with Perri Shakes-Drayton
13 Jul, 2021 · Track and Field
European Indoor champion, World Indoor champion and British national champion Perri Shakes Drayton talks about the ups and downs of her career in the athletics world.
Today we welcome Perri Shakes Drayton to the Voice in Sport Podcast. World & European indoor champion runner and mother. Originally from London, Perri is a retired professional runner who specialised in the 400 meters. She is a double European indoor champion, winning gold in 2013 in both the 400m and 4x400m relay. She is also a 2012 World indoor champion, winning gold in the 4x400m relay, and was a British national champion.
From all those accolades it sounds like it was a perfect journey but it was not...
In 2013, at the World Championship finals for the 400m hurdles, Perri suffered a traumatic injury where she ruptured all the ligaments and cartilage in her knee.
After years of rehabilitation and work, Perri was able to bounce back and compete in the 2017 World Championships and won a silver medal in the 4x400m relay. But that was 4 years of recovery...today she will unpack how she overcame this long injury. And although overcoming injury was one of the hardest parts of her journey, we speak about her struggles with confidence and body image, which started in primary school.
When tragedy struck in 2013 with her knee injury, Perri had to find ways to heal mentally and physically. While overcoming her injury and finishing her career strong, she has taken all the learnings into a new path of motherhood.
We are so excited to have Perri join us today and thankful for all the wisdom she shares with the VIS community. Perri - Welcome to the Voice in Sport Podcast.
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Thank you for having me.
So Perri, you had an amazing running career and despite a huge setback in 2013, with an injury, you have made some incredible accomplishments along your journey in sport. You specialize in the 400 meter, winning a gold, silver and bronze medal at various world championships, which is incredible, and you even had another bronze medal at a few European championships.
That's both before and after your big injury. And your injury was obviously a huge part of your journey to where you are now, but we're going to kind of talk through everything that you faced in your journey, through the lens of body image, confidence and how you got through it today. So thank you for, for being vulnerable and sort of telling us about your journey,
Let's start at the very beginning. Where did you grow up and how did you get into the sport of running?
So I grew up in the UK in London, specifically East London. And I was a very active child, always out and about with my cousins and my family. We were very active. We’d play like, knock down, run out games like that.
Basically being nuisances, but we never ever turned down any type of sport activities. But in school, you know, I was always that keen student, the first one to be picked for a team, whether it be football, netball or any sport, you know, I pretty much had a decent level of skills in most sports.
But I feel like the running is what brought me the most joy as much as it was painful at times cause I did actually start off as a distance runner. So I did cross country. I'd done the mini marathons. That was painful. Running for a long, long time was very painful.
I think I was around about 11 one summer and my friend was like, you should come down to the track. I had been putting it off cause I'm like, nah, I don’t, I don’t feel like I want to do it. But then one summer he was like, come on, come, come with me. And we was able to walk to the track, which was good. I'm not saying it was close by, it was like a 15, 20 minute walk.
And we saved up, that saved us from spending our bus money. So we, you know, we went to the track and I really enjoyed it. I loved the training. And it wasn't until I got to around the age of, I'll say 13, is when I changed events and went down to more the shorter distance. So I tried out the 100 meters, 200 meters, but I didn't really have the speed.
So it was like, yeah, you're okay, you're good, but you're not gonna, you’re not one of the fastest. So I tried field events as well. They really didn't go down really well. I mean, I had very long legs. I say I had, I have very, I have no legs. In school, we would try out like high jump and, with the high jump I was too frightened to do and the flop all over. All I was happy doing was doing the scissor kick, and I don't think I was going to go far with the scissor kick. So we tried, you know, javelin. That really didn't go well. I think I'm not myself in the head when I tried that. Long jump, I don't think I was explosive enough.
And yeah, it was a case or one day my coach said, why don't you try the hurdles. The 300 meter hurdles. And I was like, “wow, okay, yeah, let's go”. I never really questioned it because it just looked fun. Even though hurdling is a skill that required a lot of time and a lot of patience because I used to get very frustrated and be like, oh I'm not getting it, I’m not getting it, because I just wanted to perfect it. But it got better and better. It did. It really did. The time and effort that I put into it and the training I got better and I started winning races and I was like, okay, I could be good at this.
What age did you decide, all in in track and field? Because I think a lot of young athletes get pressured to make a decision or choose at a very young age, and it sounds like you were participating in a lot of different sports and were super active. So how did that decision process happen for you and what would you tell young girls today that might be either being pressured to pick a sport? Or they're having a hard time deciding?
I was on the football team, the basketball team, the netball team, I was on every team going.
And I actually think that benefited me because them skills were transferable. When I decided to make the decision around the age of 13, I wanted to concentrate on athletics. You know, because, my coach said to me, you're going to have to decide, because what happened was I'd go for a basketball match after school and I'd ended up being late for athletic training. And it was like I need to really decide, really, and obviously I decided with athletics, but then it got really serious when I was approached by Nike and they were talking contracts. That's when I was like, okay, I can make money by running.
