From unexpected injuries to heartbreaking failures, eight inspiring athletes share the moment they realised their own strength.
When Katarina Johnson-Thompson was preparing for her first Olympics in 2012, she went to the stadium in Stratford, east London, to see the athletics track. “It was completely empty,” she remembers. “I asked where the start line would be and took a photo.” That picture became her phone wallpaper until she went back in the summer to compete. “I really believe it helped get me to those Games,” she says. “But I’ve visualised myself with a gold many times, and it didn’t happen.” She’s referring to years of injuries and errors that cost her medals at major events. At the 2016 Olympics, she hit a low point. “Rio was a terrible time,” she says. “I had no confidence at all. Every time I stepped on the track, I was terrified I was going to fail.”
Today, on Stylist’s cover shoot at an indoor track in London, she’s in a different place. As other athletes train nearby, they’re aware that Team GB’s greatest contender for a medal in Tokyo is in the building. “It’s a bit of a turnaround, isn’t it?” she smiles. “The last four years have been about building my mental strength, and I’m feeling more empowered than ever.” That’s the thing about athletes: they know a thing or two about getting through a challenge. It takes a lot to cope with exhausting schedules, sudden injuries and crushing failures. But how do they find the power to succeed? Here, KJT and seven others share what strength means to them – and the moment they needed it most.
“After years of failures, I had a mental breakthrough at the 2018 Commonwealth Games”
Katarina Johnson-Thompson, 27, specialises in the heptathlon. Last year she won gold at the World Championships, breaking the British record and ranking her sixth on the all-time heptathlon list
“The morning I was due to fly to the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia – the first chance I’d had in a while to win my first outdoor gold medal – I couldn’t find my passport. I turned my apartment in Montpellier upside down and started to panic. I called the British embassy in Paris, sobbing hysterically.
We sorted it out, and I got on the plane. But as I sat there whiling away the hours, I could feel myself slipping back into a pattern I knew so well: I convinced myself that I’d started the competition off on the wrong foot, that I was doomed to fail. Although I’d started to put some of my past career failures behind me, that one small mishap completely unnerved me.
Halfway through the competition, the whole thing was a mess: I was leading in points but I’d picked up an injury. By the time the 800m race came round, I had no idea how I’d get through it. I hobbled down the track and about 300m in, I pulled my quad. I was in so much pain, but there was something inside telling me that I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t give in, not now.
Somehow, I came first. It was unbelievable. But I took away so much more than the gold medal. In that moment, everything I’d worked on physically and mentally since Rio just came together. It was the mental breakthrough I’d been trying to reach for so long: realising that anything is possible if I can just hold my nerve.”
“People said my time was up, so I proved them wrong”
Hannah Cockroft, 27, has won five Paralympic gold medals in wheelchair racing and holds the T34 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m world records.
“I don’t have a diagnosis for my disability, so finding out what I am capable of has always been trial and error. I had two heart attacks within 24 hours after I was born, which left me with brain damage. Doctors said I probably wouldn’t be able to walk or talk, but I taught myself to do both, although I can only manage a few steps.
I’ve learnt that strength is about finding your way through things and having that drive to carry on. When I lost my first major race at the European Championships in 2018, after seven years of being unbeaten, the media said that I’d lost my crown and my time was over. It hurt a lot, and for a while I lost my motivation. I just kept thinking, ‘What’s the point?’
In the end, I decided to flip the failure into an opportunity. I knew I wanted to be the best in the world, so reading the negative comments actually made me want to fight back and prove people wrong. Besides, with social media, you’re constantly open to people’s negativity. After the 2012 London Paralympics, there were more comments on Twitter about my acne than the fact that I’d just won two gold medals. That type of thing can really fester in your mind. I’ve had to work hard to look past it.
But everything paid off when I competed in the 2019 World Championships and regained my title. The overriding sensation wasn’t victory, it was relief that I hadn’t tricked myself into only thinking I could do it. My strongest moment might have come after defeat, but it’s also taken a lot of strength to get to where I am now.”
“In weightlifting, mental strength is key”
Zoe Smith, 25, made history in 2010 when she became the first English woman to win a medal in weightlifting at the Commonwealth Games. She currently holds four British ‘clean and jerk’ lift records.
“My strongest moment came when I lifted my personal best at the European Championships last year. I genuinely didn’t think I would be able to get 128kg over my head, so when I did I was so stunned that I almost dropped the bar! But the overarching emotion I felt was relief: I had been chasing that weight for years and I’d got there.
When I dislocated my shoulder at a qualification event for Rio 2016, it killed my Olympic dream dead in the water – but I wasn’t prepared to let it kill my career.
It was a rough summer in rehab and left me in a dark place, but I pushed myself to remember the bigger picture. This is what you sign up for: high risks but also high rewards. As a weightlifter, I tend to define strength in numbers. The weight I’m lifting is both my daily measure of how strong I’m feeling and my benchmark of success. But mental strength is just as important. You have to decide you’re going to lift the weight before you even attempt it, and that takes balls.
I remember saying to my old coach, ‘Wish me luck’, before my first competition. He told me, ‘You don’t need luck, you just need the opportunity.’ It is a mindset I’ve tried to adopt in every challenging situation since: remembering I’ve done the work and I just need the nerve to put it into practice.”
