“It felt like the end of the world stopping gymnastics but actually I realised there are so many people that go through so much more outside of the sporting world.”
Isle of Man gymnast Grace Harrison had a well-thought-out plan after her historic achievements at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
But that plan didn’t pan out as expected. Instead it ended in retirement at the age of 23.
In 2014, Harrison became the first Manx female gymnast to make it to a Commonwealth Games final at the age of 19.
Following that piece of history, she immediately targeted the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games as her next big goal.
Injuries, however, dismantled that dream and threw a curveball in the direction of the gymnast.
It was something the Mintridge Foundation ambassador struggled to come to terms with but, incredibly, it was a serious bout of illness – namely Sepsis – that set her on the road to recovery.
Listen to the podcast episode below
“Classic case of injuries!” Harrison said on her decision to retire when she did.
“The well-thought-out plan was to go to the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and then, after that, it would coincide with me finishing university, I’d finish gymnastics and then I’d move on to the real world.
“Unfortunately, my plan didn’t go as I expected.
“A year before the games I got an ankle injury. I recovered from the ankle injury and a week after getting back into training I had ligament damage in my elbow.
“The timing was just rubbish and it didn’t give me enough time to get back to the level I needed to be at to perform.
“Unfortunately, I had to decide to hang up my handguards at 23.”
“I was very lost”
The Gold Coast plan was something Harrison had set her mind on.
The self-proclaimed ‘well-structured’ athlete was programmed to tick things off as she went but when the injuries came along it threw her a curveball she struggled to deal with.
“I was very lost. You set out a plan and you know what you want to do,” she said.
“I’m a very structured person – I plan everything and tick it off as it goes along.
“But actually, you get faced with a curveball and it’s different than you planned and expected.
“You kind of have to re-evaluate and decide what’s important now. Up until that point all that was important was gymnastics and, at the time, my degree.
“But I went from having both of them to finishing my gymnastics and finishing my degree within the space of a few months.
“I went from having so much on, things I’d always done, to feeling like I had nothing and no direction.”
In reality it took a year for Harrison to come to terms with the fact she had retired.
But admitting it in public was a different thing all together.
“If someone asked me what I did I’d still say ‘I’m a gymnast’,” she explained.
“I was holding to that bit of hope that a miracle recovery would happen, and I would be back competing.
“I actually went through a stage of resenting the sport – ‘I hate it, why is it making me feel so rubbish, and not having any idea of what I wanted to do.’
“But it was a case of going through that process and shifting focus.
“I think delving back into gymnastics in a coaching way after I finished university helped me fall back in love with the sport.
“I coached six, seven and eight-year-olds and seeing their innocence and their enjoyment for the sport helped.
“They weren’t there to win medals at that stage or go to the commonwealth games.
“They were there because they love the sport and they love their teammates.
“I think that made me understand why I first got involved in it.
‘Actually, it wasn’t about reaching that final goal that I’d set for myself. It was about seeing all the lessons that I’d learnt along the way.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am without going through everything I did.”
“It made me realise how precious life is”
Harrison had already been through plenty mentally following her retirement.
But, towards the end of her time at university, a mysterious development of sepsis threw her the biggest curveball of all.
The life-threatening condition put the former gymnast in intensive care, but it proved to be an experience that helped her gain a sense of perspective.
“As I finished my university degree, in the summer, I got really ill and I had sepsis,” she said.
“I was in ICU and I spent a week or so in the hospital.
“That was a big point of reflection for me. It made me realise how precious life is and how much it’s not about whether you compete at a sport.
“It’s about the people around you and what you enjoy and why you enjoy it.
“I think that put everything into perspective.
“It felt like the end of the world stopping gymnastics but actually I realised there are so many people that go through so much more outside of the sporting world.
“What I went through in retirement from the sporting world was just a tiny thing that is so much easier to overcome than what other people face.”
Interview and words: Alasdair Hooper
A special thank you to The Mintridge Foundation for helping us secure this interview
Image credits: With thanks to The Mintridge Foundation
All music in this episode is courtesy of Otis McDonald.