I could, I didn't know that I never aspired to be an athlete. I never aspired to go to an Olympic games. It was the thing that I discovered that I was, well, my coach discovered that I was good at running.
That's so interesting Perri, because I mean, obviously you've been very successful and you've had a long career and some amazing results, but at that age, when you were around 12 or 13, you weren't even sure you were going to be competing professionally. And I just think it's so interesting because I think sometimes as athletes, we think about the ones that are successful that have reached the top podium, and we're like, they must have been so focused from age six and you know, and a lot of the athletes I’ve talked to sort of having the journey of discovery along the way. And so what was that moment for you when you were like, when you, when you got approached by Nike and you thought to yourself, Oh, wow, like this could be the future for me.
Yeah, I remember it was me and my coach were having a conversation about it. Besides getting the freebies, you know, the clothes and stuff. It was like now I have to hit times I had goals, I'm training towards certain goals. So I need to be serious about this. I mean, around like my early years of my career, I sometimes would miss athletics training for silly reasons. Could be, oh, it's raining, I'm not coming. Oh, I'm on my period, I'm not coming.
Bearing in mind I had no period pains, but it's just, I was copying what other girls would be doing just to get out of the session. Yeah. Terrible. Sometimes I’d be like, oh my God, my friends are hanging out on the streets, I want to do that, It seems so much cooler than what I'm doing. And I tried that for a bit. And then I was like, this is boring. I miss athletics, I want to train, you know, and then what I did, I used to bring some of my friends along with me. So I got the best of both. I’d take my friends and be like you're going to come and do something that I enjoy. And then that didn’t last for long cause some of them were like, no, this is too hard. I leave it to you, Perri. Yeah. I'm like, I was like, oh, join in, come on. And they'll be like, they'll do like half a lap, cause no, this is exhausting
Amazing, okay. So tell me about the moment where you did get your first contract and you started running professionally. What did that journey, when did that start for you?
That was around the age of 16. And I think I was training for, it was english schools was the major event I’d just won it, and the next competition I think, was like Europeans. So there was a European championship and I was like, we saw the qualifying time. My coach broke that down to me and saw the times that I should be running and I feel like that’s what kind of edged me on GMI training, because then you'd see if you've run a certain time, you get a certain amount of funding. It was like, okay, this I can, I can make a living from this kind of thing. And I really loved training hard as much as it was painful.
And I must say as well, I feel that I've had to grow up and grow up fast, quicker than my friends, because I'm now earning money that I know my friends who may be working in retail, wasn't getting these kinds of sums and I'm just like trying to play it down. But ya, I really would never share that information with my friends or even my family.
I used to try and just keep it as normal as possible. Well, I knew, and my coach, he knew that in terms of how well I was doing as a young child. And then like talks about university. So after Europeans, I was getting approached by unis in America, but because things were going so well for me in terms of support in the UK, my funding and my treatments was all covered.
It was like, it's not, if it's not broken, you don't need to fix it. So that's why I stayed put and ended up studying in the UK instead of going to university and making mistakes.
That must have been a hard decision because I mean, you had some options to do that, and how, how did you make that call? Like I know of a lot of young athletes that are part of the VIS community that are living in the UK and they're considering like which route to take. So how would you coach or give advice to a young girl that's maybe thinking about that decision today?
I would say do your research and talk to as many people who've done it, who have possibly come from the UK and studied in America because I didn't do that research.
Mine was just, I spoke with my coach and he kind of made the decision for me. My mom had no involvement even did my dad, everything went through my coach. I didn't really do research myself. I was so young. It's like, I didn't know any different. And I wasn't really someone who’d go and do research, extra research.
That really wasn't my thing. But I would tell my younger self to do the research because it's like, I feel like going to university in America just looks so fun, so much cooler. Like my university experience, when my husband tells me about his university days, I’m like ya mine was nothing like that. It's amazing and to be amongst people who are like-minded, I think that is a great thing. My, yeah, I never had that experience and I feel like I'm going to live it through my son because I didn't get to do it. I feel like, son I didn’t get to do it, so you're going to do it, you know.
It's so inspiring to hear that you have just excelled though beyond that. So you have had this amazing career, but during that, you had some struggles.
So I want to get into the struggles, you know, at Voice in Sport, we talk about the things that we usually don't talk about, and so today I want to kind of think about your journey through that lens of body image and kind of go back to that middle school version of Perri. Who's, you know, staying home sometimes because she's on her period and you know, maybe not going to practice all the time, like, take me back to that moment when you're like 12 or 13.
And, and talk to me about how you approached your body and did you struggle with body image or confidence at that age?
So growing up, I felt like I was the last to develop in school. So in terms of breasts, I never had, I never had breasts. I was flat-chested. So what I used to do is put like tissue and I remember I got a comment from my auntie and she was like, “oh, your boobs are growing”.
