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Spofforth: Rescued From The Depths

May 9, 2012  - Craig Lord

When Gemma Spofforth races alongside a shoal of world-class swimmers at the Charlotte Ultra meet in the midst of heavy training this week, her very presence will be a triumph, her story an inspiration for teammates and the wider world of those who feel more keenly the fragile side of being human.

As double Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington said through British Gas, sponsor to the host nation's Olympic swim team: "Everything that Gemma has gone through in her career and with her family, her story is amazing. I just look at her and think “how are you still here?”

"I find Gemma so inspiring, just even listening to her. Everyone has their story of stuff that they have had to overcome, but hers’ is inspirational. She comes back fighting and, instead of being knocked down more by it, she gets up and fights it.

"Other people do that on the team as well and I think that is why we do so well. British swimmers are very resilient and that is one of the good traits we all have. Others like Fran Halsall, who came back from a bad injury, have shown that, too. Lots of us are doing really well and Gemma is going to be right up there challenging for a medal in London, definitely."

In an upcoming edition of the SwimNews Magazine, we consider the three families of Gemma Spofforth, the hugely significant role played by the Gators in Florida, where the programme run by coach Gregg Troy has served not only as a  place where the British world record holder has worked hard at honing her talent and skill but served too as a haven when the storm of storms raged through her life.

Some 10 weeks out from a home Olympic Games, Spofforth finds herself in a good place with a bright future ahead of her. Today, we consider the journey  she has endured (a version of the below appeared in The Sunday Times, London, this week).

A young woman stands on the 23rd-floor balcony of a towering Gold Coast apartment block overlooking the Pacific Ocean, beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see bathed in silver moonlight, the sound of spilling waves washing up on the warm night air of a late Australian summer. All is not what it seems.

She is blind to the beauty of it all, her lone and lonely thought to be or not to be: "Is the concrete hard enough? I could jump right now. I could escape. I would not have to deal with it, wouldn't have to think, wouldn't have to worry."

A debate begins inside her head. "Jump," says an insistent voice. "You can't," chimes in another. "Look at your family, your life, look at what you do. You're a crisis counsellor for God's sake."

"It would be so much easier this way," says the first voice, only to be immediately countered by the other.

"There's no way you can jump right now because that would make you the biggest hypocrite in the world. How many times have you talked others down?" it says.

Eventually she steps away from the edge of the balcony and sits down. For now the despairing impulse has passed. 

This is no ordinary woman. This is high achiever Gemma Spofforth, World and European champion. Just over ten weeks from now she will race for Britain at the London Olympics, a 24-year-old in the prime of her life yet a year ago, it was not swimming she came close to quitting but life itself. 

Olympic athletes typically present a facade of stony-faced certainty to the world: they are dedicated to bringing out the best in themselves - and winning. 

Expect much talk of "heroes" and "triumphs" this summer in Britain but Spofforth's tale shows that in the midst of the stars of the Olympic show are people just like you and I, far from impervious to the worries and insecurities that afflict the human condition, their greater triumph life's journey. 

Born in Shoreham-by-Sea in West Sussex on November 17, 1987, Spofforth had a happy childhood with her close-knit family, mother Lesley, father Mark and younger brother Peter. It was quickly apparent that she was an outstanding swimmer. Even in a sport where precocity is the norm, she turned heads, winning a senior European short-course bronze medal over 200m backstroke at the age of 17 at the end of a year in which she fell shy of making the Olympic team for Athens.

Her mother was the rock on which her success was built. A maths teacher, Lesley knew how to make hard work count. The bill for piano lessons was paid on condition that Gemma practised for at least an hour every evening. On swimming race days, Gemma was subject to similar strictures. "No talking until you've eaten something," her mother said. "Because otherwise you'll be too grumpy and tired to say anything worthwhile."

There were endless lunches packed, journeys to training and Portsmouth High School, flowers left at home for the athlete every time mum could not make it to a competition (a habit she kept up when Spofforth moved to Florida in 2006, bouquets waiting for her at her dorm every big race day), hugs, kisses, praise (only when deserved), encouragement and support when the chips were down.

