Gail Emms, Olympic badminton star: “I thought I was ready to retire, but the pain I felt was visceral”


My life has always been about sport. I was four years old when I started playing badminton; by seven, he was competing locally. I vividly remember watching the Olympics as a teenager and thinking, “I want to do that.”

It wasn’t that simple, of course. At 15, he was in the England junior team, only to be deselected three years later. But I fought hard to get my place back, and at 22, I went back to represent my country. Five years later, I competed in my first Olympic Games, Athens, 2004, and walked away with a silver medal.

In the years that followed, I won medals all over the world. I was so proud of my accomplishments, even though my career path required constant commitment.

Choosing to train over my friends was easy enough in the first burst of teenage ambition, but as I got older, it started to really hurt. I missed birthdays and weddings; I stopped having a family. I watched the people I grew up with rise in their careers, while I was still hitting a shuttle over a net. At times, I felt like I was missing out on the milestones of adulthood.

On the way home, I remember crying realizing that this really was the end. Still, I spent the first month of my retirement in a state of ecstasy. With no one to answer to, I threw myself into the party; I ate what I wanted when I wanted and got up at the time I chose. For the first time, I was living life on my own terms.

Eight months after my retirement, I reached my lowest point. For two weeks, I barely moved from the couch. I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t want to admit it, even to myself.

All my life I had been taught to be strong and overcome pain. Now, the same attributes that helped me get to the top were contributing to my own self-sabotage.

Eventually, I found the courage to reach out to some good friends, who helped me out of my depression. I started asking about jobs and, in a happy surprise, I got pregnant. Then, in March 2010, I gave birth to my son Harry and launched into my new role as a mother. Still, the lethargy persisted.

Finding help took years

As much as I loved my son, the days spent playing with a baby were a world away from the fast-paced life I had known before. I desperately needed to channel my drive and determination into something; I just didn’t know what. Three years after the birth of my youngest son, Oliver, I finally found the help I needed.

Through a casual conversation with a stranger, I learned that she was a researcher and as part of her job she conducted psychometric tests on athletes.

When he asked me if I wanted to participate, I jumped at the chance. In addition to the tests, I also received tutoring and advice.

As I progressed through the process, I began to see myself clearly for the first time. My attributes were right there on paper: competitive, energetic, quick thinker. It helped me see that it wasn’t just Gail Emms, the badminton player. I was Gail Emms, a real three dimensional person.

My transition to “normal life” has been far from easy. I found applying for jobs incredibly stressful; the financial insecurity was tough, but the rejection was tough in another way. I often had a hard time getting through the first round. For an interview, I had to buy a £50 train ticket to London, only for the hungover hiring manager to forget.

Ultimately, I took control of my career by setting out on my own. Now I have my own business; I work in public relations and events, and I also do motivational speaking.

I still love the sport, but separating it from my identity has been difficult. Since retiring, I’ve learned that it’s okay to have different versions of yourself. It’s tempting to define yourself simply as an “athlete” or a “mom”, but we are never one thing. I lost who I was because a role took over; sometimes, you just have to remember to be you.

Women’s Health July/August 2022 (Image: Matthew Monfredi)

Gail Emms appears in the July/August issue of women’s health for sale now




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