I felt so great, right. And I told my mama I got a comment and then my mom was like, whoa, wait, what have you done? I said, mom I’ve got tissues and she said take them out. Like my mum wasn't impressed. So I was like okay mum. And I felt so embarrassed because my mom gave me a response that I wasn't expecting. But my aunt gave me the response that I was looking for, that I’m starting to look like a woman, but my mom, again, she never, ever wanted me to grow up too fast and look older the more I was even down to that makeup that wasn't allowed. My mom would make me, if I wanted to put makeup on it was vaseline. And she'd say put vaseline on your eyelashes, vaseline on your lips, that was it. Yeah, you need to be naturally beautiful. You are naturally beautiful. So my mum never encouraged makeup, never bought it for me.
The most I'll do is get my nails done and I’d get, I’ll do that myself. Like she’d buy the product and you can do it at home, you know paint your nails. And then, I'm very slim. Very skinny, you know, very dandy legs, which I was very much embarrassed by. So when it came to, I had to wear school uniform going into school, so I would double up with my tights, thinking it would give my legs a bit more fitness. I would hide as well.
When we was amongst guys, I would stand in the middle and like have my friends surround me. I would never want to be at the back of the pack and never at the front, because I was embarrassing by how I looked, because I was, and that was because I was taking the mick of out of girls in school, like chicken legs, skinny legs, look at your ankles, you know, I would hear the comments and it would get to me and I'd go home cry and my mom was like, don't cry, like they want to be like you. they’re just jealous. My mum would be like that, you know, but a lot of time I'd go home crying. And then obviously with athletics, you know, my being slim was great, but then as you’re going through puberty, your body's changing. And I didn't do weights until I was about the age of 20, but naturally your body will change.
And my legs were looking strong. My friends would give me comments cause we maybe would go clothes shopping. And I tried on a pair of shoes and my friends were like “look at your legs Perri! Wow, your thighs look good and I’m like what? And when I was getting those kind of compliments from my friends I was like, okay, so I look good, you know my mentality changed and I was a bit more confident.
Even down to like growing in school, I had a well, I started my period late as well. I feel like I started around the age of 14. I had a boyfriend as well, at that age, and he was like the most popular boy in the boys school and he chose me.
That's what was really crazy. I was like, why would he choose me? I mean, I, you know, I ain't got no boobs or nothing, but he saw something in me. I don't know, unless my cousin bullied him. Yeah, I remember one time my cousin called him and said, listen, we're going to a party when you see my cousin, you better talk to her, you know. But then he ended up making me his girlfriend and he was the most popular guy in the boys school as well. So, and a lot of the girls didn't like me for that because, you know, why, why did he choose her? But then as I got older, I realized it's like, I need to embrace how I look.
And I did. And I came with confidence. I loved it. I could wear whatever I liked, you know? I used to think like having muscles, like, being very toned wasn't cool. And then I said, oh, no because people want to look like that. You know, and when I’m was amongst athletic girls, you know, it was normal, but then when you was around girls who don't do sport, it wasn't normal.
When did it shift for you, Perri? Like when was that moment that really, you started to embrace your athletic body and just who you were?
I think it was, must have been around the age of like 15, because no one was making comments about how I looked, the skinniness stopped, you know, they couldn't call me skinny anymore. You know, it was more like, oh, we saw you in the newspaper. You ran, you're fast, you've done well. It’s like yeah, thanks. Yeah. It just flipped. Everyone was talking about my performance. They wasn’t talking about how I looked.
Yeah, that’s, I think that's what’s really frustrating sometimes for the narrative when the comments are about our bodies and not about our performance.
Have you faced that at all in your, in your journey in sport?
I mean, look, in terms of performance, I always made a conscious effort when it came to competing that I would make myself feel, I say presentable, you know, I’d put a bit of makeup on because I noticed there'd be cameras watching me. And that gave me confidence because I was like, I've done the hard work, I’ve done the training where I looked crusty, sweaty, and was smelly. Now it's like, okay, I'm going to make effort, put makeup on, hair is going to be nice, you know. And I'm going to make this run look rapid and look good while doing it, you know? So, but yeah, I was never the case of, they spoke about my image or how I know, but I know that a lot athletes in the sport, they may have faced that. That people talk about their weight, but they've done such a fantastic performance, but yet they still look at people’s body and think if you don't have abs, you're not going to run fast, which isn't the case, but that's how we were made to think. That’s how, yeah, it's sad, but it's not really the case. You don't have to look like that.
Yeah, I mean, you're around the best runners in the world. So do you feel like everybody has the same body, same body type? Does everybody have a six pack?
Does everybody have a diverse, like set of attributes? And is that really true? Because sometimes what you see in the media is like one particular type of one particular body type.
