[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is from Nicole Talbot, a -69kg Olympic weightlifter who has been a U23 gold medallist, double student championship gold medallist and English sliver medallist. She’s also won multiple golds at regional championships. She trains at Gym 66 in Cheltenham. In her day job she works with children and athletes with disabilities. She is also Type 1 diabetic.
Nicole will be checking in with us regularly to talk about her efforts to obtain treatment options that fit with her goals as a high-performance athlete. This post gives a great intro to her experiences and personality. Thanks, Nicole!]
Warning: Some content could conflict with what you’ve previously heard!
Although it would be the dream lifestyle, sadly the truth is there are limited opportunities within my sport to live the life of a full-time athlete. I spend my weekdays teaching young children about self-esteem and my weekends throwing disabled super athletes from Day-Chair to Rugby Wheelchair; all of which has led me to discover one of the most interesting subjects in my life, Sociology…yes, I literally people watch in the name of postgraduate education.
When I was 14 I was diagnosed with Diabetes Mellitus (Type I to those with limited medical knowledge) following which I struggled with my body image, I cut all meat and fat out of my diet and I became a full time cardio Queen. I was fully submerged in sport at school, studying both GCSE and BTec PE, but now I really question how I wasn’t skeletal or why I didn’t resemble the walking dead with the lack of real food in my life.
I never gave up on sport, it was in fact the one constant from before my near death experience and allowed this life changing diagnosis to have very little effect on my lifestyle. I simply had to take 4 injections a day for the rest of my life and regulate my blood sugars, which were consistently ‘normal’ for the first few years after diagnosis as a result of my physical activity.
When I started working within the world of disability sport in my second year on an Undergraduate Sport Education Degree at University I found admiration and inspiration in each and every one of the very individual people I would meet on a weekly basis. Sadly however, when I was 23 I was diagnosed with serious depression. After a failed long-term relationship and the stresses of postgraduate education, declining diabetic health and the management of multiple types of disability, I’d almost completely lost myself.
Lifting myself out of a low place
I wouldn’t agree that mental illness is ‘one size fits all’ under any circumstance, and I do not believe in the meanings of the universal symbols for mental illness that have been created by society. At this time it wasn’t that I wanted to give up, I just couldn’t get up!
I started weightlifting when I was 21 after I’d decided I’d had enough of getting muddy and cold on the rugby pitch. Being honest, it was probably one of the most scary and intimidating experiences of my life…and I’d been through a few. It meant I had to step into the ‘Big Boys’ end of the gym where all the massive weights were being thrown around.
I remember getting 30kg above my head, grimacing and sweating uncontrollably for the first few months. But I soon grew some balls and got over the idea that I was always the only girl on the platform slingin’ tin. Not only did my confidence improve from being in that environment, but my body confidence improved too. I’m not only the heaviest I’ve ever been but I’m also the smallest I’ve ever been and I’ve done Uni!
As they say, the only way is up and in no time the amount of female weightlifters at Gym66 grew (I blame CrossFit). At this time I was vice captain of the weightlifting club at university. Even though my contact time with the members was limited due to post grad commitments, it felt pretty darn good to be able to act as an example of the positives for women in strength sports and demonstrating that they do not (always) look like large men.
I’d managed to blag myself a couple of gold medals at national level pretty soon into lifting, and because of my age I’d managed to grab the gold at the British U23 competition too. Even though I’d tried and tested nearly every sport in the book, it was safe to say that I finally felt like I’d found the shoe that fit within weightlifting. However, as I mention before, when I was 23 and 2 years into my highly successful weightlifting career I was diagnosed with serious depression.
The one constant in my life, from the age of 3 months old, had always been sport. As with every stage of life you make and lose friends and with each sport I did the more friends I gained and in some cases, lost. I’ve always been one of those girls that didn’t spend much time with girly friends, I reckon it was because I preferred a game of Bulldog with the boys to a game of hairdressers with the girls, and I think this is probably why I found it so easy to fit into the heavily male-dominated environment of weightlifting.
As my mental health gradually declined, the only activity I was happy to get out of bed for was my daily trip to the gym for my weightlifting session with Coach K. Now, in my heavily medicated and much happier state, I couldn’t honestly tell you what that part of my life was like…other than a mess, a literal mess.
