Siobhan O’Connor On Living With Colitis, Mental Health And Her Dream Come True At Rio 2016

Siobhan O'Connor; Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

“Girl Power” exclaimed the headline alongside a picture of Siobhan O’Connor on the cover of the August 2011 edition of Swimming Times, the then magazine of the Amateur Swimming Association and British Swimming.

It accompanied pictures of O’Connor and Molly Renshaw, two 15-year-olds who had booked their spots on the British team for the World Championships in Shanghai, China following the British Championships in Sheffield.

Turn a few pages and you are greeted by the words: “Juniors today, worlds tomorrow for 15-year-old starlets.”

O’Connor, who had begun a coaching relationship with Dave McNulty at Bath the previous November, was “amazed” to make the cut, saying “it was quite a shock” before outlining her ambitions for worlds.

“I’m quite young so I just want to enjoy the World Championships and treat it as a learning curve,” she said.

Renshaw too was taken aback to have made the senior team and had to do a double-take of the scoreboard at the end of her race where she finished second behind Stacey Tadd.

O’Connor Debuts On The World Stage But Pain, Fear And Isolation Appear

Siobhan-Marie O'Connor

Siobhan O’Connor; Photo Courtesy: British Swimming

On to Shanghai where O’Connor finished 13th in the 200IM with a new PB on her senior debut and Renshaw came 20th in the 200 breast.

It had been a busy few months and O’Connor returned to Bath and to lessons in preparation to take the remainder of her GCSEs at Saint Gregory’s Catholic School, now with a home Games in the form of London 2012 in her sights.

It wasn’t long after her return that O’Connor started to feel unwell.

Initially she thought she had picked up a bug in Shanghai given how quickly it all came on but it didn’t go away.

She had uncontrolled diarrhoea – going to the toilet up to 20 times a day – intense fatigue, excruciating stomach pain and extreme soreness in her joints.

So too was her sight affected.

She told Swimming World:

“I’d wake up in the morning and I couldn’t see anything for about 20 minutes. It was really bizarre.

“I’d wake up and all my vision was really blurry for 20 minutes every morning, it was really strange  and quite scary but it was all related to the fact I was really poorly.

“I lost loads of weight and I couldn’t keep any weight on. I remember having to have meal replacement shakes as well as food: at that age I was trying to bulk up.

“I was really thin and every time I was stepping on the scales my weight was going down which is not a good thing, especially for the staff who were trying to keep me in the pool and keep me fit and healthy.”

O’Connor describes how on one occasion her parents, Lindsey and Sean, left her in bed asleep one Sunday morning to take her brother Ciaran to a rugby tournament.

She was still asleep on their return at 6pm having slept for 19 hours.

Only family, close friends and her coaching team at Bath were party to what was happening and, given the symptoms, O’Connor always wanted to be close to home or to know she had access to toilets.

It affected all areas of her life but still she ploughed on without a diagnosis.

She said:

“I think because I was so young and because I thought there wasn’t anything wrong with me I just tried to live my life as normal.

“I’d still do everything and I was just massively burning the candle at both ends so I just refused to let it get the better of me really but it definitely was getting the better of me.

“I was so completely worn out all the time. I was still at school at this point and I just used to sleep all day at school – every single lesson I’d sleep.

“My friends joke about it now but I don’t really know how I got through some of my exams – thankfully I was quite lucky, I did a lot of them the year before in Year 10 but I just slept all through class. The teachers just let me sleep in the classroom.”

March 2012 and the trials for the British team for the Olympics. Having built her hopes up following her trip to Shanghai, O’Connor was consumed by nerves that so debilitated her she finished sixth in her specialist 200IM.

She “wanted to go home and cry for a week” and thought her chance of competing in London was gone only to qualify in the 100m breaststroke at the second stage of trials in June.

GCSEs completed, O’Connor did participate at a home Games, coming in 21st in the 100 breaststroke and competing in the 4x100m medley relay where the British squad finished eighth.

The family then decamped on holiday but it was no time of sunshine and relaxation.