Yeah, that’s the thing. I think that's the beauty of track and field. I feel like I play, sometimes I play games, and like I remember at the Olympics, I'd be like, I'm going to guess the person school, because every sport you look different but you kind of, you know, the gymnasts were so petite, short. The basketball players, you know very tall. With running now you can get like, yeah, is she 400 or she 200 meters? You know, the 100 meter girls are usually short, you know, can be stocky, some of them are tall and slim, it varies. You can't always get it right. You know, as to what sport someone's paying.
And I think that is the beauty. You can't really look at someone and be like, yeah, y’all got the muscles so you're going to be faster. It really isn't like that.
Totally. I think one of the things I, we face as athletes sometimes is comparison, you know? Cause we're so focused on like performance and so sometimes I feel like that translates into like comparing our bodies to other people's bodies. So did you ever have issues with comparison and you know, how did that affect you?
Don't get me wrong, Steph. I wanted abs cause I'm like, listen, I want to look ripped.
I wanted that, you know, and I remember like, I'll be to my coach, oh, there’s a bit of like excess on the hips. And he was like, oh, don't worry about it. It's fine. That's just ready for when you have a baby. Cause you’re gonna need that to be, to stretch. That's what he would tell me. Okay then, that's fine. And, you know what, I went by that reason that he gave us.
Okay, it's fine. You know, but I know sometimes I may look, I may have looked heavier, but to the normal average person, I was in great shape. I was slim, I looked fine. But when it comes to athletic performance, it's like athletes become very, you know, obsessed with how they look and people will comment on it, you know?
So you want to be looking like, yeah, the abs. And some people will actually make, make a conscious effort to, you know, take the mick out of themself and be like all this work but I’ve got no abs, you know? And it's like, sometimes it's the diet. It could be that, sometimes it's genetics, some people may not even have abs, but they can run fast, you know. Abs are not always what it’s cut out to be.
I think it's so important that you said that because I think a lot of girls think, hey, I have to have a six pack in order to be like at the top of my game. And that's really not the case.
ESPN came out with a study surveyed of over like 200 division 1 female athletes on body image and confidence. And the results showed that even women in their peak physical, shape, like their top of their game, they still were worried about their physical appearance. And they wanted to feel pretty.
And, I think that that kind of stems from like a lot of social influences on like, what is considered pretty in society. And that always, that necessarily, hasn't always been an athletic build. So, you know, did you, did you feel that, I guess growing up through, through college and in high school?
Yeah, I used to hate my weight sessions. I hated doing weights. I’d but like, I don't want to look manly. I'm like, no, I don't want, I don't want to look muscular. That was my thing. Oh my, I hate, I hated doing upper body. I'm like, oh, I can't do it. Make up so many excuses until I realized I needed that. I needed my arms to be strong because that's going to help me in my running and I had to put it behind me.
But yeah, I, I actually hated weight sessions. I disliked them because I didn't want muscle, because again, it wasn't seeming to be looking good.
What would you say to a girl right now that might still be feeling maybe she's not doing the weights, maybe she's not putting in that session because she's worried about gaining muscle and that then therefore she won't be “pretty” or “beautiful”. Like what would you say to a girl right now that might be in that mindset and struggling?
I’d say you're in the wrong profession. If you are trying to be at the top or do really well, it’s someone comes with the job and it has to be done. Sometimes when we have, sometimes not everything that we do that we enjoy but it’s needed to be done. So just got to do it and embrace it
13 year old self, the one that was like, you know, you hadn't got your period yet, you were like really uncomfortable, hiding behind people, like you said, what would you whisper to her about confidence and body image?
I would say enjoy being a young girl, because there's no turning back once you get your period. Do not rush to be older because when you're older, you're going to want to be younger. And when you get older, come responsibilities, so enjoy being a child.
We have a lot of episodes on Voice in Sport, talking about properly fueling your body so did you ever struggle throughout your journey? And if so, like how did you make sure that you were staying healthy and fueling your body enough?
I mean, when I was very, very young, I want to say very, very young, primary school, so yeah, before like 7, I hated food. I did not, I didn't enjoy food. I used to pretend I'd eaten it and then, you know, just stuff it down the bin and just stuff loads of tissues and pretend I'd eaten it. I didn't like food, but when I started training, I became hungry all the time.
You know, the cause now my is working, you know, overtime. I was hungry and I enjoyed food. I wouldn’t say my diet wasn’t always the best. I would kind of go for something quick, easy, fast food. But then when I realized that wasn't going to help my performance, I started to eat more of a balanced diet, you know, lots of fruits, lots of veggies, obviously my pastas was a big thing. Porridge was my breakfast, so yeah, I started to eat properly when things started to get a bit more serious and I would take myself a bit more serious.
Okay, so let's talk about you, you made it through university, you're competing at a professional level, and then you have this pretty detrimental injury.
