Olympic champion track cyclist Callum Skinner says that his retirement from track cycling was due to the lack of support he felt he received from British Cycling when he raised his mental health issues with team management.
The 26-year-old, who won gold in the team sprint at the Rio Olympics in 2016, where he also took silver in the individual sprint behind fellow Team GB rider Jason Kenny, announced in August last year that he was taking an indefinite break from cycling.
He said at the time he lacked motivation, but hoped to return for Tokyo 2020. However, in March this year confirmed his retirement, saying that he wanted to work with British Cycling to help “make the athlete experience more human.”
Now, speaking to BBC 5 Live, he has opened up about his mental health problems, saying: "I was treading water and starting to sink, I guess.”
Skinner revealed that he had been "going through a pretty tough time" last summer and told British Cycling management that he was "suffering from pretty serious mental health issues.”
He said that when the issue was raised of how long he could take off until he would be ruled out of selection for next year’s Olympic Games, "That was really just the point when I decided to step away.
"It was basically a little bit of a cry for help and it became all too much about performance and not enough about getting better, from my point of view.
"I wasn't going to go into that meeting and have my athleticism and my work ethic questioned. Especially when I'd taken the plunge in disclosing some of my mental health issues.
"At that point I decided just to bow out."
Last month, British Cycling unveiled a new Mental Health Strategy that followed an independent review of its medical procedures that was concluded in June 2017 and which led to the appointment of Doctor Nigel Jones as the first head of medical services for the Great Britain Cycling Team
However, Skinner believes that the issues he was facing were "not well enough understood at the time" he raised them.
"I was asking for a break for the sake of my safety, which was recommended by Dr Steve Peters, my coach and the team doctor, so to then have that morph into a conversation about performance just made me feel as if this wasn't really something I wanted to do any more.”.
A spokesman for British Cycling told BBC 5 Live: "We are aware of Callum's health problems and we sought to support him throughout.
"His feedback has helped improve the mental health provision for our athletes and we continue to wish him well in the next phase of his career."
The governing body’s new Mental Health Strategy has been implemented at a time when the mental health of elite cyclists is under scrutiny in Great Britain and beyond.
Earlier this year, American world champion track cyclist Kelly Catlin took her own life, with four-time Olympic champion Laura Kenny afterwards urging British Cycling to protect riders who might be struggling with similar issues.
“I just hope someone at British Cycling saw that. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with British Cycling. But did USA Cycling even know how she was feeling?
“Were there any warning signs that they missed? Because I would hate to think that there was someone on our squad who feels that way; who feels they have no one to turn to …”
In recent months, two-time British road champion Peter Kennaugh and the German sprinter Marcel Kittel have both taken breaks from cycling citing mental health issues.
Outlining British Cycling’s new strategy last month, Jones said: “The aim is to move away from the more traditional approach of reactively providing external support to those diagnosed with a mental health ‘disorder’ and to instead shift the focus to a proactive approach of educating our coaches and support staff to allow for better understanding, toleration, containment and ultimately decreasing the prevalence and impact of challenging behaviours and mental distress.”
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