SWIMNEWS ONLINE: February 1996 Magazine Articles

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You Have to Listen to Your Body

Ian Wilson's Battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Anita Lonsbrough

How often have we heard coaches say to their swimmers "You're not working hard enough." But that wasn't the case for 23-year-old Ian Wilson of Great Britain. In May, 1993, things started to go wrong for Ian and so began his tale of "never give up."

Ian started struggling to hit his target times in training. He had the feeling of being very tired, of having incredibly heavy, aching muscles, especially in the arms, and his sleep patterns were erratic. Although no one told him at the time (but people tell him now), "you were looking tired, always yawning, quite irritable and snappy."

A poor performance at the British National Championships brought matters to a head. Not only was Ian suffering from aching muscles but his pulse was high. Blood tests taken by David Fodden, the meet medical officer, showed several irregularities.

On the eve of the British team being announced for the European Championships, which that year were held in Sheffield, Ian visited Dr. Richard Budget, the medical officer at the British Olympic Medical Centre. Dr. Budget's instructions to Ian were to "withdraw from the team or you could face the possibility of ending up with an illness similar to M.E." This shook him.

Ian was devastated by this directive. There he was, he thought a fit athlete training for an important event, being told if he continued at the same rate he could well suffer for the rest of his life.

The diagnosis was that Ian had been training at too high an intensity with insufficient recovery built into his program, and this had caused muscle damage resulting in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Training on his own, where he averaged 85 km each week and sometimes more than 95 km, had made him oblivious of the warning signs.

So gone were his aspirations of adding another European silver medal in the 1500 m to the one he'd collected two years earlier. Never had Ian felt so isolated. It was a long, lonely summer. He felt let down by people he considered to be his friends. They didn't contact him, whether it was because they didn't know what to say or because they were busy with their own training and racing programs, he doesn't know. But the support and understanding from his family, especially his mother, helped him through the darkest days, as he started the slow, long haul back to what he hoped would be full fitness. But there were no guarantees-it might take six months, 12 months, or never happen, no one knew. The last possibility was one he did not and would not consider.

Throughout Ian Wilson's career, results had always come slowly. He started entering races at the age of eight, following his older sister Lynne, who finished 16th in the 200 m butterfly at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Four years went by before he won his first age group medal. Ian was 14 when he competed for the first time in the 1500 m. A further year passed before he made the victor's rostrum.

Wilson with mascot was a close second and a silver in Rio.
For larger 64k photo click on image.

Used to training over fours hours daily, Ian was allowed in the water for just 20 minutes for light exercise every other day. This was slowly increased to 30 minutes at a time, with two days in the water and one out. Each stage lasted for some six weeks, during which time Ian's body was recovering from the physical strain it had taken. Once during each six week session, Ian visited Harrow so that his progress could be assessed. If his body was not coping with the extra swimming, then it was one step backwards to the schedule he'd done the previous week. What was he to do with all the spare time? That was easy. Swimming was his life, so what was more natural than to go down to his club, City of Sunderland, and help out with the youngsters? After all, he has passed his assistant teacher's exams and coaching is one of the occupations he may consider when eventually retiring from the competitive side of the sport.

PLACE Sunderland
HEIGHT 6 ft. 0 in. / 182 cm
WEIGHT 160 lbs / 72 kg
HOME Leeds
OCCUPATION Sports Administration
REPRESENTS City of Leeds
COACH Terry Denison
94 Commonwealths 4th 1500 free 15:08.77
92 Olympics 5th 1500 free 15:13.35
LC Best 400 free 3:56.01, 1500 free 15:03.72
SC Best 400 free 3:47.25 1500 free 14:40.69

Just over four months after being diagnosed as having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Ian was back up to a full week's training. Dr. Budget, happy with his progress, said he could start increasing the intensity of the workload. But he was warned that he must be aware of several danger signs, such as tiredness, high resting pulse, and irritability.

In the past, Ian had been trained through the post by Ian Armiger, who had moved from Sunderland to Bradford, but now he felt he needed daily monitoring so as not to suffer a repeat of the past. There was no reason why he had to stay in Sunderland, having completed his degree in Business Studies and gaining a 2.1. So after discussion with Terry Denison, he moved south to Leeds. The illness had taught Ian various things about himself. He knew he must listen to his body. A racing resting pulse meant something was not quite right and forever being tired was not natural. He now claims his illness has taught him to be patient.