You have a knee injury in 2013, and it doesn't take you months out of the sport, It actually takes you four years out of the sport. So obviously getting hurt at such a high, like when you're already making, you know, personal records and you're in, like, what you feel like is like your zone, like you're at the top of your game and you have an injury like that, it can be pretty devastating. So walk us through, I guess, what happened in that moment. And then we're going to talk about, again, like kind of how that affected your, your body image and your confidence.
So 2013, the start of the season, I’d done the indoor season and I became double European champion, indoor champion, in the 400 meters and a 4 x 400 relay.
So I was on a high. I'd run, my personal best, 50.50, I believe, and it was like, okay, I'm rolling. And I was pretty much looking forward to an outdoor season because I thought I'm going to go faster. So, you know, I went to the world championships that was in Moscow and you know, I won my first round, my heat, so I won my semifinals. Unfortunately made the final but I ended up coming 7th place because I injured myself at a start after going over the first hurdle. I was just in shock, I was in pain because I didn't know what happened to me because honestly I should’ve come home in the middle of that championship.
You know, I was wheeled off in a wheelchair and I was actually flown back home, I was flown back home to the UK. Cause my knee had swollen up. I needed to be seen by a professional, you know, expert. Turns out, yeah, I damaged my cartilage and PCL and it required surgery.
I was devastated. I was so upset. And I didn't know how long recovery was going to take. I thought, I didn’t think it would take four years out of my career and people probably think 4 years, like some people would’ve just given up. But, I kept going because I was like, I know I can get back from this.
And each time I kept making progress, it was like, I'm going to keep going. I'm getting closer and closer and closer and closer to recovering, but then I'd get knocked back, you know? And I was like, okay, I got knocked back, I can come again. You know, we would have its ups and downs. And I know other athletes have returned back from injuries.
No one really had a similar one to me. Maybe there was one person and they got back into the sport. So I was like, yeah, I'm going to get back. And I did get back. I did get back. You know, I tried to come back for the 2016 for the year, for the Olympics and injured myself again, with my quads so I had to have surgery for that.
But 2017 I've returned back, got made the world championships in London and managed to get a silver medal in the 4 x 400 relay. And I was like, yes, I've done it. And yeah, I was, I was very, very, very happy, you know, to be in my hometown and to receive that medal because there was a lot of people like, oh, you should have a plan B you know, you're done with your career in the sport. And I got no, no, no, I'm not. I'm not done. But I must say during my recovery, I was trying to build up muscle because I was in a cast for how many months, no weight bearing. So, you know, that leg just went very very skinny.
I remember that, I remember someone even I made a comment, they saw me in crutches and must of told a friend, oh, I saw Perri, she’s looking really skinny, thinking I've been in an injury, you know, I've had a big injury, like, what are you talking about? But she never said it to me, but hearing people's negative comments, It doesn't sit well with me, I really don't like it. So I was actually on shakes because I had to put on weight because food intake wasn't enough. And I dislike protein shakes, I really do, but I had to take them you know, to gain that weight. Eventually, you know, obviously it all worked out in the end, but know it was a lot of tears, a lot of like painful sessions to get back.
And I feel like now I'm just, that's why I'm grateful for like the ability to be active and run and lift, because I’ll always remember the times when it would hurt to run or, or hurt to skip, hurt to jump. And now I don't have that pain, so yeah.
An amazing appreciation I’m sure for your body.
Where did the determination come for sticking through it? I mean, coming back from an injury is always hard and you had a really long road so where, where did that determination come from? Like how did you keep that sort of right mindset and keep the focus?
One, no offense, none of my competitors in the UK were really doing anything in terms of performance wise, I was like, the spot’s still there, I'm coming. Even when I'm not on the field, you still can't beat me. You know, that is how I thought, you know. You have to have the attitude. And then it was a case of I know of other athletes who’ve got injuries and they've come back. Like, you know and I can do it too. I had a friend who broke her leg, damaged her knee, she came back. I was like, I can do this too. So I'm very competitive in a lot of things. I just always want to be better than the other person, and I'm not afraid to put the work into it. I have that mindset and you know attitudes. So yeah. That's why I kept on going, honestly.
So I want to talk about that sort of putting in the work. What percentage of your success has been built on effort and what percent of your success has been built on pure luck and genetics, things that you were born with?
I wouldn't say growing up, I wasn't the most talented athlete growing up.
It was just like, I wasn't afraid of the hard work. That's what I'd say. I'm going to say, can we just say 50/50, because talent only last for a certain amount of time. That's where people go wrong. That's why a lot of people that I may have competed with a younger age., they never, I never saw them when he came to senior, because they got comfortable with the wins and the glory at young age, but to sustain that you have to put the work in, you know, and I was willing to put that hard work in, I know it was ugly, you know, so that's what it takes.
I think it's amazing because I think it just shows, I mean, you've had a long career and I think the longer you stay in it, like that percentage maybe even shifts where it's like that effort and that determination really makes up for a lot.
Especially like having an injury like that, that you, that you worked through.