“Lessons I learned on the pitch helped me through a tough labour”
Rachel Yankey, 40, was the first woman to become England’s most capped football player, representing the country in 129 matches including the 2012 Olympics. She hung up her boots in 2016.
“In August 2017, I was on a hospital bed in a delivery room strapped up to machines – and 15 days past my pregnancy due date. During labour, my baby became distressed and passed meconium (pooed inside me).
Her heart rate rose and then rapidly dropped. Then panic. Suddenly, loads of doctors appeared. My boyfriend, Ozzie, was flustered, the midwife looked worried and although being told I needed an emergency caesarean terrified me, all I could do was focus on the people around me. I didn’t want to make my fears their fears.
Football made me think this way. To get through a challenge, I need to know the people in my team are happy and working in the most effective way. It also taught me that you can’t control what’s going to happen – only how you respond to it. To me, being strong means ensuring ‘my team’ are as prepared as possible. That’s how we get through things: together. Watching Ozzie hold our daughter, Jeyla, for the first time clarified this. I had my team, and we’d pulled through.”
“I’ve missed out on a lot, but medals make it worthwhile”
Kare Adenegan, 19, is a wheelchair sprinter with three Paralympic medals who won 2018’s BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year. She studies history and philosophy at Warwick University.
“I started racing at 11 and won my first Paralympic medal at 15 and my first senior gold at 17, but the hardest thing has been balancing my sport and academia. In 2017, I had a tough sporting season while also doing my GCSE exams. I was stressed and run down, stopped eating properly and lost a lot of weight. Training was difficult and I wasn’t as quick as I needed to be. My strongest moment came when
I realised that strength isn’t just about how you train, it’s about how you feel. I’ve learnt that you need to focus on yourself, block out any negative thoughts and distractions and find your own grind. With my sport and studies, I’ve missed out on a lot socially, but winning a medal makes the sacrifice worth it. In the 2018 Müller Anniversary Games, I broke the 100m world record. It’s achievements like that which give me the strength to carry on.”
“A male inner voice was telling me to quit”
Sally Gunnell, 53, won gold in the 400m hurdles at the 1992 Olympics. She still holds the British record and is the only woman ever to hold all four Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth titles at once.
“The year after I won gold, I learnt a lot about my strength. At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, I’d just known I was going to win despite not being the favourite – I was in the best shape of my life.
But the World Championships the following year was a different story. I felt the immense pressure of being number one, of a nation depending on me to defend the gold. Then five days before the race, I got ill. Shakes, headaches, a sore throat – it felt like my luck had run out. I decided I would still try to compete, but the doubt was creeping in. I struggled through the heats and semi-finals – then came the wait for the final.
Those 48 hours were some of the most challenging of my life. Every moment was about battling my negative inner voice, which interestingly sounded male. He just kept saying, ‘What are you doing? You’re not fit to do this.
Go home. Quit.’ But I fought it. I force-fed myself positive thoughts: ‘You’re an Olympic champion. You train hard. You’re just as good as everybody else.’ I spent a lot of time alone, willing myself over the finish line, visualising it.
On the day, I had no idea how I’d run. So when I realised I’d not only won, but broken a world record, I was in shock. Shocked at how powerful the mind is, how it got me round the track when my body was flagging. And I was still the best in the world.”
“I wanted to go out at the top, not as an ordinary athlete”
Caz Walton, 73, is one of our most decorated Paralympians, winning 10 gold, two silver and four bronze medals in wheelchair athletics, table tennis, swimming and fencing.
“From the get-go I was a cocky kid – I was convinced I was pretty good, and for a long time there weren’t many people who could beat me. After a run of triumphs since my first gold in 1964, I was in tip-top shape when the 1976 Paralympics came round. But I felt my grip start to slip when I didn’t come back with a win. My next shot was 1980, but days before the Games I was taken into hospital due to a faulty thyroid.
This was the start of a real barren spell. Years without any appreciable success, which doesn’t go down well with a competitive athlete. It’s an awful thing to say, but for me, if I’m not winning, I’m not succeeding. It’s just the way I’m built, I want to be number one. I had a constant question in the back of my mind: do I keep trying to regain that self-belief, or do I walk away?
It wasn’t until 1988 – 12 years later – that I got my next and final gold medal, and I consider those years my strong ‘moment’ because it took constant grinding and hard work to not give up. There are many athletes who go on too long and begin to be seen as ordinary rather than extraordinary. I didn’t want that. When I stepped away, I wanted to do it at the top – and, most importantly, on my own terms.”
“Laughter can pull you through times of fragility”
Denise Lewis, 47, won gold in the heptathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She holds the third highest score of any female British heptathlete.
“It was 1996 and I was on the crest of a wave. I’d already broken the British heptathlon record and I was in the top three in the world. It was the Atlanta Olympics and I felt confident. The first day went OK; I was in the top seven. But the next day, I jumped so badly.
I felt weak and I broke down crying. I completely lost it. The worst part was I still had two events to go. I walked back to my room, stretched, ate and saw my physio. He said, ‘If you pull this off, I’ll take my shirt off and run around the track.’ Which sounded puerile – he’s so serious usually – but it really cracked me up.
That evening, my javelin throw reached an impressive 50 metres and my next went even further. It was almost miraculous. Having never felt so deflated, I’d risen to the occasion. I went from seventh place right into bronze position. That experience showed me how self-belief, and laughter, can pull you through times of mental fragility.”
Images: Neil Bedford