Mental Health Awareness Week: Canoeist Kimberley Woods shares her story

Tokyo Olympian Kimberley Woods distinctly remembers the day she admitted she didn’t have the strength to carry on alone.  

The slalom canoeist speaks with clarity and candour on a relationship with mental health that has been choppy for as long as she can remember. 

Sport has been Woods’ one and only outlet, ever since she started dodging the wrong kind of crowd on the Warwickshire council estate she called home. 

Her most powerful early memories are of drug raids next door—and sport. Woods was involved with just about any athletic activity going, from cricket to netball, basketball and both Gaelic and America football. 

Canoeing is a sport that is passed down from clan to clan and Woods’ auntie Diane won silver at the 1994 World Junior Championships. 

Paddling became Woods’ universe, but her world was a lonely place to live, with school bullies using the thing she loved most against her. 

“I was picked on because I was more muscular than the other girls,” she said.  

“You should embrace your uniqueness but at that age, some kids just see that as an opportunity to pick on people and there were specific kids who would do it all the time. 

“They would say ‘your hair's greasy, you’ve got bad clothes, you’ve got a six pack’ and I always gave them a reaction. That’s what they fed off. 

“I lashed out straight away because that was all I knew. I learned over time to embrace it, but I definitely didn’t have the skills to deal with it in the right way until later in life.” 

Woods had Diane to thank for her paddling passion but struggled to share her vulnerability with her nearest and dearest. 

“I was just dealing with it myself and not being able to talk to a family member,” she remembered. 

“In the Woods family, you’re brought up to be strong and to project this image that you're unbreakable. 

“It’s quite sad looking back that I couldn’t talk to the people who knew me best.” 

She made it through school and enrolled at university in 2015, where she could combine studies with canoeing. 

Woods experienced isolation as an undergraduate and a serious knee injury, requiring surgery, rendered her immobile and unable to train. 

She was beached on the sofa, reliant on housemates for lifts to and from lectures, a time which she identifies as the darkest period in her life. 

“I just hated everything about myself, how I looked, how I felt, how I couldn't go canoeing at that time and that I couldn't do anything,” she said. 

“After the operation, that was the breaking point. I felt so helpless and I couldn’t be my own person.” 

Woods’ watershed moment came in a conversation with British Canoeing coach Craig Morris, who approached his athlete with concerns about her mental wellbeing. 

“I remember our chat as if it was yesterday, sitting down in a room at the opposite end of the table,” said Woods. 

“He made me feel safe and realised that I needed help and I was struggling. Craig, he just seemed really concerned and I knew I needed help. 

“I didn’t want to hide away from everyone forever.” 

Woods underwent therapy at the Priory clinic to help her unpack the reasons underlying her negative core beliefs. 

That was the catalyst for the 26-year-old to become who she is today, an Olympian sharing her story publicly and with a confidence that is almost disarming. 

She enjoyed a brilliant season in 2019 to qualify for Tokyo and then finished tenth on Olympic debut in the K1 event. 

Her message, as Mental Health Awareness Week comes around once again, is that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, she says, it’s the strongest thing a person can possibly do. 

“The key thing is not to give up,” said Woods. “There'll be times where you will really want to, and there are times where I did. 

“The only advice I can give is just don't be scared of being vulnerable. I just write down a list of things that I love doing, and try and do those things. 

She continued: “I think it's really important to not go through a journey like that on your own. 

“It's been incredible to see the support that I've had just by talking about it and how many more people have been open about it themselves. 

“You can’t do it on your own. As much as you think that you can, you can't.” 

 Sportsbeat 2022