There can be no easy way to call time on a career in a sport that has defined your life. But to call time on that career and shine a light on some of your darkest moments must come with added difficulties. But face up to those difficulties Michael Jamieson did as he ended his illustrious time in the sport of swimming while revealing the depression that had dogged him in the latter part of his career.
Talk of depression in elite athletes is becoming more and more commonplace; the rugby players association’s current “lift the weight” campaign, symptomatic of a deeper level of understand of the mental struggle sportsmen and women go through as they seek to become and remain the best. But still it comes as a shock to think of our top sportsmen and women struggling in that way.
Jamieson’s Olympic silver medal winning performance in 2012 was the high point of an otherwise underwhelming campaign in the pool. But there was more to it than just a medal; Jamieson’s performance was symptomatic of everything we love about the Olympics. It was the way, for the public at large at least, he came from seemingly nowhere to the brink of Olympic gold. The way he seemed to grow in that environment rather than shrink away from it that captured the imagination. The sacrifices he had made to be there, that uplifted. And most of all it was the way he simply seemed to be enjoying himself that was infectious.
But it was a moment of enjoyment that was fleeting as we now know. The Olympic come-down is well documented but things still seemed to be going well in the pool until injury wrecked his world championships hopes in Barcelona. He ended the year ranked second in the world over 200m breaststroke but that was when the depression hit and the lows started. As Jamieson revealed to David Walsh in the Sunday Times, he was not going training, dogged by questions such as “What am I doing here? All I have to show for 20 years of work is a medal. What does that mean?”
A prescription for anti-depressants helped, but all the time he was the poster boy for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, the swimmer who would get the team off to a winning start. Carrying a nation’s hopes cannot be easy at the best of times, but in a fragile mental state must have been draining in the extreme. That he was able to hold his head high through Commonwealth silver behind teammate Ross Murdoch speaks volumes for his character but the reality is that it was the beginning of the end of his swimming. A switch to the University of Edinburgh was not enough to reinvigorate his times and to all intents and purposes a veil was drawn over his career in the same Glasgow pool where it had started as he fell short of the 2016 Olympic team.
But that does not detract from the highs, which were very high. That Olympic swim will live long in the memory for British swimming fans, and for those lucky enough to be there it is an uplifting experience they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. That such joy shared could ultimately lead to such crushing lows alone is heart-breaking. But as elegant as he was in the pool, Michael Jamieson was eloquent and brave out of it as he revealed his plight, one that he thankfully now seems to putting behind him as he moves to the next phase of his life. And here’s hoping it’s a long and happy one.