Iwan Thomas on Prince’s words of comfort
Depressed by the end of his career, salvation for the former athlete came from
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