Victoria Pendleton was one Team GB’s biggest success stories in the London Olympic Games. During a hot and sticky summer in 2012, the untouchable sports star pedalled to victory in the velodrome, taking home the keirin gold and sprint silver, before retiring with nine world champion titles to her name.
But last year, Pendleton found herself a facing a different kind of challenge, after an attempt to climb Mount Everest went awry. She was tackling the world’s highest mountain with her friend Ben Fogle for an ITV documentary, but was forced to abandon the mission after suffering with dangerous hypoxia (oxygen deprivation).
What followed was a period of severe depression that left the athlete – in her own words – “psychologically and physiologically damaged”, which doctors have suggested could have been triggered by the effects of hyproxia on the brain.
The 38-year-old experienced suicidal thoughts and, at one very low point, says she was counting out the amount of drugs she’d need to take her own life.
“To feel that helpless and vulnerable was something that was really quite new to me,” she says, reflecting on her lowest point last summer. “I tried to deny it for a long time. I kept thinking, ‘This isn’t me’.
“My heart would be racing and I would be trying to ignore it, while telling myself, ‘It’s fine, it’ll stop in a minute’, but then it’d develop into an anxiety attacks.”
Although she’s previously spoken about struggling with self-harm at the height of her cycling career, Pendleton says her recent battle with depression caught her completely off guard, flooring her when she least expected it.
“The whole episode I went through last summer really blindsided me. I didn’t see it coming,” she admits.
“I always think that I can muscle through anything. That if I just grit my teeth and get stuck in, I’ll beat it. But unfortunately mental health is not something you can necessarily do that with – which was hugely frustrating for me. I had to learn to manage it a little bit differently.
“It’s strange, you think: ‘I can win Olympic gold medals, I should be able to beat this.’ But it doesn’t work that way.”
Choosing to forgo anti-depressants, Pendleton turned to action sports to help pull herself out of the darkness. Throwing herself against the turbulent surf off the coast of Costa Rica, she says, was the best therapy for her.
“After being prescribed lots of medication, which I soon realised does not suit me at all, I took myself surfing, alone, for a month,” she explains. “I knew I needed to go and do something physical and challenging, in a different environment.
“[Medication] definitely didn’t suit me. I tried it and I wanted it so badly to work – and to fix me. But ultimately I needed to fix myself.”
Although it was challenging at times, the former cyclist found the adrenaline rush of catching a wave allowed her to enter a meditative state of hyper-focus, enabling her to forget everything else that was going on in her mind.
“When you’re paddling and there’s a huge wave coming in, you have to get over it – otherwise you’re going to be pounded by the whitewash,” she says. “You’re completely focused on what you’re doing when you’re surfing for survival – so your brain is quiet. You’re not thinking about how you feel. You’re just enjoying the moment.
“Don’t get me wrong, there were days where I was dragging my surf board through the sand with tears streaming down my face, thinking, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this’,” she recalls. “But after 10 minutes of paddling for my life, the world seemed like a better place.”
A year on, Bedfordshire-born Pendleton says she feels like she’s found the coping mechanisms that work for her. “I know that for me, being in a place where I can focus and work hard physically, in an environment that’s slightly dangerous – to be perfectly honest – helps to rebuild my confidence and my strength in myself.
“That’s my happy place!” she adds with a laugh.
“The whole episode has definitely made me more aware of my mental wellbeing and more vigilant to things that make me feel a little bit out of sorts. Whereas in the past I would have just powered through, thinking, ‘It’s fine, it’s nothing’, I think now I’m a little bit more responsive,” she continues.
“If I’m feeling a certain way, I won’t let it spiral. I’ll try and nip it in the bud early, or do something or speak to somebody before it gets into a situation that could potentially make me feel really bad.”
Although she says she doesn’t miss competing as a cyclist, Pendleton can still be found on two wheels – although these days, you’re more likely to see her on the back of a 675cc engine, having recently passed her motorcycle test. When I bring up the subject, her voice lights up. “Oh my gosh,” she exclaims. “I tell you what, this Triumph Scrambler [she rides a Triumph Street Triple], the noise it makes when it’s rumbling inside my helmet – I love it!
“I’ve always wanted to be a biker chick,” she enthuses. “I’ve always thought it was a super cool thing to do. Ticking stuff off my bucket list makes me happy – so this bike makes me really happy.”
Speaking to Pendleton, you get the sense that she isn’t hiding anything from the outside world – her honesty is as refreshing as her boundless enthusiasm for daredevil sports.
“I’ve always been super honest about my vulnerabilities and insecurities, because I don’t think there’s anything to win from being closed about them,” she admits.
“In fact, you realise it’s more common than you think, when you speak up and everyone can kind of relate and say they’ve experienced it too, that it’s OK and that it will get better.
“I’ve never been closed on any aspect of how I feel and I think that’s something I take pride in, to be perfectly honest. Just because you might struggle a bit with mental health issues, doesn’t mean you can’t still be an Olympic champion or achieve whatever you want to achieve.
“It’s not a barrier to stop you,” Pendleton affirms. “It might slow you down, but it won’t stop you, and I think that’s important for people to understand.”