Three-time Olympic gold medalist Max Whitlock says he “felt like a complete failure” when he considered retiring from the sport after the Tokyo Games.
He said his accolades “didn’t matter” because he couldn’t see a clear path to his future.
With his goal-focused and motivated mindset gone, the 29-year-old said he has “struggled” with his mental health.
“I never thought in a million years I’d like it,” she said.
Whitlock secured two gold medals in Tokyo 2021 to add to the gold and bronze he won at the Rio Games in 2016 and two bronzes in London 2012. His other honors include four European Championship golds, four Commonwealth Games golds and three World Championship golds.
After some time off following Tokyo, the Team GB star decided he was done with the sport.
But after speaking out about his struggles and thinking about the example he wanted to set for his three-year-old daughter Willow, Whitlock confirmed he is now targeting the 2024 Paris Games.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast he said: “As a gymnast throughout my career I’ve always looked forward and never looked back.
“[My results] they were amazing, but it didn’t matter because I was looking at my next goal.
“We’re moving forward, that’s what mattered and that’s it [when] I felt like a complete failure because I couldn’t see that clearly.”
Whitlock is now returning to training after taking a break from the sport after Tokyo, missing the 2022 Commonwealth Games – where he worked as a BBC pundit – and next month’s World Championships in Liverpool.
“It’s important to talk to people”
Whitlock said he began to feel “completely lost” after the Tokyo Olympics.
“I fell into a place, this mess where I lost all motivation for everything,” he said. “I felt sluggish every day. I was in this place where I just didn’t want to do anything.
“I even had a blood test because I felt awful every day. The blood test came back and I was absolutely fine. I think that proved to me that it was all in my head.”
He recalled sitting at home, getting upset while talking to his wife Leah and feeling like “a complete waste of space”. Whitlock added while he couldn’t “understand” how he felt, Leah and others around him were concerned.
“A lot of people are saying it, talking to people, getting it out, it’s helping,” he said. “But I think I was never that person. I was always the person who held it in and did it. I did [that for my] the whole career almost put on a mask.
“I think as I started talking to Leah or I started talking more to my parents and people around me, I started to really realize how I felt.”
“It would be resignation and not retirement”
After Tokyo, Whitlock said he was “adamant” he was ending his gymnastics career.
But he said it was the thought of explaining the decision to his daughter Willow in the future that made him decide to go ahead.
“It wouldn’t be the pension,” he said. “It won’t just stop for any reason like that. It would be to stop…
“[Willow] I would obviously look at what I’m doing. Ten to 20 years down the line, if I explained my career to Willow and said I’ve done this and that and then I stopped after Tokyo, I think her next question would probably be why did you stop? And I wouldn’t want that to happen because I’m afraid of failing in Paris.”
Back to the gym
Whitlock is aiming for greater success – and history – at the Paris 2024 Games. If she manages to win a medal on pommel horse, she will become the first gymnast to do so at four consecutive Olympics in the same piece of apparatus.
He said returning to training was “tough” after a year out and knows the challenge he faces.
“Any leave takes you a long, long time to come back,” he said. “But I’m excited, like really excited for the challenge. I feel almost refreshed. I feel like I have pretty much got everything back and I think the fear of failure is gone.
“The nerves, at this moment, are gone. The weight on my shoulders is gone, I think because I got into the mindset that I’m done that I’m coming back.
“I have new reasons. I’m doing it for Willow. I’d like everyone to come to Paris and have a chance to watch it in Paris.
“To see where I can go, to see if I can make this story, if I can make a fourth Olympics. But to almost prove to myself that I can do it and also show a message to Willow not to does he ever give up..
“I think that’s what helped me move forward without that fear of failure that’s powerful. If I kept going like that, there would have been a point where it all fell apart and fell apart badly.”
Whitlock’s goal now is to help other athletes feel the same way.
“This has a huge impact for me,” he said. “Massive. I couldn’t believe it. Now I feel like I’ve almost come out the other side and seen the benefits of even going through this stage.
“I’d love to help athletes because it’s so common. I’d love to help people in general to go through something like this. I’d love to see if there are ways I can help people through this because I’m going through it myself , I fought I think people [would] don’t ever think I’d go through that feeling.”