“I was really, really bad, really poorly and I think at that point my mum and dad knew it wasn’t just IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or stress or anything like that, I was in a really bad way.

“I picked up something like a bug and it made everything 10 times worse and I got taken to hospital and had tests and stuff.

“And then they told me I had ulcerative colitis.”

A Diagnosis, Lessons In Life And A Trip To The Rio Podium


Siobhan-Marie O’Connor – Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

The condition is an inflammatory bowel disease and for almost a year O’Connor had battled it undiagnosed and uncontrolled.

Astonishing that she still managed to compete at the Olympics in the face of something so physically and mentally draining as well as completing her school years and turning 16.

She says:

“I learned so many lessons that year and I think it’s probably one of the biggest years of my life in a lot of ways.

“I achieved those things despite being really ill, it taught me it is mind over matter.

“Since that time I’ve been really ill but I’ve known I’ve got colitis and I know that I can talk to my doctor but back then I didn’t know and I was really, really poorly.

“That taught me that if I can get through that I refuse to let it get the best of me. I can get through anything really.

“Some things you can’t get through but it’s always how you react to it.

“You’re not really ever given a choice of what happens to you but your choice is how you react to it.”

Ulcerative colitis can flare up without warning at any time and severely impact O’Connor’s ability to train and by extension, her competition.

Against this backdrop O’Connor continued to negotiate international waters and by the time she got to Rio 2016, she had Commonwealth and European titles and world medals.

She had enjoyed the longest unbroken spell of training in her career and the time and space that had given her to hone McNulty’s training plan to nigh-on perfection all came together on 9 August 2016.

At the Aquatics Stadium that night, O’Connor won silver, closing with every stroke down the last 25 on eventual winner Katinka Hosszu, as she touched second in 2:06.88.

She became only the third woman in history to dip inside 2:07 after Ariana Kukors in a shiny suit in 2009 and world-record holder Hosszu.

It was, she says, a dream come true.

“It had all paid off when it mattered. I’d held my nerve and I’d had the dream race really and that is a great feeling. I know that I can do that, I know that’s what I was capable of.”

It underlined her talent and potential but is there any element of her achievement in Rio being double-edged? That given good health and an unbroken spell of training, that is what she can do but sometimes her body just won’t let her?

“I definitely get that because for me it is frustrating sometimes because I do know what I am capable of and sometimes my body does stop me.

“But I guess that is the same for all athletes.

“I never want it to be an excuse, it’s not an excuse and I think that is one thing I’ve always been scared about – that people will think if I don’t swim well then this is an excuse.

“That’s why I never used to talk about it. The thing is I have achieved amazing things despite it so it’s not an excuse.

“But sometimes it does affect me, it really does, but that’s the thing for every athlete.

“People have injuries that take them out of competition, people get illness at competition.

“It’s frustrating at times but I think it shows me what I can do when it all goes right and I think that is amazing.”

O’Connor had a long break after Rio which – along with illness – led to inconsistent training and a seventh-placed finish at the 2017 worlds in 2:10.41.

She does not try to explain that away, saying:

“There are definitely times when I haven’t deserved to swim: there are times when it’s not to do with my colitis. I completely hold my hands up – that was me.

“But that’s sport really. It ebbs and flows and is constantly up and down.

“The tough times in sport are tough, they’re really hard but then the highs are just amazing: I think that’s what you live for.

“I remember reading something Mel (Marshall) wrote and it said: ‘it’s a lot of days in the dark for that two minutes in the light.’

“And it’s just so true:  those good times just make you think that every single hard time is completely worth it, there’s no feeling like it and you do everything you can to get five minutes of that incredible feeling.”

Flare-Up Leads To Retirement Fears And A Move To Loughborough


Photo Courtesy: British Swimming

Last year was a low point when her mental and physical health suffered so much that she feared she may have to give up.

The break-up of a relationship was followed by a flare-up of her colitis in October/November 2018 through to the time of the world trials and she was “completely floored”.

Bar a few days when she could not get out of bed, O’Connor dragged herself to training with McNulty writing ‘easy’ sessions.

