I lost sight of what I love about BMX – Worthington

Charlote Worthington with Olympic gold medalGetty Images

Three years ago, British BMX freestyle rider Charlotte Worthington sat on her bike, with her arm around her coach and a smile on her face, as she awaited the score from her final run at the Tokyo Olympics.

She had just made history by becoming the first woman to pull off a 360 backflip in competition and was about to make even more – as her score of 97.50 led to her being crowned the first female BMX freestyle Olympic champion.

What followed that moment of ecstasy was a difficult period during which the 27-year-old struggled to balance her love of the sport with the desire to compete.

Worthington had arrived in Japan to compete in the event, newly introduced for the 2020 Games, as a “complete underdog” and left having achieved the holy grail of women’s freestyle BMX – catapulting her into the limelight.

“There’s so much more about BMX that I love and I lost sight of that in the year after the Games,” she told BBC Sport.

“I lost a big balance of enjoying it and pushing myself and taking risks to [thinking] ‘why am I doing this any more? Is it worth it? What’s actually enjoyable about it?'”

Charlotte Worthington doing 360 backflip

Getty Images

Worthington is not the first athlete to open up about the highs and lows of being an Olympic champion.

Three-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Adam Peaty has previously admitted to periods of depression and alcohol problems.

Worthington said she discussed her own issues with Peaty and other Team GB team-mates after the Tokyo Games.

“He was also going through a bit of a rough stage and we spoke and I asked him ‘how was your game after your first medal?’ and he said ‘down the toilet’,” she said.

“I’m very grateful for speaking to the other athletes because if I hadn’t been able to speak to them I wouldn’t have felt that it’s a lot more normal.

“That’s why I don’t mind talking about it now because I’m sure it will help other people.”

Charlotte Worthington finds out winning score at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

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‘It wasn’t sustainable’

Worthington had been riding for just five years prior to the Olympics, having previously worked as a chef, and the sudden spotlight brought pressures and challenges.

“I was a scooter kid from Manchester that worked in a kitchen and suddenly I’m on the Olympic stage and I’ve won a gold medal,” she said.

“It was super-motivating at the time to think what more could be possible.

“But I’d start to treat every contest like the Olympics and then you realise just how much prep actually went into that and that’s actually not sustainable.”

In the aftermath of her historic achievement, Worthington received an MBE and people took an increased interest in her career.

Away from the plaudits and recognition, she was battling an internal dilemma.

“It became all about the competition and when I started it wasn’t just for the competition. I started because it was something fun you did after school with your mates,” she said.

“I had a lot of expectation that I put on myself. I suddenly had sponsors and I was just learning how to deal with all that.”

Worthington decided to take a break from competition, go back to basics and rediscover what she loved about the sport.

She withdrew from last year’s World Cup event in Montpellier, France – a competition attended by many hoping to qualify for the 2024 Paris Games.

“I thought ‘I’ll just hone in and focus on the things that actually light me up about the sport and really focus on them for a while’,” she said.

“I had no agenda, no training, just riding a BMX and that’s what helped me rebuild.”

The 2019 European champion had planned to feature at the 2023 European Games but instead pulled out to focus on Olympic qualifying events, including the World Championships in Glasgow in August, where she finished seventh in the 11-strong field.

‘I’m still learning the balance’

Worthington is now preparing for the Olympic Qualifier Series where 48 riders – 24 women and 24 men – will compete for Olympic quota spots on 17-19 May in Shanghai and 20-23 June in Budapest.

There is a clear aim for Worthington – to be in Paris this summer. But, more importantly, she is loving the sport again.

“I feel in a much better place. Still learning, focusing mainly on the enjoyment and I still train alongside that, but I don’t want to push myself over the edge to where it’s not enjoyable any more,” she said.

“I don’t know whether I’ll keep up with my own standards because I set them pretty high.

“I’m still learning how to have that balance and compete, be competitive and push but not forget where I came from and why I really do it. The result is just a by-product.”

The BMX racing world championships also take place on 17 and 18 May with Olympic champion Bethany Shriever part of an 11-strong British team in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Action from those championships is available to watch on BBC iPlayer and the BBC Sport website and app on 18 May from 19:00 to 22:30 BST.

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this story, BBC Action Line has links to organisations that can offer help and advice.

You can also go to bbc.co.uk/mentalwellbeing for more stories, information, inspiration and tips around mental wellbeing.

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