This episode takes a contemporary look at the Olympic experience through the story of Holly Bradshaw. She is a pole vaulter who is preparing to compete in her 3rd Olympic Games in Tokyo. Holly talks about the anxieties she experienced as a child when doing sport for the first time and how these anxieties resurfaced as she was exposed to the challenges that come with being a high-profile athlete.
Holly was clearly a born athlete: “since the age of 3…I’ve done sport every single week”. She describes how, as a child, she threw herself into playing pretty much every sport possible, including football, rounders and athletics. Despite loving sport, she was often reluctant to try new things: “I was quite a shy child…I needed a lot of encouragement”. She talks about the stomach-churning anxiety she would experience when trying something new, which would transform within minutes into joy and excitement.
At secondary school, Holly found a mentor in Miss Taylor, a teacher she met during netball tryouts. Miss Taylor was able to see that Holly was supremely talented and she encouraged her to take sport seriously. Holly did so and very quickly experienced great recognition and success. She broke the junior pole vault record in 2010 and from there went on to compete in national and international competitions. However, she found that the attention she was receiving was not always positive.
Holly relates how she experienced high-levels of scrutiny around how she looked: “I didn’t look like an athlete”. She was hurt by the criticism she received and reveals that she now lives with body image insecurities: “I was a 19 year old girl who was very impressionable…girls feel they’re constantly being judged.” She now says that she wants her looks to act as an inspiration to others. “I want people to think: she’s not super-ripped, not super-skinny, she doesn’t look anything special but she’s still achieving all of these things.”
Holly competed in her first Olympics in 2012; however, following this life-changing achievement, she experienced a number of injuries and psychological challenges. Coming back from her injuries, Holly says: “I was underperforming because I was putting too much pressure on myself and I was putting pressure on myself because I was underperforming.” Caught in a vicious cycle, Holly knew that she needed to make a change. “I wasn’t enjoying athletics and I wasn’t enjoying life… I wanted to get back to enjoying the sport again.”
Through a combination of mindfulness practice and an active attempt to focus on her love for sport as opposed to only on results and success, Holly found a way back to enjoying what she did: “a bad result doesn’t define me…the feeling is why I do do it…I’m craving the feeling of the perfect jump…when I do it, there’s nothing better.” As Japan quickly approaches, I’m sure we’ll all be looking forward to seeing Holly do what she loves and perhaps, on the biggest stage of them all, that perfect jump will be performed for us all to witness.