In 2005, Spofforth developed pancreatitis, was placed on a drip feed, an experience she refers to as the second reason why, years later, in the depths of depression and seeking solace in self-harm,  she could never include anorexia or bulimia among her cries for help. The first was being born with a cleft palate that deprived her of the gag reflex she would have needed to force herself to vomit.

Illness cost her all but a year in the pool and reduced her chances of a sports scholarship at American college. British coach Ian Armiger took the case to then Britain performance director Bill Sweetenham and both recommended Spofforth for the Gators programme at the University of Florida.

“She was sick, she was on the fringe of being out of the sport,” head Gators coach Gregg Troy tells me. “There was a lot of doubt because you could look at that and say her’s was a career going down the tubes. For us she was a calculated risk, a very good one as it turned out. The intangible that we didn't know at the time was that she is just a wonderful person. All the hardships relative to her mother’s passing contributed to making her a better athlete.”

As Dorothy Lesley Spofforth lay at the St Wildrid’s Hospice in Chichester fighting bowel cancer, she insisted that her daughter stay in Florida and pursue her Olympic dream but not being there for her mum, dad Mark and brother Peter left the swimmer feeling guilty.

"To be honest, she was a mess. I didn't think she was gonna make it," said Martyn Wilby, a former pupil of Armiger's in Darlington now a quarter of a century into his own American adventure and a man Spofforth describes as "my second dad". It was Wilby who took the call from Mark Spofforth in late 2007. The life was draining from his wife. Within 24 hours, the swimmer was back in Britain, the haste driven by a coach who 20 years before as a student in Kentucky in “a time before Facebook, Twitter and Skype" did not get home in time to say goodbye to his own mother. 

Gemma made it back only at the last minute: her mother died the day after she arrived from Florida in December 2007. "I cried but I was confused too: why was I not as upset as I had thought I would be?" she recalls. "I hugged Dad because I thought he needed it more than I did." 

Spofforth's farewell was all too brief: her mother died the day after she arrived from Florida. After the funeral, the swimmer cloaked herself in steely determination. Wilby recalls: “She told me 'I'm ok and this is where I am now but I want you to make sure that you never use my mother's passing away as motivation and I want you to let all the other coaches know that … It's been like that ever since. She used it herself."

And how. By spring she had retained a US college crown for the first time and made the Britain team for the Beijing Olympics, where she finished a frustrating fourth twice, in the 100m backstroke and as a member of the national 4x100m medley quartet, which she led in a European backstroke record that would have earned her silver in the solo event had she swum as fast for herself. 

All the while, was suffering underneath. In the run-up to Beijing she admits she had left her university dorm one day with the intention of stepping out in front of a car to blunt the pain she could not shake.

"I didn't care that I'd made the Olympic team, I just wanted Mum back," she says now. "I walked out of my house with no idea what I was doing, where I was going: 'I'll walk out in front of a car and that'll be the easiest thing'. I'm still not sure what stopped me. There were no cars around at the time. That helped. But there was also a little flicker of hope left inside me and I turned back."

Embodying the "wounded healer", she tried to volunteer for a local crisis centre that helps those in despair. But she was told she had to wait a year on the grounds that no one who has had suicidal thoughts in any 12-month period is allowed to help others. That served as therapy, a constant reminder to stay happy. Just months after she was accepted, Spofforth was so successful that they made her an associate counsellor charged with running mercy dashes through the night.

The team player in Spofforth, the constant craving to help others, cuts to the heart of her story. "She’s a great team person, she has a great understanding, feel, for other people," says coach Troy.

The busier she kept herself, the happier she was, the harder she worked and the faster she got in the pool. Heavy with the portraits of generations of Olympic greats, the Gators Champions wall of honour that overlooks the university pool in Gainesville is graced with a smiling Spofforth, alone as a five-times NCAA (American College) champion and in a team as the captain of the victorious college in the 2009-2010 season.

“She a great leader, a motivator,” says Troy of the British champion who he asked to play surrogate captain to the men’s team too, so good were her "bonding skills". 

In July 2009, Spofforth raced in the world-title 100m backstroke final in the same lane 5 of the Foro Italico in Rome in which Anita Lonsborough had raced to Olympic gold for Britain over 200m breaststroke back in 1960. Before the race, she blew a kiss skyward. A world-record 58.12sec later, the gold medal was dedicated to Spofforth's mum.

