Iwan Thomas on Prince’s words of com­fort

De­pressed by the end of his ca­reer, sal­va­tion for the for­mer ath­lete came from

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - Jim White

Ian un­ex­pected quar­ter t was not what Iwan Thomas was ex­pect­ing. Back in the sum­mer, at an event held at St James’s Palace to pro­mote the Heads To­gether char­ity, the for­mer world cham­pion 400 me­tres run­ner found him­self man­ning the bar­be­cue along­side Prince Harry. As they were grilling away, the Prince qui­etly asked him about his his­tory of men­tal health. And Thomas found him­self do­ing some­thing he had not planned to do when he set out for his royal en­gage­ment: open­ing up.

“It was weird, there I was talk­ing to Harry, telling him stuff I’d never spo­ken about to any­one be­fore,” Thomas re­calls. “And he’s such a nice guy, so un­der­stand­ing, I just kept on telling him about the dark points in my life. Hon­estly, I’d never spo­ken about it, not like that, un­til I met Prince Harry.”

This is what the Heads To­gether cam­paign does: it en­cour­ages peo­ple not only to talk about their men­tal health is­sues, but to lis­ten, to as­sist oth­ers in the un­bur­den­ing of their prob­lems. Harry’s un­der­stand­ing ear en­cour­aged Thomas to re­veal the crip­pling sense of point­less­ness which clouded him as his ath­let­ics ca­reer came to an end.

“I didn’t re­tire well,” he re­calls. “It wasn’t like Jess En­nis-Hill, fin­ish­ing on her terms, with that amaz­ing fan­fare. I didn’t have that lux­ury. I didn’t even of­fi­cially re­tire. I was so plagued with in­jury I just sort of fiz­zled out. And I found that hard to deal with. I had no iden­tity. The thing I had been striv­ing to be all my life was no longer there. I def­i­nitely went through some re­ally dark times.”

As the re­al­i­sa­tion dawned that af­ter three years blighted by in­jury he was never go­ing to get back on track, Thomas was sub­merged in a morale­sap­ping gloom. A man who ap­pears to burst with gre­gar­i­ous, up­beat en­ergy sud­denly found the very process of get­ting out of bed a chore. His de­pres­sion was com­pounded by a gath­er­ing sense of in­jus­tice.

“I found it quite hard to think there were peo­ple thriv­ing who cheated hor­ri­bly. An­to­nio Pet­ti­grew, 15 years at the top; I had three,” he says of the Amer­i­can who ad­mit­ted dop­ing. “I could have taken drugs to get back from in­jury, but I didn’t. That all played on my mind. I was plagued with think­ing, ‘Why me?’ A guy who tried his heart out, who did his ut­most al­ways to be the best he could be, and his body kept break­ing. Why did I have to re­tire? I had all this self-pity go­ing on. It was so de­struc­tive. And the thing is, when it’s hap­pen­ing to you, you think you’re the only one.”

What Thomas has sub­se­quently come to re­alise is that his spi­ral of de­pres­sion was com­pounded by the fact he kept it all un­der wraps, main­tain­ing a pic­ture of devil-may­care ebul­lience to the out­side world.

“Ev­ery­one thought my life was amaz­ing,” he says. “All my mates are reg­u­lar guys who I wouldn’t say looked up to me, but who saw what I did as some­thing spe­cial. How could I tell them? I couldn’t go to my mate Tim, who drives a taxi, be­cause in his eyes I was his big hero mate. I couldn’t say to him, ‘I’m re­ally strug­gling now’. I cer­tainly couldn’t tell my par­ents. So, I told no one.”

There was an­other rea­son too, for his ret­i­cence.

“I didn’t want to tell any­one be­cause I thought it was a weak­ness,” he ad­mits. “My strength as an ath­lete was my men­tal strength. I loved eye­balling op­po­nents, psych­ing my­self up. Ex­cept when I came up against Michael John­son, I knew I was of the same ca­pa­bil­ity phys­i­cally as ev­ery­one else. What made me stand out was the abil­ity not to crum­ble un­der pres­sure. At the 1998 Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships, I re­mem­ber eye­balling Mark Richard­son, some­body I like, know­ing if I could get inside his head I’d beat him. That was me, this men­tally tough guy. That’s why it was so hard to ad­mit, ‘Hang on, it’s not what it seems up here. There’s a chink in my ar­mour’.”

So, Thomas kept it all in, re­tain­ing the front of undi­min­ished self­con­fi­dence. Only when he got home and shut the front door did the mask slip.

“I think the only per­son who knew was my poor then girl­friend,” he says. “She re­ally bore the brunt of it. And it ex­hausted me, keep­ing up what I sup­pose you’d call a lie.”

Even­tu­ally, he came through, em­bark­ing on a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in broad­cast­ing. His down mo­ments are these days less fre­quent. But he believes now his re­cov­ery would have been ac­cel­er­ated had he been brave enough to talk about his is­sues.

“One hun­dred per cent. I didn’t talk about it for way too long. I just got on with it. I look back and think I went through some dark, dark times. I should have sought help. But I didn’t be­cause I thought it was weak to ad­mit to a prob­lem.”

Since he has fi­nally done so, Thomas has found the very process of talk­ing ther­a­peu­tic. Mere dis­cus­sion, he says, can en­hance the sense of a bur­den lift­ing.

“You might think yours is a rub­bish rea­son to feel low. I can tell you now, it’s not. Just talk to some­body, any­body. You’ll find it re­ally helps. I know, be­cause I’ve fi­nally done it. The weird thing for me was I hap­pened to ad­mit to it to Prince Harry.”

And since their con­ver­sa­tion, Thomas has be­come a com­mit­ted ad­vo­cate of Heads To­gether, keen to spread its mes­sage of open­ness and di­a­logue.

“Harry’s bril­liant sell­ing point is that, yes, he’s this huge fig­ure, but he’s very ap­proach­able,” he says. “If he can talk about men­tal health is­sues, hope­fully it means ev­ery­one can. For him to say he finds things dif­fi­cult oc­ca­sion­ally, that’s mas­sive. It makes you re­alise you aren’t alone. It can and does hap­pen to any­one, from princes to park keep­ers. Ath­letes cer­tainly aren’t im­mune. Just talk about it. What’s been such a rev­e­la­tion for me is that there are peo­ple out there – loads of peo­ple – who will talk to you, peo­ple who will lis­ten.”

In­clud­ing a burger-flip­ping prince.

‘It was weird, there I was talk­ing to Harry, telling him stuff I’d never spo­ken about’

Flip­ping good: Iwan Thomas and Prince Harry cook burgers for the Head To­gether char­ity

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