Paralympic rowing champion Lauren Rowles aspires to be the role model she never had after admitting she battled depression and suicidal thoughts as she struggled to come to terms with her disability and sexuality.
The inspirational 23-year-old is set to defend her PR2 mixed double skulls title alongside partner Laurence Whiteley this summer having being named in Great Britain’s squad for Tokyo.
Rowles was just 18 when she and Whiteley claimed gold at Rio 2016 and swiftly hit rock bottom on her return as suppressed personal issues were compounded by persistent injury problems.
Struggles to comprehend being left paralysed from the waist down at the age of 13 emerged, while she eventually came out as gay last year having initially felt compelled to hide her sexual orientation, causing long-standing anxiety issues.
“One of my favourite quotes is: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’,” she told the PA news agency.
“For me, when I was a kid I never had any role models in my life that were disabled, that were gay, and I grew up learning that if you were disabled you had no life left and if you were gay then you would face the worst and most horrific abuse.
“If when I was younger I had role models – even people on the TV or in the media – I would have felt a lot more at ease.
“That’s why I didn’t come out until I was 21, 22 because I just felt so scared for a very long time and also why I never felt comfortable in my disability because every depiction of disability in the media or whatever it was a bad impression.
“For me, I try and do that (be a role model) in what I do. I try and mentor a few young girls, especially in the day and age of social media.
“I suffered a lot with harassment and abuse on social media when I was younger and I try and talk about my experiences now to make sure that nobody feels alone in their experience.
“If one kid can listen to my experiences and think: ‘I’m not alone’ – I know that would have helped me when I was a kid so I’m trying to do the same now.”
Rowles, who hails from Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, woke up one morning in 2012 unable to move the bottom half of her body and was left physically impaired from transverse myelitis.
She required the use of a wheelchair from the very start of her teenage years and reached the final of the T54 1500m race at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
She switched to rowing and secured glory in Brazil, for she which she was made an MBE and shortlisted for the BBC’s Young Sports Personality of the Year.
The whirlwind period came against the pressurised backdrop of completing GCSEs and A levels, while her subdued mood post-Rio caused her to quit a university law course after just one year.
“I fell into a very deep depression, to be honest with you, when I came back from Rio,” she said.
“I was probably the most successful I had ever been and the most unhappy I had ever been.
“I fell into a deep hole of feeling quite suicidal for a time and I cried for help from my mum, I said to her: ‘I can’t do this any more, I don’t want to be here’.
“I hadn’t absorbed the trauma that had gone on in my life and I basically just kept going, like youngsters do. When you’re young, you live your life at 100 miles an hour and I had never taken a step back to go, ‘wow, some pretty bad things have happened to me’ and I struggled with that.”
Her negative mental state was exacerbated by a series of operations.
Surgery on her spine following a slipped disc preceded a procedure on her arms due to compartment syndrome and then a torn hip muscle, each requiring prolonged periods of rehabilitation.
She shed tears in 2019 after recovering to become world champion alongside Yorkshireman Whiteley in Austria.
Training twice a day in the living room of her flat in Berkshire during lockdown helped her fall back in love with sport, while a relationship with Paralympic wheelchair basketball player Jude Hamer has also contributed to a renewed sense of purpose.
“I’m in the best place. I came out as a gay over a year ago and that was a massive thing for me of why I was suffering from mental health as well,” she said.
“I had such bad anxiety, I wouldn’t leave the house sometimes and it was because I wasn’t living authentically.
“Now going out with Jude and having her in my life and being able to live freely and out but also being the most confident version of myself that I have ever been, on and off the water, I have a lot going for me.
“It’s incredible that all these things have lined back up in my life after going through some really challenging times.
“I am in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life. If you told me the final was tomorrow, I would do it, I would be out on a plane.”
Rowles and Whiteley are in an eight-person rowing squad for Tokyo, alongside fellow reigning champion James Fox and Paralympic debutants Ellen Buttrick, Giedre Rakauskaite, Ollie Stanhope, Erin Kennedy and Benjamin Pritchard.