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Onetrack Paper

Hitting the Reset Button on Mental Health

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week, Onetrack runner Sophie McCormack shares her story of how engaging in sport helped her recovery – both physical and mental – after a near-fatal horse-riding accident.

Sport can be a powerful reset button for mental health; I think we can all attest to feeling grumpy or tired or generally low, then getting out on a run or walk and coming back a new person. Exercise helped me to turn my life around – it gave me purpose, structure, confidence, and a sense of control at a time when it felt like everything was slipping away from me.

In 2015, I was your average 20-year-old. I had just finished my first year of uni and loved sport, drinking, and hanging out with friends. I considered mental health a choice, that if you don’t get out of bed because you feel low, that is your choice.

Oh, how naïve I was!

A few months before my 21st birthday I was amongst a pool of GBR under-21 event riders vying for a spot at that autumn’s U21 European Championships when I suffered a near-fatal horse-riding accident during the first event of the season. I had a freak fall on the cross country when my horse flipped over a fence – a rotational fall; the probability of surviving this kind of fall is low, so even though I suffered a serious head injury, multiple broken bones, and respiratory arrest, I count myself lucky. It still breaks my heart to write that my horse didn’t survive.

I spent the next two months in hospital, learning to walk, eat, and talk again. I remember looking down at my legs, not understanding why they wouldn’t support me when I stood. It turns out your brain is responsible for starting everything your body does. Although I don’t remember most of my hospital stay nor the accident itself, it knocked my mental health for six. My prognosis for permanent recovery was not great at the time. Once, while napping with a cuddly soft toy horse, I overheard visitors of another patient saying, ‘Oh, she is far too young to be in here. The poor thing shouldn’t be here.’ At 20-years-old, it felt like everything I knew had been taken from me.

I left hospital two months after my accident and one year ahead of schedule, but I found the ‘real world’ far more challenging than my safe and supportive rehab bubble. I took one year off from uni and spent most of my nights crying myself to sleep, feeling utterly lost and isolated. My neuro symptoms were getting gradually better, but I couldn’t have felt further from getting my life back.

The turning point in my recovery was finding Oaksey House sports rehabilitation clinic; during my stays there I felt important and was challenged to be better and grow stronger. Staff were fun and encouraging and other patients – from amateurs like me to Olympians – were so inspiring. During one Watt bike session, when I was about to give up just shy of my scheduled 20 minutes, a world-leading jockey got on a bike next to me and asked what had happened to me; feeling a little sorry for myself, I said head injury and he replied with how many bones he’d broken and which organs had failed, casually dropping in he’d already run 15km that morning and was heading to the pool later. At that moment, I realised that if I wanted to get better, I had to do something about it. That’s how sport became the focus of my recovery.

Sport gave me a constant. Morning runs and strength sessions offered routine and structure wholly missing from the rest of my life. Even if I couldn’t stay up late, concentrate well, or have much energy, at least I could check off something each day. Exercise gave me a tangible sense of daily achievement. I could see my progress.

One year after leaving hospital I completed a triathlon, raising money for the organisations and hospital that helped save my life. World-record-holders would not be troubled by my leisurely all-out run pace but who cared – I was doing something I loved and something that was pulling me through some pretty dark days.

Don’t underestimate the inner-strength sport can give. Against every medical prognosis I initially received, I returned to university and sport. I joined a triathlon club at Exeter and earned a Masters degree while working full-time. All of my major career milestones were achieved after my accident. I believe this comes back to competing in sport from a young age, which gave me the grit and drive – that we all have – to keep going when it feels impossible.

Today, I have a much healthier relationship with exercise. I have slowly transitioned from a dependency and near-obsession with workouts, to exercising because I love it and choose to do it. When I hear myself saying I must do this or should do that, I check myself. Why would we go running in sub-zero temperatures or swap a Sunday lie-in for a Sunday long run if we didn’t love it? Meeting like-minded (equally crazy!) people, getting endorphins flowing, boosting work concentration and productivity, de-stressing, and keeping in shape are all reasons I love being active and why I will find time for exercise.

Ultimately, I participate in sport because I enjoy it.

I’ll never reach the level in running that I did in eventing, nor will it give me the exact same adrenaline rush, but I have found something I love doing and have met some pretty amazing people doing it. Sure, I’m not the next Dina Asher-Smith or Mo Farah, but I’ll keep showing up, knowing running and sport allow me to be the best version of myself, and that no matter what life can throw at you, if you work hard and smart enough, with a dose of good fortune, you’ll get there.

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