By the time James Foad finally asked for help, it was nearly too late. The London 2012 Olympic bronze medallist was in a grieving process after retiring from rowing in 2016.
But he did not know that at the time. Instead, it took another three years for Foad, now 32, to discover he had depression. And that was only because of the events of last March, when he tried to take his own life.
‘Things crept up on me without me even realising,’ explains Foad at his home in Southampton, where he lives with his wife Sophie and daughters Erin, five, and three-year-old Mila.
James Foad has opened up to Sportsmail about his struggles with mental health
‘I didn’t notice it because I’d never had to deal with any mental health issues. I didn’t really know what was going on. I was avoiding coming home. When I was at home, I didn’t really want to interact with my children.
‘I wasn’t really interacting with my wife. When those sorts of things start to happen, it opens a whole can of worms. I could have a conversation with someone and wouldn’t take on anything they said.
‘It spiralled out of control and I became very low, removed from any sort of social life at all. That was the point where I considered taking my life and took an overdose.
‘I didn’t really know what I was doing. My mind was shut off. When I realised what I’d done, I went into panic mode. I was shocked at myself.
The former Team GB rower won bronze in the men’s eight category in London 2012
‘There was also a huge amount of guilt because of the effects it would have on my family. I felt bad about what I had done. That’s when I first sought help. That was my first understanding of any mental health illness.
‘I’d say it was 70 per cent because of leaving rowing. The more I spoke to people, the more comfortable I was and the better I was starting to feel.’
Foad’s story comes after Sportsmail’s revelations yesterday about the scale of the mental health crisis among retired Olympians and Paralympians.
Foad says he is in a ‘much better place’ now, having recently found fulfilment by working as a personal trainer. But he has suffered plenty of setbacks to get to this point.
After being in the boat that claimed bronze in the men’s eight event in London, he won two world silver medals in the coxless pair with Matt Langridge in 2014 and 2015, breaking Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell’s British record along the way.
A back injury ruled Foad out from competing in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio
The men’s eight won in Brazil that summer while Foad remained injured on the sidelines
He expected to be back to the eight for Rio 2016, but a back injury ruled him out.
‘Seeing eight of your mates win an Olympic gold medal knowing there was a good chance you could have been there was hard. I’ve never had so many mixed emotions in my life. I always wanted them to win, it was just hard to not be there.
‘The gold medal would have meant a lot to me. Even if I’d have won a gold medal at a World Championships, I could have rested a lot easier knowing that I’d won a major title at some point in my career. I think that has had a big impact.’
The agony of missing out was one of the main reasons Foad contemplated coming out of retirement for Tokyo this summer. But his route back was as good as blocked by Sir David Tanner, then British Rowing performance director.
‘I wanted to go back but was really knocked back by the response I got,’ says Foad. ‘I was told I’d have to start at the bottom, go back to my club and start all over again. I wouldn’t have any funding or support to help me do that.
‘I guess I was slightly bitter and a bit put out by that response because I’d given myself to the sport for X amount of years and pretty much always produced a medal. That cut quite deep.
Foad (second from back) moved away from rowing after missing out on the Rio games
‘From that point, I almost turned my back on the sport. I’m really not that interested in what the guys are doing now, I don’t really follow it. I still have that bit of bitterness in me that I felt like I was almost stopped from going back to rowing.’
With his funding cut and a mortgage and nursery bills to pay, Foad went in search of work.
‘My first job was working as a healthcare assistant at Southampton General Hospital. It was a pretty horrific job. The most basic of basic care work. I’d gone from getting paid to do the sport that I love to literally wiping people’s bums.
‘I was getting paid under half what I was getting when I was rowing — and less than when I was 18.
‘That is a big challenge, a big adjustment. I worked for Hampshire constabulary in the control rooms, taking 999 calls, dispatching police, but the shift patterns were nights.
‘I then went on to work as an installation manager for a signage company but I found it a negative place to work. On top of getting over the rowing and not getting on well in that job, it really drove me downhill.’
Foad then went to find roles in local police control rooms and signage companies
That was when Foad reached breaking point and he wrote about his battle in an article for a local magazine last summer. He found putting pen to paper a cathartic experience — but it also led to another setback.
‘When I spoke out about the mental health issues that I was having, the new British Rowing performance director, Brendan Purcell, made contact. There were a few emails back and forwards offering support, but every time we arranged something it was cancelled. To offer that support then cancel it and not turn up, it makes you even worse.’
British Rowing told Sportsmail they are ‘continually seeking to improve’ how they help and support their retired athletes, who now have access to performance lifestyle advisors for between six and 12 months after they come off the programme. But Foad feels let down by the system — and he is not alone.
‘At first, I felt I was the only one but when I said something I realised there were so many other people who struggled. In my whole time of rowing, I don’t ever feel like there was any support to help with the switch from leaving an elite sport to normal life.
Foad said that British Rowing contacted him offering support before cancelling it
‘It is a big adjustment. When I was rowing, I was spending more time with the coaches than my family. All of a sudden, those people you turn to every day are not there. I had to speak out for someone at British Rowing or the English Institute of Sport to come to me. There is nothing in place, it’s like “you’re done, see you later”.
‘It took me three years to realise I was struggling. Can you expect an organisation like British Rowing to keep reaching out for eight years? I don’t think you can. But there should be a follow-up process to check in.
‘I still miss the competition and the environment. Someone described it as similar to if you’ve lost a loved one. I still think I am in that grieving process. There are still times where I feel really low. A couple of weeks ago, I had a bit of a wobble.
‘But it’s just about learning to live with it rather than fight it. I am much more positive.’
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