew I still needed to eat with all the drink I was consuming. Whilst I couldn't cook I was able to drag myself to the chip shop and that became my diet. Chips and booze. Healthy!
Eventually I was dragged to the doctors, put on anti-depressants and a waiting list for counselling. Asking for help and admitting your struggling has always been something foreign to me, I grew up with the notion of silence, men are strong, men don't cry. I had this perception as an athlete I couldn't ask for help as it would make me weak. I'm lucky my partner was very supportive, during this time I cant have been easy to live with. Anyway a few months into the meds I stopped taking them, they weren't working and it wasn't me. Part of me knew what I needed to do, I just couldn't face it.
I needed to accept things may never be the same, I may never go back to athletics, achieve my dreams or become a Paralympian. I needed to accept I would no longer be 'Ryan the athlete' and there was life after sport. Except I couldn't, I didn't know who I was without sport. Everything had been built around training. When I left home for university to follow my dreams everything was about the goal of going to a Paralympics. For the first 2 years I refused to be in a relationship or even see someone casually, I didn't go out with friends, I solely focused on sport. Working a full-time schedule through part-time jobs to fund my training. All of the decisions I made were to make me a better athlete, now I didn't have sport I didn't know why I was doing anything.
Looking back, but moving forward
I'd be lying if I said it was easy, but I'll be forever grateful for my time in athletics.
The lessons I've learned will see me through life. Today I am a very different person to the naïve kid starting out in 2014 who just wanted to win medals. I learnt early on this was bigger than me. Through my successes I could force change and shine a light for the underrepresented. The negative experiences formed the foundation of Enabled Not Disabled.
It may not be the fairy tale ending I'd have hoped for but its still been a pretty cool journey. Who'd have thought a kid from Croydon that wasn't meant to walk would make it on the world stage. I didn't.
I'm extremely proud of everything I achieved, even if at the time I didn't celebrate these achievements. Nothing was given, every step of the way I had to overcome adversity. At times I thought it was me against the world. To some I'm a controversial figure, I've been labelled a trouble maker, etc.
Was I always right? Absolutely Not. Did I go about things in the right way? Not always.
I'm older and more mature now and as I reflect on different things, I know in my heart, what I was fighting for was just. All I ever wanted was an equal opportunity. There's so many stories I have from my time in athletics that would shock people, accounts of racism within the team and classification, favouritism, transparency around selection etc. One day I'll write a book, this part will be but a chapter.
There were many challenges during my time in athletics. Despite this I will be forever grateful to have walked this path and stayed true to my morals in a world where many compromise.
And now to the people. I would never have achieved anything if it weren't for the people who shared my belief.
No words describe the way I feel about the man on the left. Coach, mentor, counsel, friend, family, shoulder to cry on and everything in-between. I leave the sport with many happy memories, the happiest include him! So, to Harry. Thank you for guiding me on this journey and shaping the man I would become. Thank you for saying YES, when so many said NO. Thank you for taking a leap into the unknown (and wildly complicated, political world of Paralympic sport). In truth I could go on, but as they say "What's understood, does not need to be explained". The bond we share goes far beyond the coach-athlete relationship and I'd like to think you've enjoyed going on this journey as much as I have. There's a lot I wont miss, the cold nights at the track, the DOMS for days, my body being broken all the time. But I'll always miss our conversations, putting the world to right and chewing sugar cane/drinking jelly coconut!
Of course there were others. Keith my first jumps coach who helped me on my journey to converting to being a long jumper, a difficult task in itself, then add in Cerebral Palsy haha. Stacey "my Aussie coach", helping my achieve the Paralympic qualifier in 2016 after 10 days of knowing each other. Rafer my final coach, picking up the pieces of a disillusioned and broken athlete. We didn't have long together due to my injury but in you I've gained a friend for life.
Athletics was truly a dream. Growing up I knew nothing of Paralympic sport, its not a career path supported where I come from. Yet somehow I end my career a British Record Holder, 2 x World Games Champion and the only British T36 male long jumper to qualify for a major games. Sure it would have been nice to go to a Paralympics, at my darkest moments I thought I was nothing as I'd failed. Now I look back with immense pride.
From day 1 I decided how I wanted to be known. Not Ryan the disabled athlete, but Ryan the athlete. Everyone knew I was the hardest worker. First one in the gym and the last one out. I gained the respect of my able-bodied counterparts in my training group and within the wider circle of athletics. I met one of my idols in Linford being privileged to chat with him and his group of internationals. I was known for my work ethic, something I plan to continue.
Time away from sport has given me space to think about getting back to being the guy on the right - HAPPY.
In truth I'm not sure what's next and sometimes that's scary. For a long time I had all the answers and the pathway was planned out. I've been freestyling for a bit, trying different things and hoping to find myself in the process.
One things for certain. I may be retired from athletics, but I'm not retired from sport. Watch this space!
In the meantime there's so many things to keep me distracted. Be it coaching wheelchair basketball in developing countries, mentoring young people or the vision of Enabled. Athletics was important but this is far more important and will be a life long labour of love. I genuinely believe in change and when those of us who have a voice and a platform use it for good, amazing things can happen. So in the meantime whilst I'm figuring it all out, I'll be off causing havoc, fighting for change and hopefully smiling along the way. I'm not 'better', but I'm in a much better place and letting go of athletics has been a huge part of it.
I feel like I've 'come out' and a weights been lifted off my shoulders. I needed to say this for me, and its far easier writing this than it is talking to everyone I've known about it. If you want to know more message me, I'm at a stage now where I'm happy to talk about it.
Lastly if your struggling, PLEASE seek help. Mental Health can affect anyone at anytime, it doesn't discriminate whether your strong or weak. Break the cycle, talk to someone, share!