Two champion Team GB Paralympians have opened up about finding love in lockdown after hitting rock bottom with their mental health.
Lauren Rowles, 23, and Jude Hamer, 30, are both competing at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Rowles on the rowing team and Hamer in women’s wheelchair basketball.
After taking part in Rio 2016 both athletes looked like they were at the top of their game – but behind the scenes they were desperately struggling.
“Just because something looks great on the outside, that doesn’t mean that you’re having a good time,” Hamer told the Telegraph.
“In Rio, I could have been anywhere else in the world. I absolutely hated every minute of it and I could not wait to get on that plane back. I was in the worst mental place I’d ever been – I was suicidal.”
For Rowles, the low came after Rio. “I won the Paralympic Games and was the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, but then completely crumbled and was suffering from depression afterwards,” she said.
Much of their mental health issues were rooted in childhood trauma surrounding their disabilities. Hamer had her right leg amputated after more than 20 unsuccessful operations to even out the lengths, while Rowles became a wheelchair user at the age of 13 when she suddenly developed transverse myelitis, losing feeling from her chest down overnight.
Rowles said: “I didn’t process the trauma of what happened to me at 13, and in 2017 I fell into a deep depression.
“I felt this pressure on me, because I won a gold medal in Rio, that I had to be amazing. I ended up dropping out of university because I had severe depression. I couldn’t even leave the house. I had such bad anxiety.”
Things looked even bleaker in 2020 as the UK was plunged into lockdown, but somehow in the middle of a pandemic the two athletes found a connection.
Before their relationship Rowles wasn’t publicly out, but Hamer gave her the confidence to be proud of her sexuality. “We took that step together,” she said.
Their love story began on Instagram with casual messages about Crossfit and rabbits, but their shared mental health struggle resonated with each other, and slowly their relationship developed into something more.
“Jude would organise a savage workout and I’d do it to impress her,” Rowles said. “But then we found ourselves speaking on the phone for like two hours after.”
A year on Rowles and Hamer are living together in Reading, and are approaching the Paralympic Games together as a couple.
“My best friend, my one, my home. The funniest, smartest, most driven, beautiful girl,” Hamer shared on Instagram on their first anniversary.
“The one who pushes me to be the best version of myself, who loves me exactly for who I am, who looks after me when I can’t get out of bed by myself. Getting to love you is my favourite thing.”
Rowles has now joined her partner as a vocal LGBT+ advocate in sport – and with a record-breaking number of out queer Paralympians competing in Tokyo, the couple have high hopes for change.
“The simplest way I can put it is look at what London 2012 did for the UK – it finally started to normalise disability. Could Tokyo have the same effect for LGBTQ people?” Rowles said to the Telegraph.
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