Exclusive: Ben Williams opens up on mental health, Jonathan Edwards and Doha 2019

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Sport, much like life, is defined by important moments and decisions.

For British triple-jump champion Ben Williams, one of the most challenging crossroads came in February of this year. Having been hampered by numerous surgeries; denied appearances at two Olympic games through injury and being robbed of the momentum he gathered through the junior ranks, Williams' patience had frayed to the frailest fibre. 

All that considered, the events that have transpired over the last seven months are nothing short of miraculous. Having considered hanging up his spikes, the 27-year-old has since leapt to new personal bests in them at the European Team Championships and British World Trials. That, and being called up to represent his continent at the inaugural 'The Match' in Minsk, Belarus.

And even in those moments of glory, instead of massaging his ego across social media, the Loughborough-based athlete chose introspection on what came before. Speaking to GiveMeSport along the aptly 17-metre arm of a JCB vehicle, the manufacturing company to whom he now owes sponsorship, Williams walked us through a 2019 of highs and lows.

"February was tough," Williams openly admitted. "I was coming back from surgery in 2018 and it was rehab, rehab, rehab, which was fine for the first seven months and then it really took its toll on me. I was travelling to Loughborough and basically just continuing rehab, doing bits and bobs of jump work, but nothing too tasking and it was really frustrating. 

Close to retirement in February

"I didn't have the confidence. It was a confidence issue. I just wasn't sure whether I was going to come back and me being as competitive as I am, I needed to come back as best possible and not just come back to take part. I didn't just want to do triple jump, I wanted to compete. I was really struggling with that and I was really struggling with mental illness. It was a tough time.

"What kept me going was, although the confidence wasn't there, that I hadn't achieved what I wanted to achieve in the sport and I knew I was capable of more. I just think after injuries and after surgeries that all athletes go through the same thoughts. It was a real struggle, but it was the support system that got me through it most definitely."

The rhetoric of 'keeping a stiff upper lip' is often at the heart of mental health problems that, while pervading every demographic, fall disproportionately upon young men. It's a damaging trend that's only amplified when held to elite sporting standards. Yet, of course, being in the upper echelon of physical excellence isn't a prerequisite for mental invincibility.

The Match Europe v USA Minsk 2019 - Day 2

Mental health awareness

Accurately noting that suicide is the biggest killer of British males between ages 20 and 45, the triple-jumper reiterated the invaluable advice of speaking to others. "It's insane how things can turn around like that just by talking to somebody," Williams remarked with the snap of his fingers. "I cannot urge people enough to talk about their problems if they're feeling down.

"It's ok to talk and that's what I figured out after February. I sat down, spoke with family members and spoke about exactly how I was feeling. Now, I'm performing the best that I've ever performed and I'm the happiest that I've ever been. Cry if you need to cry, talk if you need to talk. It's so important to do so."

It's apt that such words of wisdom were spoken at a site that means so much to Williams. The Northwood Stadium played host to the first time that Williams ever triple-jumped competitively, even if his grandad had once shown him the technique years before. The World Youth medalist had at first been inspired, like so many jumpers before him, by none other than Jonathan Edwards. 

British Athletics World Championships Team Trials - Day One

Inspired by Jonathan Edwards

It was the world-record holder's performance at the 2000 Olympics that prompted Ron Harper and his grandson to construct a poignant reenactment on the tarmac of Stoke. Harking back with a smile, Williams explained: "I was only eight years old at the time and it looked amazing, it looked like he [Edwards] was floating. Aesthetically, it just looked perfect and I'd never seen triple jump before.

"So, my grandad took me out on to the pavement and he taught me the hop, the step and the jump. About seven or eight years passed, I was playing football at the time for Port Vale, and we did a school athletics competition here in Northwood. I was doing the long jump and the 100m, and our PE teacher came to my group of friends and said: 'does anyone know how to do the triple jump? We need somebody to do it.'

"So I was like: 'I know. I'm doing the long jump as well, I know how to do the triple jump. I don't know how great I'll be, but I'll give it a bash.' Anyway, I came down and in my first round, I broke the Stoke-on-Trent city record. I was like: 'Right, ok, maybe we can continue with this.' The rest is history, as they say. I carried on with the triple jump and it's brought me to here."

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All eyes on Doha 2019

Now, his triple-jumping zenith extends to a whopping 17.27 metres which, as I jovially reminded him, measures further than a double-decker bus, four male great white sharks and eight Peter Crouch's. Grain of sand by grain of sand, Williams is creeping further along the pit towards the in-flight shadows of Christian Taylor, Will Claye and their esteemed peers.

But throw those names at the Brit and there's not a hint of fear with which he responds: 'everyone's a man at the end of the day.' Regardless of past achievements and statistics, it comes down to a handful of jumps amongst a select few athletes on just two nights in Qatar. For that reason alone, Williams has spotted a bronze medal in his crosshair later this month. 

"I really want to go out there and compete," Williams said earnestly. "I don't just want to take part, I want to really compete with the best in the world. Anybody can be beaten on the day. With the likes of Will Claye and Christian Taylor, in my opinion, they can be beaten. I feel it will probably be a battle between them for gold and silver and the battle for bronze is going to be tough.

British Athletics World Championships Team Trials - Day One

Gunning for bronze

"It's going to be between the likes of me, Donald Scott, Omar Craddock and performers like that. I think it's going to take a considerable distance to get a bronze, but I do think I'm capable of doing so." If the 27-year-old was to reach the podium in Doha, it would practically make narrative sense in what has already been a fairytale season. 

However, regardless of the results and distances from jumps to come, there was a reminder with my final question to Williams that defines his motivations the finest. The Brit revealed that his target at 'The Match' was not necessarily to win nor to break his PB, but to procure enough prize money to reward his sister with a new Mac for her excellent GCSE results.

If there is any positive to the shallow pool of money in athletics, it's that it has a knack of breeding some of the most down-to-earth and humble sportspeople in the country. Williams is exactly that. While completely abnormal in his sporting excellence, he is perhaps most worthy of praise for actions - like mental health awareness and family gestures - that 'just' make him a darn good person.

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Therefore, it almost seems melodious that a career set in motion on the track, wobbled by hops and steps along the way, has reached a potential launchpad to far-flung sands... of Qatar.

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