So I want to talk a little bit about like how it worked. I know you didn't see a sports psychologist during that time. How did you get through these four years and stay focused, but you actually got into journaling and that was a big part of your recovery process.
So we want to unpack that medium of therapy a little bit, because we want other girls to learn the power of journaling as well. So were you always a big writer or was this something that you started right after your injury?
You need an outlet to express how you feel. And sometimes you can't speak to an individual. I would write things in my diary. That diary, no one is seeing, no one's opening, the diaries not talking back to me. Any way how I felt I would express it in my diary and it was such a great help because I found I was in my head, my thoughts a lot, especially cause I was at home alone. It was nice when I was having guests and family over and I was occupied, but as soon as I was home, you know, and nighttime is quiet, I'd be in my thoughts and I would say how my day went.
If I felt crap, it was in there. If I felt good, it was in there. Yeah, I think if someone was getting on my nerves, I would express it in there as well, because yeah, I feel like I was a bit of a mad, crazy woman and I was in a dark place. So I would express it in the journal. Yeah, and it didn’t matter what I wrote because no one was checking it, it wasn't like a uni assignment, and I feel like it helped, cause once it was out, it’s like okay we move on.
That's right. So that's the power of journaling, I feel like you, you get it out of your mind onto a piece of paper and sometimes you can then distance yourself from it. Or in some cases it can help you, you know, unpack the problems that you're facing. So it's such a powerful tool. It's why we have a digital journal on the VIS platform for girls. But what are your tips for people who want to and have never started before?
I would say, just get a book, even if you start with a piece of paper. I mean, just start writing, you just lay out. You can write in whatever colors you want and just start it. Yeah and even if you lose that diary, start another one. In fact, today I did such and such and such, oh it felt amazing. Oh, go to plan simple. Yeah. Could be as long or short as you like, so you can just write oh today was crap, keep it moving, you know. It can be as long or short as you like.
So is this something that you do today, Perri? Do you still journal, is it still part of your life is it still something that you use to help you with other struggles.
You know what, I don't use it now because I'm so occupied with my son. And it’s like I don't even have time to go to that negative space because I just see the big smile on his face and I'm like, oh, you're just such a joy. You know, I can't even be miserable around you son.
Okay, well, let's talk about that transition. So your body goes through a lot, obviously through injury but then your body goes through a ton of changes when you are pregnant and you give birth to a child. So you've had your first, your first baby boy. Let's talk about how that has affected your body image again, and your perception of your body when you went through pregnancy and birth.
Initially I was like gaining weight and clothes wasn't fitting me, I was getting upset. I was like, what, no, I don't like this. I wanna be in these certain clothes, that are nice and comfortable. I had a photo taken and my arms weren’t toned, they was lookin, just appeared out of shape.
And that was my first trimester. So I lost motivation to work out in the first trimester. Second trimester I was like, no, I need to do something about this otherwise I'm just going to be a hot mess and I'm not going to like what I see, so we've got to get a move in. I had a PT jump on board who was actually in Nigeria at the time, you know, we was in locked down, so you know zoom call, which is brilliant. So I'd continue to work out and I loved it. I looked forward to, you know, logging in and working out with her and I think about twice a week. It got slower and less impact as I was getting closer to giving birth. I don't know how much I put on, I’ve never, ever measured, I never weighed myself, there was no point, but I was very much swollen. You know, my rings, weren't fitting me, the feet, the toes looking a bit fat. And then when I gave birth, I had to wait eight weeks, I believe, before I could work out again. But in six weeks I was like no, let me get active, let me do something.
And I started off with some pilates. That was really good. It was nice and easy. And then I got back in touch with the PT and she kind of gradually got me back into things, because honestly I wanted to get back into looking, you know, slim Perri. And I really honestly wanted to, my belly was taking forever to go down. It was just became like a bit of a sag and I was like, no this is a lie, when I see moms go back all like in flux from it. I was like, what, I don't know what they're doing, but I know it's not, that's not the case for me. So I was working, working out, you know, very conscious about how I looked and stuff. But, and I enjoyed it.
I remember, when I said when I was tired, I wouldn't be interested in going to the gym or anything and going for runs, but now I'm just like, I do it because I enjoy it. I'm not, you know, that is my little break, to work out, because being a mom is a lot, is it, you know, it's full time. And my little release is go to the gym and working out. And I can choose whatever I want. Sorry, and I can choose whatever body part I want to work on. Not like when I was competing for the Olympics or you know world class. I had to do, you know it was very specific, running laps. I don't have to do that. I can jump on the bicycle, I can just decide to dance.
So during that time, I mean, it's so interesting that you talk about, you continued to work out because I was at Nike, my with my first and my second, actually, but I have a picture of me on the day before my birth of my first child in the gym, like with the biggest belly possible, I was in there lifting weights.
I felt great, like my last two trimesters. And it's so important to keep your body moving, like when your body is changing. And it's the same thing when you have your period, it's actually really important to keep your body moving during that time too. So I'm, but it's very different, right? Because your body is just physically different and you're, it's changed so much.
