Former rower Caragh McMurtry’s story is a shocking one, but she doesn’t tell it to alarm. Instead, she opens up to the British Elite Athletes Association about 10 challenging years as she pushes for sport to adapt, and for neurodivergent athletes to reach out for support.
A talented rower, McMurtry entered the sport as a teenager, returning to the water after a few years “messing around and… [being] a nuisance on the street.” After volunteers welcomed her back with a ‘nuggie’, she considered her rowing club, Coalporters, to be “a second family”.
She enjoyed the isolation of being out on the water, and, having spent her adolescence struggling to find her crowd, thrived by acting with quiet, solitary determination.
After struggling to adapt to the Great Britain Senior Rowing Team, Caragh McMurtry was misdiagnosed with bipolar
She spent five years on heavy medication, before being rediagnosed with autism
⬇️ Below, during @NCWeek, she shares her story#BEAAWithYou | @neurodsport pic.twitter.com/MbYihXqUgm
— British Elite Athletes Association (@GBEliteAthletes) March 16, 2023
“I liked that with rowing it was, at least part of it, you against yourself,” Caragh reflects with the BEAA. “That’s probably the bit that attracted me.
“At club level, coastal rowing, a little bit at junior and under-23 level, I could get away with being quite solitary. I guess people saw as: ‘Wow, she’s so driven.’”
Caragh then joined the Great Britain Senior Rowing Team after the 2012 Olympics, and her life began to change.
“When you’re in the senior team and you’re there every day and expected to behave in a certain way and not just perform in a certain way, actually that ability and need not to be a lone wolf was very much challenged and not necessarily seen in a good light.
“That went against me and people wanted me to change. I ended up trying to be someone I wasn’t, masking and putting a lot of effort into being not myself.”
The additional energy she expended while training and performing led Caragh to experience burnouts and what seemed like mood fluctuations.
“I was really, really struggling and people didn’t know it because I kept it to myself and kept it quiet,” she says.
“Nobody understood me, I didn’t know how to communicate or reach out. I remember in my really dark times crying and thinking: ‘Why is my brain this way? Why is my brain doing this? Why can I not just be normal?’ Looking back that’s really sad, because actually: why am I aspiring to be normal? Why can I not just be the best version of me?”
Caragh sought medical advice, and was soon misdiagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder, for which doctors prescribed her Lithium, Lamotrigine, and Quetiapine.
She recalls: “I was in a place where I just wanted to be better. [I wanted] the problems I was facing to get out of my way so I could be the best I could be at my sport… I was just really open to anyone who can solve that problem. I guess I was naïve. I just assumed that any doctor knew better than me. I just assumed if you were an expert you knew best. I was quite happy to be led down that path, thinking it would be a solution and make me better.”
The medication began to take effect. “The changes are so gradual you don’t realise how it’s affected you negatively,” Caragh says. “Each day is like a microchange. If you could jump forwards from the first day you took something, to two years, then five years down the line, you could juxtapose that feeling with the other one and realise how terrible it’s making you feel.
“It’s like a slow and gradual decline, and your self confidence declines with it and your ability to advocate declines with it, and before you know it, you don’t remember being that good athlete. All you know is you have this label of madness: you must be mad, it’s your problem.”
Caragh felt worse and worse as her time on medication stretched to five years. She struggled on the water, too, receiving critical performance reviews and not rowing to her full ability. Around 2019 she spoke with new British Rowing Performance Director, Brendan Purcell, and was eventually referred to UK Sport’s Mental Health Panel.
There she was rediagnosed with High Functioning Autism, and steadily taken off medication.
“Women with autism are eight times more likely to die by suicide,” Caragh says. “I was in that place sometimes, just because I felt so different and so wrong.”
Following rediagnosis, Caragh received therapy and professional support to establish a new communication plan with her coaches. Her output transformed, as she was selected for the Olympics and medalled at the World Cup, which, in Caragh’s words, “proved that a person-centred approach, and the right understanding and support, can revolutionise an athlete’s performance.”
She continues: “Sports and society as a whole could be more inclusive. Understanding some people have different neurology and different behaviour traits and that what it means to you isn’t necessarily what it means to them.
“I don’t want anybody to go through what I went through. I don’t want my experience to go to waste… If I see those 10 years as a social experiment I’m using for good, it’s empowering me and helping me to turn those memories into something purposeful.
“It might even be the case that in five years’ time if I had enough impact and you said to me: ‘Would you go back to the start and change it?’ I’m hoping to get to the point where I’d say: ‘No, I’d go through that again to have this effect.’… I do want it to be worth something.”
You can read more about Caragh’s story and discuss her services via www.neurodiversesport.com.Access our services >