Her mental health really suffered.

“I couldn’t train at any intensity so it was very difficult. Even swimming easy took it out of me and again I just felt like to me at least I was going, at least I was there. But it was hard, really hard because I just knew I wasn’t doing anything I needed to do.

“When you think about it rest, eating well, sleeping well – all of these things are so important but you have to be really healthy to train to get those adaptations – you need to really push your body.

“My body was in no fit state to push it – I could barely get out of bed, I was really rough. I knew deep down I’m not going to make any gains or anything so I felt very frustrated, very trapped – the thing I love, my job, I’m not able to do so it was hard, really hard. I’m not surprised I struggled.”

There were some heart-to-heart conversations with McNulty – who with her parents provided a shield of protection – and no little soul searching.

Once she had come through the worst of it, O’Connor made the incredibly tough decision to leave Bath and move to Loughborough to train under Dave Hemmings – and be reunited with Renshaw.

She said:

“It gave me a different  perspective once I came out the other side and I know it’s really cliched but what doesn’t kill you really makes you stronger.

“I think there were lots of reasons why I felt down and why I felt in a really bad place.

“I was going through a lot physically and I felt really helpless and obviously my mental health was going to be in a bad place. I think what I have realised is that I am far more self aware and I know myself a lot better because of what I’ve faced.”

Despite her lack of training and the physical and mental battle she had fought, O’Connor finished seventh at the World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea.

Then came the move to Loughborough to train for what may well be her final Olympics – although she is not sure what her plans will be given she is loving being in the water and her motivation great.

Elite Athletes At The Peak Of Human Performance

By the time Tokyo comes around in July 2021, O’Connor will have been on the British senior team for 10 years.

A long time to have been an elite athlete – a person who represents the peak of human performance.

Last week she posted on social media about being “completely infuriated” at not being “in control of her own body” and with O’Connor there are times when her body is the antithesis.

“I think that’s something I’ve had to come to terms with.

“The thing that gave me strength was that even when I was really, really poorly back in 2011 I still managed to make an Olympic team and I’ve still done amazing things despite my colitis.

“There’s times when I’m healthy and I can get great training and that’s great, it gives me confidence that it doesn’t always get the better of me.

“It is ridiculously hard but then the number of athletes I know that have long-term injuries and things like that where it’s similar. Everyone has that thing that they go through in their career.

“It is really frustrating – it’s probably been the biggest bane of my swimming career but it is something that has made me really tough as well.

“It’s what makes me me, I can’t change it. I just have to accept it.

“I think before Rio I was always scared to talk about it because I was massively embarrassed about it especially with the symptoms being what they are.

“But then after I won the medal there were a few articles that were posted about it and they got a bit of traction.

“All the hype around the Olympics at the time and I had hundreds and hundreds of lovely messages from people with colitis and from the friends of colitis community and it blew me away. It was amazing.

“I absolutely love being a friends of colitis ambassador since then because it’s such an amazing community.

“The stories that I’ve heard and I realised at that point there’s no way I should feel embarrassed about it because the thing with colitis and Crohn’s is that people do feel embarrassed about it and they don’t talk about it and they don’t get the diagnosis.

“They deal with all these things internally.

“When you go through a flare because no-one can see it you basically feel like you have to battle it yourself. When that happened to me last year and I said I felt isolated these are all things people do feel when they go through flares and bad times with colitis.

“That is the worst thing you can do – bottle it up – and I have realised you have to talk about it and you have to tell those around you how you feel. Your parents, your friends, you family. For me it was also my coach Dave and my doctor: I had to be really open and honest otherwise I would have been in an even worse place.

“I guess what I am trying to say is being open and honest about it and talking about my experience helps other people and that makes me feel proud.

“If I am helping other people by talking about it that makes me feel good and hearing other people talk about it makes me feel good as well like it mirrors strength sharing your story and making it more visible.

“It is hard – it doesn’t must affect your physical health it affects your mental health as well just because of the nature of the disease and so people really do need not to not deal with it on their own because it’s a really tough thing to deal with.”