So during that time period, did you, did you have a hard time with the fact that your body was changing and what advice do you have for, for moms or future moms who are about to go through it and how to stay positive about your body?
Yeah, I mean, I mean the beginning, I was like, when I started gaining the weight and the belly was coming, I was noticing the belly I was like, I dunno, cause this was when it wasn't, it wasn't noticeable. So I was like, oh, I don’t like how I'm looking, I don’t like the weight that I'm gaining. I'm not looking toned. And I was like, I spoke to my husband and he was like, no, you look beautiful, you know?
And I was like there's no turning back. There's no turning back, is there? You know, it's going to get bigger. And then I just started taking pictures, you know, just to show like the progression and the changes. And I really started to embrace it. So I would say like take loads of photos because when I look back I'm like, wow, I grew this human being inside of me. And now he's here today. So yeah, it is a beautiful thing and it's amazing thing what the human body, the female human body can do.
Did you want to have kids earlier in your career Perri? Or did you feel like you were waiting until you were done?
Yes. You know what props to, you know, any sports woman who decides that she'll have a baby and go back and do, and then go back. I was like, I'm not that kind of person. You know, I finished the chapter of being an athlete, we tie it, right, next, okay I’m ready to be a mom. I felt like being an athlete, I was too selfish. There's a lot of, you know, I have to be selfish, with dedication, and I wouldn't have time to spend with my son. That's what I feel like it would be.
Cause someone else would have to take care of him whilst I go and train. I don't want that. I didn't want that, you know, cause you can't get these times back. And I said, yeah, it's always the case though.
Do you feel like there is a lot of pressure for, for women to wait until their pro careers are done? Or do you feel like now, now, like in 2021 it's actually pretty easy or I wouldn't say easy to have a, have a kid while being a pro athlete, but like you can do it. Like, do you see a lot of your, of your professional athlete friends successfully doing that?
Yeah, that’s the thing, it can be done. You can return back to sport and probably be even better than you were before. I do see that, but for preference it wasn't something that I wanted to do. Then you get comments like this, so what age, what age are you going to have children? Because a lot of people in their twenties when I was, you know, fully focused on being an athlete and all my friends were having children.
That was the last thing I was thinking about, you know, you know, but it's like now I feel like I'm at an age where I've done a lot of things and it's like, oh, now I'm happy to share it with my, with my son. Yeah, I’ve done so much in my life, now I'm at a point where I'm happy to share my time with someone else.
You're a mom and you're like all in on the mom's side. Reflecting back and looking back at your journey and just like the landscape in the sports industry, what would you like to see happen for female athletes? So that it is a more inclusive environment for those that do want to have kids and take a break mid-career to do that.
I honestly feel like it needs to be accepted more. I was talking to somebody and it seemed like we was hiding it, you know, didn't want to tell their federation, you know. I feel like the staff members, professionals need to be educated on how to deal with pregnant women. You know, include us, you know, we do want to work out, include us, you know? I still feel like there is bit of a long way to go. They're trying, but yeah, like make us feel included, you know, it really needs to, yeah people need to be educated.
Absolutely. Well, our bodies are incredible that we can do that and, you know, I think we go through a lot as athletes and definitely as moms, but both mentally and physically. So looking back at all the adversity that you have faced, what has been a constant to your success?
Being able to be adaptable. I feel like in different situations, scenarios, I’m able to adapt. Being an athlete I was able to do multiple events, you know, give it the 400 meter flat, the 400 meter hurdle, 800, 200. And then, you know, outside of the athletics career I can adapt in terms of like, you know now it's like I'm the mom, but I have a fitness background, you know, so now I appeal to a bigger audience, but I still like to work out but I can also relate to you guys because I'm a mom. And I'm probably going through a few things that you guys have been through as a mom, you know? So yeah, being able to just adapt really.
Especially as we change and we go through so many different things as athletes, what is the most important thing you did for yourself as an athlete to improve your performance?
I took care of my feet. I took care of my feet. That's what I did. I made sure I got my pedicures because, listen the money makers need to be taken care of. So that's what I would do. I don’t even do it as often. When I have a pedicure now it’s like once in a blue moon, but as an athlete, that was my go to. Like yes, someone’s looking out for my feet.
That's amazing. You have said a few times that you have dealt with hearing negative comments from people about your body, you know, at a young age and again, when you were injured, being too skinny, What would you say to girls that are dealing with negative comments today, and you want to keep them in a good mind space and like help them work through those negative comments that they might be hearing. What advice would you have for those girls?
You need to have to have the confidence within yourself to kind of block out that noise. Don't get me wrong, if I see a comment, even up to now, if I see a negative comment, it will get to me, but you need, you see it, you keep it moving. That's how you go. That is how you do it. You don't dwell on it. You don’t, don’t dwell on it. It's like ya say whatever you like, I know who I am, you know, I have the confidence, I love this about me, you know?
