Stressing the toll of sporting obsession

A week ago, while on national radio, respected Express sportswriter Mick Dennis made an emotional admission that he suffers from stress-related illness. In the Guardian, their rowing correspondent, MARTIN CROSS, observed that he is another sporting casualty of depression

From the outside, the life of an Olympic champion might appear more glamorous than a career as a bus driver or postman. But in the midst of my nervous breakdown, after 18 years as a senior British international rower, I would look enviously at people in the street and think: why couldn’t I just have been an ordinary person like them?

Some of that overwhelming stress came from realising I was coming to the end of my sporting career. By the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, I was trying to hold my place in the team against new young rowers who could pull bigger ergometer scores than me, and seemed able to go faster than me on the water. Now it seems obvious that I should have stopped competing. Back then, I was willing to sacrifice anything to carry on.

Since I first started the sport at 13, success in rowing had seemed to give me everything: recognition, a great lifestyle, new friends. My whole identity came from being an international rower, and I didn’t know how to change that. Up to the mid-1980s I’d enjoyed pretty continuous success at world and Olympic levels, and although people sometimes pointed out I must be making major sacrifices — the arduous training schedule, the lack of a social life — I never saw it like that. Getting up to push myself through the pain barrier before dawn felt like a privilege. And just walking into an Olympic village was like winning the lottery. In those years, my “proper” job — as a history teacher — felt more like a hobby.

But from the early 90s, my sport’s demands were changing. Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent had already blazed the professional trail; training loads began to increase from 12 to sometimes 16 sessions a week; and there was an increasing imperative to spend more time out of the UK in training camps, where the water was better than the River Thames.

I knew, deep down, I should call it a day. But doing my sport at almost any cost had become an obsession — of course, that was the reason I had been so good at it. So instead of stopping after the Barcelona Olympics, I tried everything to stay competitive: fitting in more sessions, raising the intensity of what I was doing, even bringing my crewmates on family holidays.

It was an unsustainable lifestyle. In the summer of 1997, I began to feel tired and drained, with a permanent sore throat. Now, I realise it was my body’s way of telling me to slow down. Back then, I convinced myself I had a serious illness. Of course, I didn’t.

In the end, it wasn’t exactly the rowing that brought me low — it was trying, and increasingly failing, to juggle my sporting career with everything else in my life: my roles as a husband and father, my full-time teaching job, and a host of extra responsibilities I’d acquired along the way.

During the good times, I thought I could keep all those balls in the air. But when the stress in my life mounted, I began to drop the balls. That in turn led to more stress, which over the next few years led inexorably to a breakdown. It was an extremely painful life lesson. These days, I make sure I row just for fun.

Martin Cross is the Guardian‘s rowing correspondent. His autobiography, Olympic Obsession, is published by Breedon Books

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