Ian was and still is a highly motivated person and settles for nothing but the best, but he now knows that some days his body cannot take as much as other days. He has to admit to himself "Oh well, today I cannot handle that." It was and still is hard for him to accept, and very frustrating. Although Terry Denison and his teammates may both agree Ian feels more relaxed and not so tense during his training, they have nothing to compare him to.

In January, 1994, Ian was given the go-ahead to compete for the first time in six months but was warned not to put himself under any pressure or stress. He chose a British Grand Prix meet in Gloucester. It was like turning the clock back 10 years and learning to race just as he did when he first competed over the l500 m at the age of 14, six years after entering his first competition. Ian felt a little apprehensive, for at this stage his training was still inconsistent. He felt frustrated but was encouraged with the way he swam the 1500 m in 15:19 (short course).

But there was still a long way to go to regain international selection. At the Edinburgh International Meet held over the Easter period, he swam l5:36, failing by six seconds to achieve a Commonwealth Games qualifying time. He had just one last chance at the National Championships at the end of July. But another setback caused more heartache. The feeling of tiredness and having heavy aching muscles returned. Blood tests showed abnormalities as before. So once again Ian was advised to ease off the intensity of his preparation. A training camp in Tallahassee, USA, gave Ian the chance to get in some hard work in ideal conditions. A mental boost had been planned at the beginning of July when he went to Vienna to compete. He had been hoping for a good time to set him up for the Nationals later that month. Instead of a confidence booster, it was a mental blow as his time of 15:59 was his slowest since 1987. At the Nationals he qualified for the England Commonwealth Games Team and so was back on the international scene. Up against the three world class Australians, Ian finished just one place out of the medals. His performance in Victoria qualified him for the World Championships in Rome. But six tough 1500s in just five weeks were taking their toll and he finished seventh.

Competing with the best on the world scene and producing the fourth fastest time in the world that year gave him the encouragement he needed to carry on. Ending 1994 on a much happier note than it had started, Ian could look forward to 1995. But things did not go well that winter and with the trial in April, he did not have enough time to gain the fitness level to produce the qualifying standard. Third at the trials outside the required mark was another blow and yet a further mountain to climb. By the National Championships in July, he was inside the benchmark laid down for the Europeans but at this late stage there was no chance of being added to the team.

So an early break allowed him to commence training again in September. His time at the Nationals was inside the World Short Course qualification. Fifteen British swimmers qualified for Worlds but only five, including Ian, accepted the invitation to compete.

It had been a long time coming but a personal best by over seven seconds in Rio de Janeiro delighted him. His time of 14:49.72 gave him the silver medal, just one second behind Daniel Kowalski, who is the world number two behind his Australian teammate Kieren Perkins.

This was just the tonic Ian had wanted, as he claimed "This has given me confidence. I know I'm better long course." Just ten days later at the National Winter Championships, that confidence was reflected in a British record swim of 14:40.69, taking another nine seconds off his best.

With three candidates Wilson needs to be at his best in March to earn a spot on the British Olympic team.
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Now everything back to normal, Ian is in hard training for the British Olympic Trials in March, where he knows he will have to be at his best for three swimmers will be aiming for the two places at stake. The other two are Graeme Smith, the European silver medallist, and Paul Palmer, the European silver medallist in the 400 m freestyle.

After all that Ian has withstood over the past few years, he is a lot wiser. His illness has taught him "you have to listen to your body," when things are at their worst, the only way is up, never give up hope, stay positive with your aims firmly in place, and nothing is impossible.

His few hours work in the greyhound department of The Press Association and in the administration office of Leeds Sports Department help him forget about swimming.

Now aged 25, Ian still has an appetite for the sport and will only consider retirement when he no longer enjoys training and racing. Swimming or sports administration are his main hopes for life after racing, and already he is getting used to committee work by being the swimmers' representative on the ASA Swimming Technical Committee. He was also recently elected as Chairman of the Athletes' Council. Ian hopes all that is still a long way off, for his thirst for success has not been quenched. So more medals could be coming his way.

After all, a winner never quits and a quitter never wins.

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