It's so important. Like it's so hard to do though with social media right now, because we're constantly seeing, you know, comments and so how do you manage through that?
You have to, you have to trust the people that are around you. Not the social media people. They don't know you. They're not your friends. They just following and being nosy in your life, but they don't know you.
So you need to keep in contact with your friends and family that keep you grounded. That's what you need to do and listen to what they have to say. I mean, you can even tell them when you see comment and they'll laugh it off with you. Be like oh forget that, you know, and then block that person. If someone's being negative, block them, then they realize, oh gosh, I can't see anymore, I can't comment on that stuff. No, you can’t.
So a support system is obviously like really important to longevity in sport, especially in professional sports, but a lot of that support system and like recovery comes from within, right, we know that and we can, it's clear, clearly you have that, you have that determination and that focus. But I want to talk about the support system a little bit. What advice would you give to a girl to create a support system so that they do have a long journey in sport?
Keep, keep your support system small. You don't have to have a huge amount of people. Mine is just like, you know, my mom, my husband, my dad. I don't, well, maybe one or two friends. And there are people that check in with you every day, you check in with them. Their opinion is what matters really.
And do things that make you feel happy, that's what you do. You know if you're, if you're someone who likes to do things by yourself, then do it. I know growing up, I was like, that's not cool going, doing this by yourself. Now, if I want to do something, I want to go shopping, I can go by myself and I'll buy things that I want, not having opinions of other people, cause that sometimes having too much input from other people it's, you're not doing what you want to do, you’re doing what others want to do.
You have those moments of like dip in confidence, which we all do in our journey in sport. Like how do you climb back up from those moments where you're like really low in confidence?
Like coming back from my injury, you know, and going to compete, I wasn't on the start line as the number one. I tried to remind myself of what I have done and that puts a smile on my face. That might not, I might not be the Perri that I was then, but I've been there, I know how it's felt. And it's okay if that's not the case and it's going to take time to get back to there, or you might not even get there, but that's the big thing, the thing about taking so much pictures and creating memories because that puts a smile on your face.
So in our final two questions that we always ask all of our pro athletes that come, if you can think back to your younger self and just give her one single piece of advice, what would that be?
There's no one else that is like you. There’s no other version of you. There's no one like you, so better you be the best you. Be the best version of yourself.
I love it. And the girls that might be dropping out of sport because whether they feel like there's not a future for them or they're not good enough, what would you tell them?
I would tell them that there’s so many avenues of sport. You may not be the athlete and that's fine. You can be the coach. You can be the mentor. You can be the physio. There are other avenues that you could be and still be a part of the sport. And your passion will come through. You may not be the athlete that’s putting yourself through that hard stuff but there are there other ways you can be a part of it.
I love that. And we need women a part of so many different areas of sport. And that leads me to my last question, which is, if there was one thing that you could change for the future of women's sport, what would that one thing be?
I would change the exposure that women’s sport has. That's what needs to be changed. Everyone knows about women's sport. Everyone is out there and it's in our face the way we see men sport in our face, that's how I want to be women in our face. Not in the case of, oh, they’re showing netball, oh they’re showing female athletes, it shouldn't be like that, I want it to become a norm.
Absolutely. It's a big reason why we named the company VIS, because we want to see more visibility of women's sports and it’s so important. So thank you so much, Perri for joining us and thank you for sharing all of your, you know, your stories along the way, and just being vulnerable to talk about body image, because it's not exactly an easy topic, but it's so important because I think we're all going through it in our journeys and we'll be better for it after listening to how you handled it. So thank you.
Thank you for having me.
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This week’s episode was produced and edited by VIS Creator Macey Mannion. Macey is a sophomore at Princeton University and is on the Women's Swim team.
Hearing Perri describe her journey today with so many ups and downs is so inspiring to hear. Coming back 4 years later shows us that we can make it through anything, even an injury - that some would say - is a career ending injury. It’s also a good reminder to be grateful for our time competing in sport and to not take anything for granted.
Our conversation about overcoming uncomfortable comments from classmates and preconceived notions that certain parts of training will make women look “too muscular” and not feel “pretty” are so important. We hope our community will feel inspired by your focus on journaling and use our VIS notebooks on voiceinsport.com!!
Perri, we are thankful for all the work you have done and continue to do to better the world of sport. We wish you the best of luck as you continue your journey off the track and thank you for sharing your story!
Please subscribe to the Voice in Sport Podcast and give us a rating. You can follow us on instagram, facebook, twitter and tiktok @voiceinsport and if you are interested in joining our Community as a member you will have access to exclusive Content, Mentorship from girls and women in sport and Advocacy tools - check out voiceinsport.com. And if you are passionate about accelerating Sports Science and research on the female athletic body check out voiceinsporfoundation.org and get involved.
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Host: Stef Strack
Producer: VIS Creators™ Macey Mannion and Brooke Rodi