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‘Have I done too much damage?’ Holly Bradshaw questions pursuit of glory

The British pole vaulter Holly Bradshaw has said that winning an Olympic bronze medal in Tokyo harmed her physically and mentally – and questioned whether the pursuit of glory has been worth it.

In a powerful and frank interview with Athletics Weekly, Bradshaw lifted the lid on the “detrimental” side of elite sport, saying she had gone from being a “happy-go-lucky” teenager to someone who didn’t go out, drink, or eat bad food but still had to “starve” herself to get into shape to compete.

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“Winning that bronze medal has damaged me physically and mentally,” she told the latest issue of the magazine, out on Thursday. “I just worry, have I damaged myself too much that I can’t get back from that? And then I almost question, is it really worth it, if I’ve damaged myself for the rest of my life?

“I’m a good athlete but the way in which I won my medal was by being so meticulous, so organised, so on it in every single element of my life for 10 years. That involved collecting sleep data, analysing my heart rate variability, weighing my food, weighing myself every morning. ‘OK, I’m too heavy. I need to starve myself for three months.’ I’d wake up in the middle of the night and I’d have to neck a glass of water because I was so hungry but I was trying to drop weight.

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“It’s not to say I’ve not had any joy, but I’ve done so many things that have constrained me and for so many years. I would describe it as living unhealthy behaviours for so long.”

Bradshaw has competed in three Olympic Games, and hopes to finish her career at Paris 2024. However she told the magazine that she questioned how much life in the sporting bubble had changed her. “I say to my husband: ‘I don’t know who I am,’” she explained. “‘When I retire, who am I going to be?’ And that worries me a little bit. I even said to him: ‘You’ve only known me as Holly the athlete. What if I’m a completely different person?’”

Holly Bradshaw on her way to Olympic bronze in Tokyo.Holly Bradshaw on her way to Olympic bronze in Tokyo. Photograph: Aleksandra Szmigiel/Reuters

Bradshaw also revealed that she had suffered glandular fever, achilles issues, three wisdom tooth infections, three hamstring tears and broken a bone in her back since winning her bronze medal. “Have I pushed myself too hard?” she asked herself. “Have I done too much damage?”

Holly Bradshaw on the cover of Athletics WeeklyHolly Bradshaw spoke to this month’s edition of Athletics Weekly. Photograph: Athletics Weekly

Bradshaw admitted that she had been particularly unhappy in the past six months. “I’m Holly Bradshaw, I’m a pole vaulter, I get up, I go and train, I go and pole vault,” she said. “I’m not doing it because I love it. I’m just doing it because it’s what I do, and that’s not a good reason.”

The 32-year-old, who has a master’s degree in sports psychology and has co-authored an academic paper about “post-Olympic blues”, said the reality of the Games had not matched her expectations. “The Olympic experience is great, but when you strip it back, it’s so fickle and so extrinsic,” she added. “You go to this kitting out day when you are given three bags of kit, Aldi throw a load of food at you and you are made to feel really special.

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“Then you go to the Olympic village and there are vending machines all over the show where you can get free coke. You can get free McDonald’s every day. I get swept away in it as well. And then you come home, you sit down and you think: ‘I’ve just worked so hard for the last four years for this two-week experience and it’s just a load of freebies.’ For so many people I know, it was a massive anticlimax.”