We aim to publish meaningful stories of perseverance amidst mental health struggles.
At a young age, I always struggled with self-confidence and feeling like I was different; less important than everyone else because of my additional learning needs. While attending school, I grew up feeling negative as I struggled with all aspects of school life. However, I found that sport really helped me get through the education that I consistently found stressful and difficult.
Swimming became my way of escaping my issues. I could take my frustrations out in the water, which in turn would relax my anxiety. As I got a bit older and became more successful in the pool, my confidence started to grow, and my anxiety and depression became more manageable. I know that my mental health issues will be with me for life but if you can find something to make them fade away, even for just a little while, then that’s the best option, and swimming was my way.
I’m now 24 and engaged to my lovely fiancé Isobel, and father of a lovely boy called Finley. My swimming career is nearing its end; but I’ve been very successful, winning multiple international medals representing GB and Wales. The highlight of my career was a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, followed that same year with double silver and bronze in the European Championships.
Swimming will always be a big part of my life. I’m looking to progress on to coaching and teaching swimming when I retire, and I will still compete in Master’s competitions all over Britain.
My mental health took a nosedive in 2016, and I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PTSD. Since then, I’ve had a lot of dark days, sometimes lasting for months.
This massively affected my life; but one thing I can honestly say, most of the really dark times happened when I wasn’t swimming. I hid away from the one thing that saved me over and over again. Swimming is indeed my lifeline; it has a huge positive influence on me, and it changed my life for the better. I don’t know where I would be without it. It truly saved me, and I want people to know that doing activities and sports are one way to take on your mental health issues. Don’t let those issues take over your life, you have to fight them.
One of the biggest things I’ve ever had to overcome happened the year after going to the Commonwealth Games and the European Para Swimming Championships. In 2015 I broke my wrist after qualifying for the World Para Swimming Championships, and because of this I had to withdraw.
During this stressful time, I was promised a lot of support through British Swimming (the national governing body of swimming), but sadly, I didn’t receive any.
Instead of support, I was given an ultimatum. They told me that I would only be able to hold my place on the GB Para Swim Programme if I competed at British Nationals and achieved a time close to my personal-best in one of my events. This was a big ask in itself because I had been in plaster for 8 weeks and could not train properly during that time.
However, despite the odds, I turned up to British Nationals and got a personal-best time which I thought would guarantee my place on the team. I was happy and relieved. Two weeks later, I received a call saying that I was no longer going to be on the team. Something that stuck with me after that phone call was the fact that they said, “good luck with your future”, like they weren’t going to see me again. As though I was just going to walk away from swimming.
The call made me feel like I wasn’t good enough – that they didn’t think I was good enough! Would this mean that in the future, if I made the qualifying times for teams, would they or wouldn’t they select me? If they can’t abide by an offer they made me, then what would stop them from doing the exact same thing again and again?
In that same week, Billy, my coach and best friend of 5 years had to move to a different club abroad which also hit me really hard. I lost faith in British Swimming and more importantly, lost faith in myself.
That week was the hardest week of my life. My depression got worst and so did my anxiety, to the point that I didn’t want to leave my house. This went on for about 6 months…
I didn’t train, and my quality of life declined as I didn’t care for anything. Overcoming this was the biggest task in my life, so I eventually made a move to Nofio Conwy in North Wales to train under my brother Chris, and I found that swimming fixed me once more.
It was really hard to start with, however I got back into it and after about six weeks of solid, hard training, I competed at Welsh Nationals in Swansea and earned four personal-best times, one European record and one World Record, which made me ecstatic and hungry for more. I wanted to prove to British Swimming that I was still in the game. Since my broken wrist and being deselected from the GB Para team, I’ve progressed to winning medals at British nationals, being selected for World championships in Mexico and I also achieved a fifth place in Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast in 2018.
I still struggle with intermittent mental health problems, accompanied by intermittent swim training. I always get overwhelmed by the feeling that I’m not good enough.
I just can’t get rid of this feeling of not being good enough. When the swimming fell apart, that sense of failure returned with a vengeance.
The fight continues, but there is no doubt in my mind that swimming helps me deal with my mental health.
Although my swimming career is coming to an end, I still plan on succeeding. My future targets are to qualify for the next Commonwealth Games in Birmingham; if they have an S14 male event (S14 is a classification for “swimmers with intellectual disabilities”). I can’t pass up the opportunity of a Home Games, as the atmosphere will be phenomenal.
I’m currently training in a club called Soundwell Swimming in Bristol. It’s a great club with a very understanding coach – John Wills. It has a very positive atmosphere in every session I attend.
I’m currently living with my family in my fiancée's parent's home - and I’m very grateful for this and enjoy all their company.
There are a lot of people who have truly influenced me in a positive way.
My fiancée Isobel has stuck by me during some dark times and she motivates me to train. Even when our son Finley was new-born, and it was difficult for me to leave them, she pushed me to train, even though I didn’t want to leave her or my son.
Sarah and Ken, her parents, have also been amazing, supporting me in so many ways and I’m so grateful to have such amazing future in-laws.
My mum Wendy has been a massive part of my life, taking me to swimming lessons when I was just three, up until I was seven, then driving me to training as I progressed into club sessions. At my peak I was training around 24 hours a week and she would be there every session, and in between those sessions she would be fuelling me with amazing food to keep me going through the hard blocks of training.
Another person I would like to mention is Billy, who coached me for 5 years. When I was training with Billy, I attended all sessions without any issues; he has such a great personality. He would coach me, and I would get all pumped up and I would smash the session even when I was tired. Most coaches these days will sit at the end of a pool with a clipboard, but Billy would run up and down the pool endlessly watching our technique and encouraging us to go faster. Not only was he a great coach, he became my friend and mentor. I would regularly turn up early to sessions and have a chat about issues I have in my life and he would give me guidance.
Also, I can’t forget my dad Mark and my big brother Chris. They both coached me and helped me when I felt low. They still do.
I remember when we went on a family holiday to Spain, and my parents found a 50m pool so I could continue training while my dad coached me. Chris has also been a massive part in my life after letting me move in with him to train in Nofio Conwy, he helped take me out of a very dark time. He's nine years older than me and I admire his patience and guidance greatly.
Lastly, I can’t forget my best friend Jordan; my training partner for a couple of years, who will always answer the phone to me no matter what time of a day or night it is. He speaks to me for hours when I have been severely depressed; I wouldn’t be here without him, and I’m very lucky to have such a good friend.
I strongly urge anybody with mental health issues to try and find something you really enjoy doing. Although things can be really tough there is always a way to make things a little better.
I really hope that this article helps and inspires anyone struggling with mental health issues. I would be happy to talk to anybody who’s struggling. You can just drop me a message via my Twitter or email below and I’ll try and help best I can.
Jack Thomas is currently 24 years of age, and he lives in Bristol with his fiancé and son. He’s a decorated professional swimmer, with several medals, and represented Wales at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. His favourite food is a Sunday roast, he loves dogs, and he spends most of his free time in the gym.