The Brotherhood (and Sisterhood) of Iron
For anyone who owns a small fitness business I imagine that the personal relationships and experiences that are shared between owner and member are very different to those of a commercial fitness business. Although the members and owners of my second home (Gym66 in Cheltenham) have changed over the 5 years I’ve been training there, there’s honestly no place I’d rather spend both the sweatiest and coldest 4 hours of my day.
I think it helps that I’ve discovered the strongest support group known to man in the form of both friends and professionals alike. Now to massively contradict myself… As I just mentioned, I have amazing friends and the majority of them are still male (don’t judge me, I’m a creature of habit).
However, within weightlifting I’ve connected more to the female than the male athletes. I’m unsure if this is because weightlifting is fairly new to females and the men are all already lifting way over their body weight for fun on a daily basis (and quite frankly terrifying upon first exposure) but I find the females 100% more inspirational.
From my personal perspective, I see each and every one of them breaking down the barriers and stereotypes that society have created of women in sport. I simply see them as strong women doing what strong women do, lift heavy things up, but there is usually more than one meaning to everything we do in life, I have come to question why females lift weights…is it to break down those stereotypes, is it to get fitter or is it all a cover story?
Just as Clark Kent and Superman are never in the same room, depression and happiness are never around at the same time. What I can promise you will be around however is my support system of friends and family…the majority of whom I see daily whilst werkkkkkenout.
Fighting for the right support
For months now, I’ve been battling with the NHS for better medication and procedures for diabetes management whilst training (weightlifting appears to have the opposite affect previous forms of exercise did on my blood sugars and I’m no longer on the well-controlled list). On top of this, a long-standing back problem recently stopped me training almost completely.
As you can imagine, it felt like my world had ended and I soon found myself back in the doctor’s surgery asking for an increased dose of happy pills. I was unable to stay positive in the place I often used to escape reality, as many people do with the gym, and I really didn’t know what to do with myself. The thought of going back to feeling like I didn’t want to get out of bed or that I wanted to shut everyone out terrified me. I would actually say that’s my one and only fear…most would say spiders or heights, mine is not wanting to engage with the world anymore.
But for the past 2 years my support system has never been tighter in the people I’d spend everyday with whilst training, I had just taken how much those people meant to me for granted. And so bring forth to the spotlight #1 teammate Chloe Sherborne-Ralph, Coach K and Ginge a.k.a. Jack Driver (@chloesralph, @samkennedyperf & @the_original_fox for all you stalkers out there).
Surprise, surprise: my best friend is a girl! When I first met Chloe I wouldn’t have foretold that we could be so alike without being related. We are basically the same…from our gym outfits to our choice of terrible haircuts in a former youth. It astounds me how much of an impact having her as my training partner has had on my life. When I was younger I would see other girls as competition, and don’t get me wrong– I still feel that at weightlifting competitions– but Chloe has become my inspiration and not someone I always want to be better than.
I’ve been able to watch her progress and grow not only in the sport but as a person; in confidence and self-esteem. I can see in her how much it now means for her to be a weightlifter, just another way in which we’re similar! For Christmas Chloe brought me a simple gift which I have worn every day since receiving… a silver bangle with the script ‘is gunna be alright’ inscribed onto it.
She then rolled up her sleeve to show me that she had a similar bangle with the inscription ‘every little thing’ upon it. Just like those ‘best friend’ heart halves you could get as kids completed each other, so do these two bangles. I often laugh at how sad we are, but I also consider how rubbish training is when she’s not there. I’m unsure what the female equivalent of a bromance is– but we’ve got it!
You’re not alone
I’ve already told you that mental illness isn’t ‘one size fits all’, but it turns out that it truly could be effecting anyone you know without you even knowing it. Research suggests that women are more likely to experience mental illness than men with 4-10% of people in England alone experiencing depression or anxiety.
I understand when people ask me what I have to be depressed about, but the stigma that has been created about mental health issues needs to be changed. It took me a very long time to get diagnosed and treated simply out of fear of what people might think, specifically my family.
But as my Mum told me during one of the hardest conversations we’ve ever had, anyone at any age can suffer from mental illness. Although I sometimes have moments of self doubt or when my back starts to hurt, the simplest gesture from one of the most important people in my life brings me back to reality. All I have to do is look down at my wrist to know that ‘every little thing is gunna be alright’.
Lift long & prosper,
Nicole Kimberley Talbot