By Will Moulton
“I just felt like a failure. I thought I’d failed at what I’d been trying to do and not only had I not achieved what I wanted, I just didn’t feel able to do anything.”
Being a professional athlete is a career full of extreme highs and, sometimes, extreme lows.
No-one knows this better – both literally and metaphorically – than GB trampolinist Laura Gallagher.
Having won team World and European gold medals in 2013 and 2014 respectively, she then claimed her maiden individual British title in 2017, producing several superb routines to top the podium at Liverpool’s Echo Arena.
But, just a few months before, Gallagher had seriously contemplated retiring from trampolining following long battles with confidence, identity and her mental health.
“I’d had a really tough few years with injury and I was struggling mentally quite badly. In 2016 it came to a head and I just knew I had to take some time out of the sport,” the 29-year-old recalled.
“After failing to successfully come back from an injury I’d sustained two years before, I’d had a series of bad performances which really knocked my confidence and I couldn’t really nail it on the floor.
“This was all in the build-up to Rio – I felt lost, was really struggling and knew that I would be coming off funding because of my results.
“My last chance to qualify for the Olympics blew up at the European trials and after that I really struggled to deal with the situation I was in. I just felt awful.”
“I knew that I was struggling inside”
Finding herself at the lowest point of her career, Gallagher took the decision to step away from the sport in late 2016.
What she hadn’t realised though was that it wasn’t just at work where things were bad; it was in her day-to-day life too.
“I was really struggling to function normally,” the Bridgwater-based athlete recalled.
“I thought I was outwardly quite ok but I knew that I was struggling inside.
“I didn’t really know how to talk about it or how I was feeling, I didn’t really know what was going on. I was quite emotional a lot of the time and it was a really strange place to be in.”
“I felt useless about everything”
One issue particularly affecting Gallagher was the constant nagging sensation that she hadn’t reached her full potential.
But rather than verbalise her frustrations, she let them bubble up inside her until they spilled over in seemingly the most innocuous of circumstances.
Remembering the incident, the 2012 European individual bronze medalist said: “It’s quite funny really, I was on holiday with my now-husband, we were playing table tennis and I got really upset because he won a game. I hit the ball and I just walked off.
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“That moment upset me because when I was younger I used to play table tennis to quite a high level, it was something I was good at. Suddenly everything I thought I was good at I wasn’t any more.
“It sounds ridiculous and something so small but it was affecting me in all areas of my life, the feeling that I hadn’t achieved. I didn’t know how to get through it or who to talk to.
“My husband was amazing but he was struggling to understand that behaviour, why I was getting so upset over a table tennis match. But it wasn’t just about that match – it was that I felt useless about everything. It was hard for him to understand why or what he could do to help.”
At this precise moment, it suddenly dawned on Gallagher just how close to rock bottom she was.
“I was trying to be myself and be fun to be around because I’m normally a very happy, bubbly person but things were just awful at the time,” she said.
“I didn’t want to go to sleep, I couldn’t sleep at all because I didn’t want to wake up the next day and go through it all again. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do or achieving what I wanted to achieve. I just felt a bit lost and didn’t know how to get back on track.”
“That helped gradually remind me who I was”
In an unusual turn of events, it was a job interview – for many a highly stressful experience – that was to prove the spark that ignited the start of her recovery.
She immediately struck up a relationship with the woman who was to become her boss –Anne Dowds – who subsequently encouraged Gallagher to take up another of the sports she had excelled at when she was younger.
“At the interview I really connected with Anne,” the 2007 U19 world champion recalled.
“You have to really sell yourself, talk about your strengths and why you’d be good for that job. I realised I’d done this, I’d done that, I’d got this experience and I was not totally useless. That helped gradually remind me of who I was.
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“I used to play hockey at school and Anne is a massive hockey fan so on the first day of my job she asked: ‘What are you doing on Saturday? Can you play hockey?’ I said I could and I just started playing for Taunton Vale 4s and loved it.
“I loved playing and learning how to win and lose again without it meaning anything; the only thing that mattered was enjoyment. That got me back enjoying sport and I gradually started to feel more and more like me again while also learning a lot about myself in the process.”
Gallagher’s new job with a company called Five Rivers also played a crucial role in helping her control her demons.
Five Rivers helps children who have undergone serious hardship and trauma to re-engage with their communities, offering a huge array of services to cater for a wide variety of needs and help turn lives around.
By sharing their own experiences with Gallagher, they were unwittingly providing her with the support she needed to confront her own issues.
She also believes they helped change her perspective on not just her sporting career, but her life in general and encouraged her to return to trampolining.
“Working with these amazing young people and trying to help get them back on track in their lives, they inspired and helped me without realising it. I grew at the same time as the children and that helped me in my sport,” she explained.
“I came back because I wanted to enjoy it and I wanted that as my main reason – it doesn’t matter what happens after, I’m going to give it 100% and that’s all I’m going to ask of myself.”
Seeing the children overcoming such hardship also gave Gallagher the chance to re-evaluate how she approached her sport, understanding that there is more to life at being good at your job and that she should be immensely proud of what she’d already achieved.
“There’s loads of different feelings but the most important one is that I lost my way. I lost complete perspective on what’s important.
“I didn’t really deal with or let go of the injuries and the difficult times. I was always so hard on myself, I never really gave myself credit for any of the things I did in between those injuries – I won major championship medals, individually and with a team.
“Because I went through that transition I now feel like I don’t have anything to fear and that I’ll be ok after sport because I’ve done lots of things and I’ve learned a lot.
“Sport gives you the biggest life lessons, bigger than many jobs – I can’t think of anything other job like it as you’re putting everything into it mentally and physically.”
“I feel much more whole and not in two parts”
Gallagher had planned on retiring at the end of the 2017 season, aiming to leave the sport she had given more than a decade of service to on a high.
Yet that first gold – following on from a win at the French Masters shortly before – proved that she still had plenty left to give trampolining.
This was further confirmed as she was part of the team – including Olympic finalist Kat Driscoll and the highly promising Isabelle Songhurst – that won World Championship bronze just a few weeks later, her sixth major championship medal.
Not only had the enjoyment returned and the fire been reborn; she was back battling with the world’s best.
The following year was certainly a busy one for Gallagher, as she crammed in several major events – including an individual World Championship – around studying for her degree and the small matter of getting married.
Now a full-time athlete once again, the journey of trying to ensure Great Britain will have athletes at Tokyo 2020 began at a World Cup meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan earlier this month.
But rather than focusing on the end goals – no matter how tantalising they may be – all Gallagher wants to do is enjoy her sport and see how far she can go with a clear mind.
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As for her mental health, she is also confident that she has overcome the worst of it and is now in a much stronger position to deal with anything that trampolining, and life, can throw at her.
“I’m just really excited to get the opportunity to go through the year, hopefully be a part of the Olympic qualification process and just see where it takes me,” she said.
“I feel a lot clearer now, I’ve let go of everything that’s happened before and I feel much more committed as a whole person, not just physically but also mentally, to putting myself out there and not being afraid to fail.
“You can’t really fail if you’re trying to do something and if you don’t try you’re not going to get it anyway. I feel much more whole and not in two parts.”
Image 3 credit: Mike Driscoll. Other images with thanks to Laura Gallagher.
Listen to Laura’s full interview on the podcast here.
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