Wilby and Troy both see Spofforth’s nature and nurture of others at a time when she was drowning in her own sorrow as the greater triumph. “Beyond what she's accomplished as an athlete she is a genuinely good person,” says Troy. “The caring side of her helped make the people around her better. Consequently they were all supportive of her when she was going through all those hard times.”

Her college career over, the 2010 season delivered the European 100m title and three silver medals at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi but Spofforth was struggling to handle the demands of swimming, crisis centre and other voluntary work while facing temporary exile from the US as her Green Card application went through the immigration mill.

Unable to be "home" until her visa came through, Spofforth travelled to Australia in February 2011 with Britain team members knowing that her dad’s new partner, June White, had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

“The phone calls back home leave me feeling miserable and empty. June is not doing well. I think about mum all the time and draw parallels. Everything floods back, including that painful understanding that I wasn't there for mum and dad back then and now I'm not there for dad and June,” Spofforth writes in “Dealing With It - Five Years of Mourning, Medals and Men”.

Due out after the London Olympics this year, the book was penned "because I want other people who are going through the same thing or know someone going through the same thing - and don't really know how to deal with it - to know their feelings, no matter how deep and dark, are valid”.

Recalling her crisis on the balcony in Australia, Spofforth writes: “An incessant, grim voice burrows deeper into my mind. After conversations with my father about events back home there is no rest from the thoughts crashing through my head. Deeper now, more raw, my worry, my pain bite into my heart. One moment the seascape is there, the next it is gone, lost in the dark cloud of depression in which I'm suffocating slowly. Nature's gift, the spectacular view before me, is blocked by one overriding thought: the concrete, way down there - would it be hard enough to end this agony?

“Here I am, arguing with myself again. I counsel myself. I sit far enough away from the edge for the thought process to stave off imminent threat … standing here on the balcony there are moments when all thought is clouded. I'm at the bottom of a well, there's nothing, no means to help me get out. I'm in pitch darkness, no thought available as a tool to help me to climb out.”

Trained to “stay in that well” with those she counsels, Spofforth is an associate counsellor charged with running mercy dashes through the night at the Alachua County Crisis Center not far from the home she has bought a short walk from the University of Florida.

Coach Wilby was the first to know that Spofforth had found her cliff-edge vocation in life back in 2010. His phone rang at 3am. "Listen, I've just saved my first life. I got called out to someone's house and I'm so fired up on adrenalin right now that its not even funny. I just wanted to call someone and tell 'em. Good night." 

Says Wilby: She had a glow about her. She'd found what she wanted to do." Soon after, Spofforth had a tattoo etched on her left foot: alongside the name “Dorothy Lesley” were the blue cancer ribbon also worn by the Gators squad in competition to bond them in battle and three stars, one for each of her families, her own, the Gators swim team and the crisis centre.”

A psychology student at college, Spofforth’s journey into counselling has been her salvation. She was steered toward her vocation by a friend.  “Had I not been there before, not had the training, things might have worked out differently but suicide, a scary thought for most, is not a taboo for me,” she says. “It is a part of my life and its ok for me to think it and ok for me to think my way out of it. I stay in the well until I have processed my thoughts and feelings. The next thing is to figure out what the future is.”

A year ago, that looked bleak indeed. Spofforth chose to live but June White could not. Spofforth raced in the 200m at Britain trials for the World Championships in Manchester aware that her father’s partner had died at 2am that day at the same care home, St Wilfrid’s Hospice, where Lesley Spofforth had passed away.

 “It was devastating and infuriating. We were thrown a ticking bomb without a clock - my family, my Dad, my rock. It was one of the most confusing and emotional times in my life," said Spofforth. “My skills of recognising and utilising emotions were clouded and I had fallen down the well. Even with my aptitude I was drowning under the weight of it all.”

Before the year was out, lightining struck a third time when cancer claimed the life of June White’s daughter Vicky. Spofforth went on one of her famous chocolate binges - "seven bars and a tub of chocy ice-creak is nothing!" - that have seen her through good and bad times. Her chances of making the Britain team for London 2012 looked grim. At 17th best in the world in her best event in 2011, she lost her National Lottery funding. “She was struggling to decide whether she wanted to do this,” said Wilby. “Even at Christmas I thought there was not much chance.” 

