“Do not be afraid to speak up. That is definitely something that I really struggled with, admitting that I was going through something that was more serious.”
Team GB Olympian Jodie Williams is reflecting to The Sportsman about the lowest moment of her career. With the world at her feet as a promising 18-year-old sprinter, having gone undefeated for over 150 races as a youth prospect, she tore her hamstring on live TV, an injury that would ultimately rule her out of her home Olympic Games.
“It was one of the biggest lows in my career, it actually kind of set me off into a bit of a downward spiral,’ she explains. “I hadn't really experienced too much failure I guess, or too many obstacles in my career to that point, so for the obstacle to be so large was really quite devastating and I definitely struggled with that for a long time.
“I have definitely struggled with depression and anxiety pretty much my whole life actually,” she continues. “I didn't really realise what it was when I was younger, and I think that experience with the Olympics really highlighted that there was something a bit more serious going on and it definitely set me off into a worse spiral.
“It is something that I still deal with to this day, for sure, definitely something that I've come to manage and understand a lot more deeply, that was part of that journey. So I am actually pretty thankful for that, it helped deepen my understanding of what was going on and forced me to go out and acknowledge it and get help. It is a pretty common theme within sportspeople I think, and just an ongoing journey.”
Having acknowledged there was a problem, she opened up about her struggles and found the help she needed, which allowed her to move on with her career, even if she, understandably, didn’t savour the 2012 Olympics as much as the rest of the country.
“I didn't really enjoy the London Olympics,” the 27-year-old sprinter admits. “My family had tickets to go and watch what was meant to be me, so I did go for one of the sessions but I found it really, really difficult. So I didn't go back, I didn't enjoy it, I think I actually went on holiday to Portugal to just escape the whole thing. It was inescapable. However, I did have a lot of friends competing, so it was equally as amazing to see them performing and I kind of managed to enjoy their performances and the experience through them on the flip side.”
It has been a tough journey for Williams, who captained the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team and won a bronze medal in the 400m at the recent European Indoor Championships. Growing up as the next big thing in British athletics brought its own challenges and even though she went 151 races undefeated, it wasn’t always easy.
“There was a lot of pressure on me when I was younger, looking back I wish I had enjoyed it more, honestly. I took it very seriously and every race very seriously. I wish I had just enjoyed winning more. It both felt easy and there was a huge amount of pressure on me, so that took away from that easy feeling, I kind of felt a lot of weight on my shoulders to win every race that I participated in. So as much as, yeah, it kind of came naturally to me, there were definitely a lot of mental barriers there for sure.”
One person who has always been there to support her and challenge her growing up is younger sister Hannah, who followed in Jodie’s footsteps to become British champion over the 200m.
“She definitely had to cope with always being compared to her older sister but I think now that we've both grown and we are both adults and we've kind of nurtured our personal relationship. We love it, it is great.” Jodie explains.
“One of my bucket list items is to compete with her at a major championships, both individually and in the relay. I would absolutely love to stand on a podium with her, 4x400m would be my ultimate goal over anything individually, that would be amazing.
“These days we get to train together and we both have an understanding of what the other one goes through, so I think it is actually something really special. Sport can be very isolating, people don't always understand what we go through as sports people, so to have someone else in your family who understands exactly what you’re going through is really cool.”
Having represented Britain internationally at 60m, 100m, 200m, 400m, 4x100m and 4x400m, and won medals in five of those six events, Jodie is certainly a woman of many talents, but this year, in an Olympic year, she has her eyes set on one individual event.
“I will focus more on the 200m this year. I just feel like there is a lot of untapped potential there that I just haven't been able to express yet. I'd like to see that and see what that means time-wise and performance-wise and then I will be exploring the 400m more and more over this year and the coming years I would imagine. For now, the 200m is my baby!”
In 2016, after four years of hard work, Williams experienced her first Olympic Games and travelled with her family to Rio. Now, five years on, the Tokyo Olympic Games could look very different, with international fans unlikely to be allowed to travel.
“I think currently there will be no international spectators, which makes absolute sense. Honestly, I'm just glad there will be spectators at all, I was very much prepared that it would be behind closed doors.
“It will be hard to not have my family there, for sure. I'm very fortunate that they were able to come out to Rio and watch me so I am eternally grateful for that. It will just be a different experience I think, at this point it is what it is.”
On the track, with the first Games nerves out of her system and now competing at her athletic peak, Jodie is fully focused on success in Tokyo.
“I want to come home with medals. I have had my experience in the Olympics and I am definitely at a point in my career now where it would be crazy for me to go to any championships and not expect to be making finals and bringing home medals. I'm pretty confident, I've set myself up nicely with the indoors, and hopefully the season will go as smoothly, but I'm definitely aiming for two medals with the relay as well. That would definitely be my aim.”
The entire sporting world will be watching the athletes competing in Tokyo this summer but, importantly, Jodie Wiliams, Team GB Olympian and inspirational figure, has a message of advice to anybody else struggling with their mental health.
“Especially within sport, we are meant to be very mentally tough. It was really difficult for me to open up and admit I was going through something, but I would definitely say tell someone. Don't be afraid to speak up and go and find some kind of help. I know it feels really hard to open up about it but once you do tell someone there will be someone out there that understands and that will be able to speak to you.
“You will feel seen and heard and it will make a massive difference, so definitely find the strength to tell someone even though I know it is a really hard thing to open up about.”