Jazz Carlin’s body had been dropping hints about retirement for a few months before she called it a day – she was expecting that, Olympic-level swimming is traditionally a young person’s game.
What she was not expecting was what her body started telling her after she quit.
“As a swimmer, I had got very used to seeing my body look a certain way and now it was changing and not, I thought, in a good way,” she said.
“Clothes weren’t fitting me any more and I didn’t want to step on the scales or show my body in a swimming costume – I felt a bit ashamed.
“People could tell me I looked good and healthy, but I didn’t feel it.”
Carlin, who won two Olympic silver medals in 2016, as well as Commonwealth and European titles, was talking to Press Association Sport during Mental Health Awareness Week, which finishes on Sunday.
This year’s theme is ‘body image’ and it is something the 28-year-old has been grappling with ever since she stopped training like an Olympian.
As a distance swimmer, Carlin was conditioned to ploughing up and down the pool for hours at a time, the water sculpting her body. She was also used to eating a lot. The one necessitated the other.
This is a balancing act every endurance athlete will recognise and it is an equation that will produce different results if you tweak the variables, as Carlin discovered. What was once hard and sleek, became…well, softer and rounder.
“I was pretending everything was fine but I was struggling,” she said.
And then she spoke to a good friend who had just had a baby, a body-changing experience that many women can empathise with.
“She said something really important: whenever you leave a mirror, do it with at least one positive thought – that really resonated,” explained Carlin.
So, with her confidence returning, she decided to post a picture of herself in a bikini on social media.
Alongside the picture she wrote a few lines to explain why she was doing it. She wrote that she had lost the lean body of a swimmer and it had initially knocked her confidence but she was “starting to embrace how I look”.
The Twitter version of the post received more than 2,700 likes and dozens of comments, including supportive messages from several former Olympians who knew exactly what Carlin was going through. She also got dozens of compliments about how good she looked.
“I really pondered over the post and wondered whether I should do it,” the Swindon-born swimmer told the Press Association.
“I was worried people wouldn’t understand it and would think I was just looking for compliments. But the truth is I hadn’t been happy with what I was seeing in the mirror.
“But I am really pleased I did post the picture because I got some amazing messages back from young girls who have struggled with their body image and ex-athletes who have been through exactly the same thing.”
Not being happy with how you look is the impulse that drives everything from the diet industry to plastic surgery but it is not usually thought about as a mental health issue.
And yet when new clients visit Sarah Lindsay’s gym for the first time, four out of five will start crying.
Lindsay is a nine-time British short-track speed-skating champion, who went to three Winter Olympics, but is now one of Britain’s leading personal trainers.
She co-founded London’s Roar Fitness and among her happy customers are Love Island presenter Caroline Flack, rapper/singer Professor Green and actress Sheridan Smith. Pop star Pixie Lott was so pleased with her work that she sang at Lindsay’s wedding last year.
But that is the type of thing that happens after the “hard and intense” weight-training, Olympic-quality physiotherapy and bespoke nutritional advice.
“People who walk through my door are, not always, but usually doing so because they don’t feel good about themselves,” the 38-year-old explained.
“They will have tried and failed other things and they’ll be at the end of their tether. Coming to a personal trainer isn’t easy but they pluck up the courage to see us because they’ve lost confidence.
“It can really affect people’s lives. It can be quite heartbreaking. Some will not have been naked in front of their partners for years.
“That’s men and women: men might not admit these things as readily as women but it’s exactly the same issue. I also hear from people who won’t go on holiday because they don’t want to be seen in a swimsuit.
“It often doesn’t matter what people to say to you: it’s what you feel about yourself.”
The level of service Lindsay provides is not exactly cheap – a 12-week course starts at £3,200 – but it is less expensive than going under the knife and almost certainly better for your body and mind.
“Whatever goal you are aiming for, being stronger crosses over,” she said.
“Riding a bike, swimming quicker, running faster, you will get fewer injuries and every step will be easier. And that applies at every age. I see 60-year-olds who cannot get out of chairs but leave here ready for a triathlon.”
Lindsay does not actually like the “transformation tag” or the “before and after” pictures that are marketing mainstays in her business; she wants people to leave her gym feeling stronger, physically and mentally, and that can be very personal.
Or as Carlin put it: “I’m not going to punish myself for looking a certain way. I don’t need to look like an athlete to feel good about my body.”
– Now in its 19th year, Mental Health Awareness Week is organised by the Mental Health Foundation and it runs from May 13-19.