The switch was flicked, says Spofforth, when she arrived back in Britain in late February for trials at the London Aquatics Centre. "There'd been so much doubt in me up to trials," she said. "Even my dad didn't know how to be around me. He knew I was thinking about not doing it anymore but didn't want me to miss out on what could be biggest thing of my career."

Perspective on the pressures of a home Games had been provided by housemate David Marra, a fellow crisis counsellor, in a mail to Spofforth the week after she had contemplated suicide from the balcony in Australia. 

Marra wrote: "You are a swimmer, but that isn't who you are … you are an amazing counsellor, a wonderful daughter, a great sister, an amazing friend, and then an athlete. Whether you get first place or last in any race you've already succeeded a major part of your life because you've overcome adversity and you've touched the lives of so many people."

Just what Spofforth needed to hear. Then, something happened on the way to the pool: "I saw the five rings at St Pancras and it hit me. I was like ''oh, wait up,  I really do want this journey',” said Spofforth, who has the Olympic symbol tattoed on the inside of her left arm.

Why not somewhere everyone can see it? She tugs down the sleeves on her shirt and extends her right hand. “When I meet people and shake their hand, I want them to see me, not just Gemma the Olympic swimmer.” Though that she is once more this summer after qualifying for Britain in March.

The pain of the work being undertaken to be back at her best in time for her swansong is balanced by the pleasure two hours spent teaching toddlers to swim until 7pm in the Gators programme run by Wilby’s wife. As Spofforth enthuses the kids with praise for their “pencils and pancakes” (a metaphor for swimming with hands together, arms outstretched and as flat as you can), Jill Wilby tells me: “I wish I had a dozen like her. She has a natural instinct, the kids and the parents just love her.”

“I just love it,” says Spofforth. “There’s a moment when their arm comes out of the water for the first time. I can't help but smile. It gives me an amazing energy inside.” It is her future: when the post-graduate course is done, she intends to take up an offer of work in Colorado Springs with a non-profit organisation that works with underprivileged and troubled children. 

All smiles as she sits on the terrace in the backyard of the house she bought and shares with Marra, another crisis counsellor, former Gators swimmer Ana-Liisa Pold, of Lithuania, and their fellow Gator, Nelle Glasser, Spofforth says: “Everything started to fall into place in March after I made the team. I returned home to find that I’d got the post-grad place I’d applied for." A doctorate in psychology and counselling gets underway on August 22, "leaving little time for me to mope after London".

Whatever happens in London, the biggest tribute to her and fellow Gator Olympic and world champion Ryan Lochte, says Troy, is that “there is very very little envy or no disgruntlement towards them because of their success because their work ethic is so high and their approach to other people has been so good”.

Lochte sees Spofforth an an inspiration: “The things that she's had to overcome in her life really made me look up to her. Its just amazing when you lose a loved one like that and still be driven and determined to go out there and do your best. It’s pretty amazing. I can always talk to her no matter what - about anything. She's been a really good friend of mine."

Many a day in Gainesville ends for Spofforth with a walk with her dog Dekker to a nearby lake dotted with the watchful eyes of alligators. She points out the bench and a small bridge where she would often sit and sob after her mum died. “It’s a peaceful place for me now. I feel she’s here with me. I get strength and happiness from that.”

Friend and sports psychologist Spencer Wood told her recently: “You don't need to be thinking about what's happened, what's gone on in the last two years, you don't need to think about not having touched the wall first in the last two years or whether you'll touch the wall first at the Olympics.”  As Lochte puts it: "It's all about the here and now. You can't control what happened and you can't tell what's gonna come but you can live your life right here and now and have fun. That's the only thing."

"I don't need to feel like you have to climb several mountains in one go," says Spofforth before breaking into laughter and adding: “Though I intend to do something like that if we can find the sponsors.” An ascent of the seven great peaks is planned with fellow Gator Jackson Leonard and others.

It must wait until 2015: Spofforth learned during my visit that she has been granted the scholarship she needed for her post-graduate future. Beaming, she turned to Wilby and said: “Get me to Everest… I could skip right up it now”.  First there is the matter of skipping up the Olympic podium - although just being in the pool will, in truth, be a towering triumph for the swimmer and those who have supported her.