It’s now been just over a year since I became an ambassador for This Girl Can Suffolk. I’ve been reflecting on what has happened in that time, because it has been one hell of a journey so far.
I remember seeing the advert at work inviting applications to Suffolk Sport to be an ambassador for This Girl Can Suffolk. At the time I’d only recently completed my first 5k run and was starting to get into cycling, but I was beginning to discover that my apparently fragile, good-for-nothing body was capable of more than I’d let myself believe. I’d been seeing the national This Girl Can adverts on the TV; they resonated with in me in a big way, having an instant goose-bumpy effect whenever I saw them. I wondered whether I should apply. They wanted women who had experienced physical or mental health barriers to getting into sport; having been living with Crohn’s Disease, the after-effects of spinal surgery and, more recently, severe anxiety, I felt that I fit the bill.
There was one catch though. Ambassadors would be expected to share their stories through social media. I did NOT do social media. Oftentimes I did not do social, full stop. I was your typical technophobic hermit: my phone could barely be considered ‘smart’, hashtags were like a foreign language and I’d never even seen an Instagram or Twitter account. Put the anxiety on top of that and there was no way I would ever feel comfortable posting my pathetic attempts at ‘sport’ on social media for the whole world to see. PAH! As if…I’d be throwing myself to the wolves.
I remember having a conversation with a colleague who worked in sport development and knew about the campaign. After explaining my reluctance about the social media element and whether there was any chance of doing it another way – and seeing his rather diplomatic attempt to not laugh in my face – he encouraged me to just go for it.
After much deliberation, I decided I’d have a go. What was the worst that could happen? I’d post one thing, everyone would laugh at me, and I wouldn’t do it anymore.
And I probably wouldn’t even be accepted anyway.
Cue surprise when I was. Along with what eventually totalled 70 or so other strong, incredible, inspiring women. From all backgrounds. All with amazing stories to tell. I soon found myself being inspired by those women and their stories.
I also soon found myself well and truly in the deep end where social media was concerned; it brought me out in a cold sweat and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. But, I decided, I had a job to do. This wasn’t about me. It was about the women and girls whose lives we could help change for the better. And I’d signed up for this because I wanted to be a part of it. So be part of it.
Go big or go home. Sink or swim.
I dusted off my Facebook account, set up Twitter and Instagram accounts, and began learning the art of hash-tagging and @mentioning. Wanting to spread the This Girl Can Suffolk message as far and wide as possible, I also began to experiment with different approaches: I started a blog and, after getting an action camera and being inspired by a couple of female cyclist vloggers on YouTube, began a YouTube channel too.
I’d gone from someone who actively shied away from anything remotely resembling social media, to someone masquerading as the complete opposite. It was like this other person was now in charge. They were apparently this confident, outgoing, unafraid person, while the real me was still in the foetal position, rocking gently in a dark recessed corner of my mind, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
Little did I know that it was about to get a whole lot more unbelievable.
First it was being awarded Ambassador of the Month for December. Thanks to my newfound confidence, I’d just signed up to become a Time To Change Champion, and I’d written a blog about my experience of mental health and how sport and exercise had helped me to deal with some of those issues. Although I’d written about a very personal experience and it was now out there for the world to see, I realised that if it could help others to realise they are not alone then it was worth the self-sacrifice.
Then it was announcing my fundraising challenge to the world. Thanks to my newfound fitness, confidence and ability to raise awareness, I embarked on 6 months of challenges for Crohn’s and Colitis UK which saw me complete my first swimming event and first triathlons, as well as upping my longest ride to 84 miles.
Owing to the Women’s Tour coming through Suffolk in June, I had the privilege of being involved in promoting the Tour and This Girl Can Suffolk. First it was doing some bits for the local media with Councillor Sarah Barber, the then Mayor of Ipswich and fellow Ambassador. We appeared in the local paper and on the radio, and that was the start of the buzz that was to build around the Women’s Tour.
Next, I found myself on a media ride to promote the Tour, riding alongside Rebecca Charlton, former pro and now cycling presenter, and pro-cyclist Chanel Mason from Storey Racing who competed in the Tour, as well as many other cyclists from the local media and local cycling clubs. We were accompanied by one of the Tour cars and a police escort, and was without doubt one of the very coolest things I have ever done.
Then I got to work with some of my fellow ambassadors on a video for British Cycling to promote the Tour, This Girl Can Suffolk and women’s cycling in general. It was so weird seeing our videos being watched by 1000s of people over the social media channels in the hours before the Tour started.
I’d felt like a kid in a sweet shop over those few months. It was unbelievable. I’ll admit that as I sat in Christchurch Park on the day of the Tour, watching these cycling warriors racing past me, I was a little sad that it would all now be over and it felt a little anticlimactic.
Fortunately, the Suffolk Aquapark came to my aid and cured my post-Tour blues. This Girl Can Suffolk were offered some VIP tickets to try it out before it opened. It would mean swimming in the open water and wearing a wet suit – both of which I’d never done before – but it sounded like fun so I put my name down. Despite a little last-minute anxiety over said open-water-swimming and wetsuit-wearing, I soon found myself laughing hysterically while we hauled one another up onto the inflatables. It was, hands down, the funniest thing I’ve done, and the most I’d laughed, all year.
But I think the most unexpected part of the whole year is the effect of putting myself out there, particularly on the YouTube channel. I was so incredibly uncomfortable in front of the camera, although it certainly helped having so many cool things to document, and I began to find myself part of a wonderfully friendly and supportive YouTube community. When a couple of fellow vloggers and their subscribers came to Suffolk for a cycle ride, I decided to go along to meet them. It was very odd meeting people that I’d only ever seen from behind the screen on my phone; admittedly I was a little star struck.
But the part I definitely wasn’t expecting was for some of those people to announce that they were subscribers to my channel. And they watched my videos. I hadn’t really thought about it. Not properly. These people that liked and responded to my videos weren’t just names behind a YouTube account. They were real people. And they were standing right there in front of me. Telling me that they were inspired by my videos and to keep up the good work.
I mean, WTF?!?!*
The last 12 months or so have been a real sea of change. This body, which I’d openly said would never be capable of running, has got me around two triathlons. It has taught me to never say never. And this newfound confidence is helping with my anxiety, work, and life in general. I feel that being part of This Girl Can has played a big part in helping me put my mind back together again.
But some things have not changed. I still want to show that females can do sport. Be strong. Get sweaty. Jiggle. Run. Cycle. Swim. Race. Fight. Dance. And everything in between. Doing sport is bloody cool. It’s fun. It’s amazing. And we are so much more capable than we think we are.
I’ll admit though, this social media hermit still has a very long way to go. She is still inwardly terrified. And still gently rocking in the foetal position in that dark recess of her mind, still trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
But at least she now knows how to use a hashtag.
*WTF can be used as a handy mnemonic for the essential things you need when you train indoors. Water. Towel. Fan.
I don’t know what you thought I meant 😉