“I needed to show other athletes that you can survive without funding.” | Marilyn Okoro
With the World Championships well under way in Doha, athletes are going through the inevitable cycle of elite sport. Faced with the chance to achieve their dreams, some enjoy the realisation of victory whilst taste defeat.
In 2016, Marilyn Okoro achieved one of her lifelong ambitions, receiving an Olympic Bronze medal. But it wasn’t after the Rio Games the same year.
Marilyn was forced to wait for 10 years to receive her medal from the Beijing Olympics, after the Russians and Belarusians had been found to have cheated in the doping scandal that shook the foundations of international athletics.
Even after finding out she had been awarded bronze, it wasn’t for another 2 years until Marilyn was able to proudly stand on a podium with the medal around her neck.
“The initial feeling was just being gutted,” Marilyn told us in a previous interview. “I didn’t celebrate until we started preparing to get the medal. I know you’re not supposed to let the opinions of others dictate who you are and what you do, but that’s a lot easier said than done.
“Not just that moment in the spotlight but all the steppingstones to keep your career going and the lifelines that come with having an Olympic medal attached to your career.
“I know you’re not supposed to let the opinions
of others dictate who you are and what you do,
but that’s a lot easier said than done”
“You change so much as an athlete in those 10 years, I’ve had friends walk away as they just got so disgruntled and bitter with the sport.
“But when you have that moment, when it dawns on you how much you have achieved, you can make sense of all that hard work. It gives you the motivation to keep going.”
During those 10 years, Marilyn had faced exile from the elite development programme of British Athletics, lost her funding as a full-time athlete and been denied all the opportunities that come after achieving Olympic success.
For athletes who face competing in 4-year cycles, in a sport that is not as financially rewarding as other mainstream sports in the UK, medalling provides a profile and opportunity for athletes to capitalise and promote their own personal brand.
Whether that is through speaking engagements, brand ambassadorships or public and media appearances, there is no doubt that being recognised for excellence on the track can help propel an athlete’s career off it.
“I didn’t realise how major an Olympic medal is, so many doors have opened now I’m an Olympic medallist.
“Previously, I felt as though I’d done 10 years’ service and then I didn’t mean anything, so I was kicked to the curb.”
But rather than become disenchanted with the sport, Marilyn realised she was even more determined to continue with her track career.
“Previously, I felt as though I’d done 10 years’ service
and then I didn’t mean anything, so I was kicked to the curb”
“I needed to show other athletes that you can survive off of funding, as long as you want it bad enough and you’re willing to do whatever it takes.”
Now, whilst she continues to work towards Tokyo 2020, Marilyn admits she faced a new battle: her mental health.
“Just after Christmas everything came to a bit of a head. I was just feeling really stressed financially and I didn’t realise how much stress impacts my body.”
Marilyn explains that, as she became stressed, her body began to bear the brunt of her anxiety. Long standing injuries began to flare up and, in the year running up to the Olympic Games, it all became too much.
“As I’ve had such a bumpy ride, I’ve been really good at hiding in my running. That’s always been my stress release and a form of escapism.
“When that almost gets taken away from you it’s like ‘Oh my god what am I going to do.’
“ I realise now consciously I was stressing about what am I going to do after I retire and the stresses of being a self-funded athlete manifested in ‘Can I pay my bills?’
“It got to the point where I didn’t want to leave my flat. I was getting really depressed, [whilst] I think as athletes were used to anxiety and getting nervous, I didn’t really understand what was happening to me.”
Many athletes battle with their own sense of identity. If, for your whole career, you have demanded nothing short of excellence, and trained every day to achieve that, as well as identifying as an elite athlete, how do you step away?
“As I’ve had such a bumpy ride, I’ve been really
good at hiding in my running. That’s always
been my stress release and a form of escapism”
It reached a point that, after seeing her GP, Marilyn was diagnosed with having a depressive episode. She turned to the NHS, and after a course of anti-depressants and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), she acknowledges that she is now in a much better place.
“I was just putting so much pressure on myself. I’m a very all or nothing person, which is great in the sports field, but in terms of life, and being normal, it can be self-deprecating.”
She admits that through seeking professional help, she found coping mechanisms and techniques that allow for a more informed and effective way to deal with any mental health battles she may have in the future.
“My whole life I have done things on my own, it was time to say I needed help.”
Luckily for Marilyn, the support network of those around her helped tackle the anxiety. She is no longer on the British Athletics programme, self-funding her Olympic dream, but credits the team around her for providing the support network she needed.
Now, Marilyn is back on track for Tokyo 2020. But she is also much more prepared for whatever step she decides to take after moving away from competing.
“I’m way more prepared because I’m laying the foundation. A lot of athletes just freak out because they think ‘I don’t know what’s over the other side’, the fear of the unknown, whereas I’m doing things I would do after competing.”
Marilyn is working within businesses and schools to tell her story and deliver the message that you can achieve, even when it looks like the odds are stacked against you.
As well as her message on overcoming barriers, Marilyn also delivers talks and workshops on mental health and how opening up and admitting you’re struggling is key to overcoming your issues.
“I’m loving it and it puts me at ease. I encourage athletes to think about it so much earlier.
“My whole life I have done things on my own,
it was time to say I needed help”
“I think my generation was so focused on getting personal bests but it’s changed now, [especially because of] social media. Athletes realise [they’re] much more of a brand and there’s so much more they can tap into while still competing.”
Whilst many ex-Olympians step into coaching, development or media roles, Marilyn wants to focus on the duty of care owed to athletes and help provide the support network that was lacking for so much of her career.
But first things first is Tokyo. Having overcome so much, not an ounce of Marilyn’s determination has waned.
And when the curtain closes on her athletics career, there is no doubt she will continue to make an impact on everyone she meets with her incredible positivity, steely determination and genuine passion to make society a fairer, and more understanding, place.
If you are a brand or agency that wants to work with Marilyn in any way please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07952 304340.