MOST ATHLETES WHO can boast two trips to the Winter Olympics at the age of 23 years old can probably be trusted when it comes to physical and mental health advice, but few, if any, have faced quite the same challenges as Team GB freestyle skier and personal trainer Rowan Cheshire - fighting head injuries, anxiety and depression along the way.
The halfpipe skier, who was born in the county with which she shares a name, travelled to the Sochi Games in 2014 alongside the weighty asterix of an athlete dubbed ‘one to watch’ for the medal spots.
Just a month earlier, Rowan had become the first British female skier to win a halfpipe competition on the FIS Freestyle Skiing World Cup, aged just 18 years old, and ended up in a plethora of Winter Olympic fact boxes across the mainstream media as a result.
"I suffered from anxiety and depression. I didn’t really want to continue with the sport"
It was the first time a British women had won a freestyle World Cup on skis since Jilly Curry won an aerials competition in 1992. The British public now had one of the most exciting prospects not just in freestyle skiing but in all of winter sports to keep an eye on when the competition in Russia began.
Unfortunately for Rowan though, disaster would strike before she was able to put down a score. Cheshire crashed out on her final day of training in Sochi, and crashed out hard.
“I was in really good condition,” Rowan tells us. “I was strong. I was healthy. I was doing well in competitions and I had come first in the Calgary World Cup which was great. One of my best results. I went into the Olympics as a medal hopeful. It was all going so well, even in training, until I ended up having a really bad crash after over-rotating a flair in my final training session.
“I landed straight onto my head, knocked myself out and ended up with a pretty bad concussion and broke my nose. There was all sorts of damage. It wasn’t my best time.”
Rowan’s crash left her unable to compete in Russia, and things would go from bad to worse after a subsequent period of 18 months where she would sustain two further head injuries which brought Cheshire to the brink of quitting the sport for good.
“The recovery from Sochi was fairly quick,” Rowan says. “It put me out for about six months, but I then suffered another concussion when I came back which took even longer to recover from.
"I didn't really even want to go out the house by myself"
“The mental issues that came after that were pretty bad. I suffered from anxiety and depression. I didn’t really want to continue with the sport. It sent me to a bad place where I didn’t really even want to go out the house by myself. I didn’t partake in exercise, and I had anxiety about getting back into it.”
After two years spent largely away from competitive skiing, and through an ongoing battle with mental illness, Cheshire began to return to exercise one step at a time, with the help of her parents, coaches and a psychologist.
“I got back into gymnastics at the gym, and then began building myself back up to going skiing again. When I finally went skiing it was more just skiing around and getting my legs back before getting into any kind of freestyle again. There was no pressure. I was just trying to find the love for it again.
“I don’t think I ever really wanted to stop skiing. It was an irrational feeling and it was a temporary one. I hadn’t done the sport in such a long time during that period [when I wanted to give it up] and actually I wasn’t really doing much at all.
“I was very reluctant and upset when I told my dad that I didn’t want to do it anymore. He was telling me ‘you’re crying, you’re balling your eyes out right now, so are you sure you don’t want to do it?’
“I did a lot of mental exercises and it was about getting through them and knowing that I wasn’t going to injure myself while I was skiing and just having fun.”
Rowan’s gateway back to the top of competitive sport would be her fitness and gym work, where she found solace from anxieties, and a passion which she found not only helped her physically, but which had a hugely positive knock-on effect on her mental health as well.
"I’ve found going to the gym and working out and working on my physical health has massively helped with the mental side of things"
Numerous studies have shown that exercise releases endorphins which creates feelings of euphoria to the extent that exercise can even alleviate symptoms of clinical depression. Studies even claim that there is an approximately 20-30% lower risk of depression in adults participating in daily physical activity.
For Rowan, the gym was crucial in getting herself back into the physical shape and mental mindset of an elite athlete.
“Since my injuries I’ve found going to the gym and working out and working on my physical health has massively helped with the mental side of things as well,” she says.
“It was also that I wanted to educate myself and do a personal training course and to take a bit of a stress away from skiing - so when I was away from competing or training on snow I could think about personal training and exercise of the body to take my mind off skiing for a bit.
“It really helped my ski performance because I was less stressed about it. I wasn’t thinking about it 24/7 and I had something else outside of skiing.”
By the end of 2016 Rowan was once again at the right end of FIS leaderboards, and by 2018 she had come full circle, conquered depression and anxiety, refound her love for the snow and - somewhat miraculously, given the circumstances - finished seventh in the finals of the Olympic Games.
We ask if there were moments at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang where Rowan paused to think of the journey that had brought her there.
“Actually during the Games, not that much,” she admits. “I tried to keep it out of my head as I didn’t want to think myself back into panicking. I thought about it beforehand, asking myself if that kind of environment with those massive crowd would trigger something in me, but I also knew I would be able to deal with that now, so it wouldn’t have been an issue.
“But honestly I had such a good time training and competing that it really didn’t cross my mind. I was really happy with the result in South Korea, especially with all the injuries that had come prior to that and not actually having that much time on snow and as much training time as I wanted.
“I put down a run that I was happy with and that I landed and it paid off. I got a result I was happy with and it’s amazing how many people come together to support you at the Olympics.”
Now also a qualified level three personal trainer, and in the process of completing the level four course, we’re talking to Rowan in London as she launches her plans for coaching through custom-designed six, eight and twelve week plans via her new tailored website.
“I always wanted to work in the fitness industry and I thought it’d be a great transition as well after skiing. With the Olympics and having a bit of time off to work on my plan, I saw that I could do this online and I really want to work with people and help people both mentally and physically achieve their goals."
Rowan recently tweeted out a picture of herself in front of a weight-loaded barbell with the Benjamin Disraeli quote "action may not always bring happiness. But there is no happiness without action".
Cheshire is, of course, a testament to the quote, fighting past anxiety and depression that left her housebound to become an athlete capable of finishing in the top ten on the biggest stage of all.
“I think asking for help, focusing on a plan, or going to the gym at all is a huge first step,” she says. “It takes a lot, especially if people are struggling or don’t have the confidence, but your confidence improves so quickly.
“I think once you get a first taste of the benefits on mental health it keeps rolling, and it doesn’t even have to be in the gym - it can just start with going on more walks, or I know for me it took a lot to even go outside, I didn’t do much at all, so doing things at home or with friends that you’re comfortable with really helps as well.
"I know for me it took a lot to even go outside, I didn’t do much at all, so doing things at home or with friends that you’re comfortable with can really help"
“But they really do go hand in hand - physical activity works wonders for your mental health.”
Rowan is at her UK base now until the end of September before heading back out to the mountains in Saas-Fee in Switzerland to begin her training for the ski season. She’ll head back out to the States in December to follow the competition circuit from there, and at just 23 years old, there’s certainly no ruling out the chances of her competing again for a medal at the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2022.
That, of course, would be the Hollywood ending, but there should be no doubt that Rowan’s journey is already one capable of inspiring and motivating far beyond the somewhat formidable circles of somersaults, Olympic skiing and South Korean snow.