Exclusive: Beth Dobbin on her incredible journey from epilepsy to British champion

Beth Dobbin achieved more than a British title when she was crowned 200-metre champion last summer. 

Shaded by the Union Jack on a glorious summer’s day at Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium, it was the triumph that Dobbin had been fighting for ever since her sporting career was shaken off the rails. A decade prior to her 200m triumph, the Scot suffered from an epileptic seizure that left her unable to walk, talk or even recognise her own family. 

Speaking exclusively to GiveMeSport, Dobbin recalled the events of that day by explaining: “It was a pretty brutal day. I had a few weird things going on leading up to that – involuntary movements and twitches. Then, I just had a huge seizure one day at school. I was out for 15 minutes, I had no idea what was going on and I woke up completely paralysed down the left side of my body.

“It was such a horrible experience. It took me a long time to get over that mentally, I used to be really academic at school and then suddenly I needed extra time for exams because I couldn’t get my head around things. There were little words I struggled with, like I remember looking at the microwave and not knowing what it was called, I just couldn’t think. It really affected my memory.”

Fortunately, the medication that Dobbin received was sufficient to prevent any future episodes, but it couldn’t tide the mental shocks of such a traumatic experience. The European competitor was diagnosed with PTSD, a condition often associated with the military, but all too real of an experience for the 25-year-old.

Recovering from epilepsy

It was, after all, a handshake with mortality that nobody should experience during their teenage years and one that has followed Dobbin – almost spectrally – ever since. “I was having loads of flashbacks,” she admitted to us. “It’s something that, still to his day, I worry about and it was so life-changing that if it did happen again, my athletics career would be over.

“I think about that every day and because it’s traumatic, it’s just a sense of: ‘I don’t want to go through anything like that ever again.’ It’s a very scary feeling being 100% convinced that you’re going to die. I don’t know how many people will have to experience that, but when it was happened it was like: ‘This is it now, you’re definitely going to die. That’s it and there’s nothing you can do.’

“Everyone expects you to appreciate life even more after that, but it’s more the sense that I feel very careful about my life. I don’t really take any risks, because I thought I was close to death once and now I feel like the sensible one amongst my friends because I’ve had that experience.”

Battling mental health

Dobbin’s message is particularly poignant in a time of greater awareness of mental health. The world of sport – never mind the often lonely discipline of sprinting – can be an incredibly tough environment and Dobbin has learnt so much from her own experience. Her personal journey is testament to the fact that seeking help can reap rewards and solace in ever facet of life.

The British champion honestly recalled: “I was having loads of twitches and obviously if you have epilepsy, when people are telling you it’s anxiety, it’s really hard to believe. It wasn’t until a doctor printed out all of the symptoms of anxiety and I literally had every single one of them, that I started to accept it. I think that’s where education is really important.

“To see that it had so many physical symptoms, that could have helped me to get help sooner. I wouldn’t say I’m fully over it now. I had just had constant feelings of anxieties for a long, long time and I didn’t get help until after the 2014 season. I finished last or second to last in my heat at British Champs that year and it was at that point I was like: ‘something is really wrong with me.’

“I went to the doctors, it was a long a process getting there, but that’s where I was diagnosed with anxiety. It needs to be taught in schools and that there can be physical symptoms too. Even if it’s an hour-long workshop in these kids’ live, it’s more than I had.”

Balancing four jobs

While no obstacle in Dobbin’s journey will ever compare to her battle back from epilepsy, her determination at Loughborough to become an international athlete is superb in itself. Showing that her elite work ethic isn’t limited to the track, the 25-year-old was juggling no less than four jobs on the eve of representing her country at the Athletics World Cup.

We’ve all heard stories of people calling a ‘sickie’ before, but Dobbin was almost forced to take that to a whole new level – facing a reception shift on the day of her race in London. Spoken through a laugh, Dobbin explained: “They told me my race at the World Cup was on the Sunday, but I had shifts at work on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday that weekend.

“I managed to get the Friday and Saturday off, but I couldn’t sort the Sunday and it was the day before, so I was emailing a woman at work saying: ‘I’ve tried everything to get cover, I’m representing Great Britain at the London Olympic Stadium!’ I really sold it to her, but I don’t think she was much of a sports fan, so she replied: ‘Sorry Beth, there’s not much I can do.’

“So, then I had to go to the very top boss and she was absolutely amazing about it, she was like: ‘I’ll get that sorted for you.’ It is really weird. I’d get messages from people when I’m on the security gates or at reception, who have seen me competing that season, and people couldn’t believe it, but when you’ve got no funding, there’s no other choice.” 

Targeting a huge 2019

It’s stories like these that help explain the delight in Dobbin’s eyes last summer. A British title is great, sure, but it was the Everestian achievement of having overcome mental and physical trauma, as well as a schedule that would give many of us headaches. It was a summit that now gives Dobbin the luxury of looking at other conquerable peaks without the bulk of the climb in her face.

Her next target is the 2019 World Championship in Doha, the natural step-up from her World Cup and European forays last year. When asked about the challenge of this season, the Scottish record-holder replied: “We’ve taken it a lot more gradually in training and it’s about being patient, not rushing things because it’s a long, long year. 

“We’ll still be going until October, so that’s really important – but if I’ve improved everything that I need to improve, I’d love to make the World final. That would be my aim and my dream come true, but obviously the 200 metres is very competitive in this country. So, it’s about making it through the trials, getting my place for the Worlds, going to the Olympics and doing the same.”

Dobbin’s remarkable journey

In many respects, Dobbin’s life can be summarised by two crossroads: the day of her epileptic seizure and her crowning moment as British champion. The fact that both those moments changed her life can’t be denied, but what makes Dobbin’s journey truly inspiring, are the quiet days and weeks that came between those blurs of trauma and ecstasy.

With health and circumstance stacked against her, the Scot has worked four jobs, a degree and her own mind and body to progress from learning to walk to showing others how to sprint. 

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