The Daily Telegraph
The day our life was turned upside down
Mike Tindall opens up to Elizabeth Day about the painful challenges his family has had to face over the past 12 months
One of Mike Tindall’s earliest memories is of his father throwing a rugby ball in the back garden. Tindall would catch the ball, then “try to beat up my brother”. “Basically,” he grins, “I was playing rugby forever.” Tindall went on to play for Bath and then England. He was part of the 2003 World Cup-winning squad in Australia, amassed 75 caps and married a member of the Royal family along the way – Zara Phillips, the daughter of Princess Anne, who just so happens to be an Olympic equestrian. The couple have a three-year-old daughter, Mia.
Today Tindall, 38, is retired from professional rugby, although his face still tells the tale of his time on the field. His nose was so smashed up it now looks like a piece of abstract sculpture. There were rumours a few years ago that he was going to have it fixed, but he hasn’t done anything about it yet: “My breathing is not the greatest. If you were in a silent room with me you’d think you were in a room with Darth Vader.”
For Tindall, the World Cup victory remains a professional highlight, but behind the scenes it was a time of personal turmoil. On the way to Sydney, Tindall got the news that his father had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Phil Tindall, a former banker who had once captained the Otley Rugby Club in West Yorkshire, had been experiencing “tingling in his fingers”. The diagnosis came as a shock.
“This is a guy who played rugby and who I used to wrestle in the back garden,” Tindall says, when we meet for a shared pot of green tea at a west London hotel. At the time, he didn’t know much about Parkinson’s and thought of it as the “shaking disease”, where sufferers are subjected to uncontrollable tremors. In fact, his 71-year-old dad “is just completely the opposite… My dad doesn’t really shake, but when he goes – they call it going off – he can’t stand, he can’t lift his arm, he’ll just be stuck there… Muscle wastage is a big issue, so your strength goes. That’s the side he really struggles with [because] he’s a smart guy and his brain still pretty much functions to its capacity.”
His father’s decline in the 14 years since his diagnosis has been slow but relentless. Although Tindall speaks about it with straightforward frankness, it has had a devastating impact on his family. His mother, Linda, a social worker, has become her husband’s full-time carer.
“She’s a giver, is my mum,” Tindall says. “I think now it’s difficult. I don’t think she’d mind me saying that. When he’s on a good day it’s fine, you know, because everything works to plan. But it’s little things like if he doesn’t sleep properly then the medication doesn’t last as long as it normally should.
“There’s a lot of cases with Parkinson’s sufferers that you might have a really light duvet on your legs but they think it’s like an iron weight, it hurts them, so they have to have it lifted off them. So it makes them really uncomfortable, so they can’t sleep. And then obviously, he rolls around, keeps her awake. Then if my mum’s tired, and the
medications don’t work as well, then they’re both tired… It’s draining for my mum and she finds it hard.”
Later this month, Tindall will be hosting a charity golf day to raise money for the Cure Parkinson’s Trust and the Matt Hampson Foundation, which helps people suffering from serious sports-related injuries or disabilities.
Unlike some other charities, the Cure Parkinson’s Trust is “all about finding a cure, stopping and reversing the disease”, rather than simply living with it, says Tindall. “Which, with my dad going downhill this year, is appealing to me.”
It has been a challenging
12 months in more ways than one. Last December, Tindall and his wife experienced a late miscarriage, just a few weeks after announcing they were expecting their second child. He has never spoken about it publicly and when I raise the subject, he smiles as if he’s been expecting the question, but it’s a smile that doesn’t entirely reach his eyes.
“I don’t mind you asking about it,” Tindall says. “It is a personal thing. Obviously you’re gutted, you never want to go through it, you never want your wife to go through it. I think, if I was honest, we were very lucky that we already had Mia, so you immediately go home from the hospital and there’s a three-year-old causing carnage and it immediately takes your mind off it.
“But it was an eye-opener for how many people go through it. One of the good sides of social media was how many people reached out. And you just realised that, obviously, it happens all over the world to a lot of people.”
It was a cruel blow, none the less. Tindall and Zara had no idea anything was wrong: they went for a scan and were hoping to find out the gender of the child (these are normally performed at 18 to 21 weeks). Tindall was “sneakily hoping for a boy”. Instead, they were told their baby had died.
“You walk out 20 minutes later and the whole world’s been turned upside down and everything’s changed,” says Tindall. “Then you go through a really bad few days and then you’ve got to sort of try to pull it all together.” Many men are not sure how to handle a miscarriage, I say. Was it difficult knowing what to do? “It’s hard, I think, for a bloke,” he admits. “Obviously you’re devastated, but it’s not physically happening to you… You’re connected in a completely different way.”
There was, he says, “a period of sadness”. It helped when subsequent tests showed there was no medical issue but that “it was a freak thing”. The couple’s way of coping is “to know that we can still go and have kids in the future”.
It’s moving to hear Tindall speak like this. Rugby is perceived as the most macho of sports – all brawn and no blubbing – and the broadshouldered scrum-half of popular mythology is not known for his ability to emote. Tindall says he hardly ever cries – the last time was when his bull mastiff, Misty, died in 2013.
Yet when he left professional rugby, he struggled to find his way. He did a bit of coaching, then appeared on a couple of reality TV programmes (including Channel 4’s injury-prone The Jump) but he found it difficult not having a routine. “I would definitely say I’ve felt down,” Tindall acknowledges. “I sometimes think, ‘How am I going to support the family?’ You do get those moments.”
Prince Harry, whom he counts as a close friend, recently told this newspaper that he had sought counselling after his mother’s death. What did Tindall make of that?
“I think he’s right. It is a stereotypical thing about blokes [that they don’t talk about mental health]. I think it is good for blokes to sort of drop that masculinity side of things and actually be realistic. Just having a chat with a mate could completely switch it around.”
If I had a problem, Tindall would be exactly the kind of mate I’d want to chat to: balanced, kind, willing to talk about almost anything. I say almost, because when I ask about the Queen, he starts to shift in his seat. “She’s awesome,” he says. Silence. Do he and Zara watch the Netflix series, The Crown?
His eyes light up. “Addicted to The
Crown. You’ve got to watch it, it’s great. She’s brilliant, the one who plays the Queen [Claire Foy].”
But is it true to life? “I don’t know. I haven’t asked.”
Well, what does Zara say?
“She won’t know the ins and outs of whether it’s true.” He squirms a bit more. “I think it’s a great show in terms of how they delivered it.”
An effortless body-swerve. No wonder he was so good on the rugby pitch.
‘It’s hard for a bloke. Obviously you’re devastated but it’s not happening to you’