Badminton champion Jenny Wallwork launches foundation to fight mental health illness
- Credit: Joan Russell
Former Garforth schoolgirl is using her experience with bulimia to help others to combat mental illnesses. Words by Paul Mackenzie Photographs by Joan Russell
It’s every sportsperson’s dream to represent their country but reaching the top doesn’t always mean finding happiness.
The pressures on young people are enormous – socially, educationally and in terms of their appearance – but those stresses are magnified for sportspeople.
Badminton star Jenny Wallwork, a former student at Garforth Community College, said: ‘There’s so much pressure on young people today to look a certain way – not just on girls, but boys as well. I think social media has a lot to answer for in how they make people feel and how they portray the perfect body image.
‘It really does upset me to think that people are starting to suffer at a very early age. We have got to start developing an understanding of these issues at a much earlier age and helping children in primary schools.
‘The pressure on athletes and people wanting to be athletes is immense – from coaches, nutritionists, it comes from every angle. I think that part of things can be managed much better. Everyone needs the awareness because situations can escalate very quickly.’
And she should know.
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The 28-year-old represented England 42 times, won a Commonwealth silver medal in 2010 and a host of women’s doubles and mixed doubles titles.
But she also suffered from bulimia and hid the condition from fellow players, family and even her boyfriend for three years.
‘That was a very difficult dark time for me,’ she said.
‘I was a very social person, always happy and laughing and smiling but on the inside I was struggling massively. I didn’t know where to go and I didn’t want to share what was happening with my friends or family because I didn’t want to upset people or worry them.
‘I feel I could have gone the rest of my life with no-one knowing but eventually I told my boyfriend at the time. He hadn’t known and there was another badminton player sharing a house with me then and they didn’t know about it either.’
Jenny was born in Bolton to parents who both played the sport. Mum Jill represented England and dad Brian still coaches, so it was no surprise that she showed promise as a youngster. The family moved to Yorkshire when she was just a few months old and although she played many sports as a child, her favourite was always badminton.
At the age of eight she was representing her home county and by the time she was 11 she was playing for England. As a 17-year-old she was asked to train full time with the Great Britain squad at their base in Milton Keynes and lived there for nine years.
She has since returned to Yorkshire and lives in Abberford near Leeds and she said: ‘It was hard to relocate because I loved being near my family and friends, but I really believed I could make it.
‘It is a massive commitment to make, especially at that age. My friends were all going out and having fun together and I was missing out on that. I was getting to travel the world and play the sport I love but as lucky as I was, I felt I was missing out.’
And although she gave the appearance of a successful and happy young woman at the top of her game, Jenny was in secret anguish.
‘I suffered from bulimia in silence for three years,’ she said. ‘When I told my boyfriend he was very shocked. He said I should tell my parents but my response at that stage was “No way”. I said I didn’t want to tell anyone but he told the Olympic coach and as more people knew it was like a huge weight was lifting off my shoulders.
‘I’m very lucky that I have such supportive parents but I didn’t want to hurt them. They were very upset and shocked but I couldn’t have asked for more support.
‘I still have ups and downs. When I retired I re-lapsed. I had thought I was so far from that to be able to happen I had put it to the back of my mind. I hid it again and it was another year where I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to worry people or upset them.’
She quit the GB squad in 2013 saying she felt under-valued by the management and will play for Loughborough when the National Badminton League gets underway again this month.
She has also launched a foundation which aims to help and support to other people suffering with mental illnesses and to raise awareness.
Although she admits she misses competing at the top level, Jenny says she has no regrets about her decision to resign from the GB squad and added: ‘I couldn’t be happier in my work life now. I was one of the best decisions I have made.
‘I want the foundation to be about people coming forward and being able to speak and hopefully I will give some other people the strength to speak out. We have to be the generation that normalises mental illness.
‘My main aim is to provide support. Not everyone needs medical care – some do, but not all by any means – but they do need someone to speak to. Ultimately I would like to run workshops around the country to raise awareness but all that means we need funding.
‘It’s so important that everyone has an understanding because it can be so difficult for families.
‘In the days after I launched the foundation I had hundreds of messages from people who were suffering with disorders and there was such a positive response.
‘One girl wrote to me and said if I ever doubt my choice in speaking out and setting up the foundation, to know that I had helped her. I was in tears reading that.
‘My downfall was not speaking to anyone but I feel like in helping other people I will help myself. The lovely messages I have received are keeping me going and to know that I am making a difference.’ w
The Jenny Wallwork Foundation will stage a badminton fun day at Leeds Badminton Centre this month and tickets are on sale now for the foundation’s ball at the Hilton Hotel in Leeds in February. For more information about the foundation go online to jennywallworkfoundation.co.uk