Anxieties Over Health and Late-Diagnosed ADHD: Olympic Swimmer James Guy

At just 24 years old, James Guy had already achieved incredible success in the world of British Swimming. He broke records and earned titles as a world and European champion.

Despite his intuition, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was amiss.

In that year, Guy’s life started to make sense as he received a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Reflecting on his journey as a double Olympic champion, Guy, at the age of 28, realizes that he never lost his determination. He had a unique personality.

Recent data suggests that a significant portion of the UK population falls under the neurodivergent category. This term refers to individuals who have a unique perspective due to conditions such as autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD.

Although Guy’s self-awareness has been enhanced by a diagnosis, the absence of it during his formative years had a long-lasting impact.

“When I was about 15 years old, I was enrolled in study support lessons to receive extra assistance at school because I wasn’t the most academically gifted individual,” he shares with BBC Sport.

“I struggled to grasp the concepts and required the teacher to repeat themselves multiple times for better comprehension.”

“I experienced a sense of exclusion.” My friends would find it amusing and tease me. I didn’t pay much attention to it because they were my closest friends, but it was rather embarrassing.

Despite the school’s efforts, Guy feels that there was a lack of resources available to properly identify his ADHD during that period.

As he reached his 20s, he noticed that his symptoms were still present outside of the educational environment and affecting his daily life. That brought back the yearning for a response.

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“In my everyday life, I can get easily sidetracked,” he remarks. “I’ll begin a task, leave it incomplete, move on to another, and also leave it unfinished. I’m doing my best, but I’m unable to make any progress.

“Even when Courtney, his fiancee, speaks to me, she often asks, ‘Are you paying attention?’ I’d be like ‘Yeah’ and she’d say, ‘Well what did I say?’ and I’m like ‘er…’ – not in a rude way but because my brain diverges.

“I informed my psychologist about my tendency to either be slightly ahead or slightly behind schedule.” There’s no middle ground.

In the following four years, a diagnosis has allowed Guy to fully embrace life in the pool with ADHD and for British Swimming to tailor support to his needs.

“I struggle to remain idle and constantly need to stay active, which is why swimming is incredibly beneficial for me,” he states. “When I go home, because I’m so mentally tired, I can sit on the sofa and relax.

“If Ryan (his coach) is reading something out the first time, it’s never going to go in my brain. I would like to witness it firsthand and have it reiterated.

“I thoroughly enjoy my work on a daily basis. The thrill you get after having a good session is massive. It’s very rare I have a bad day.”

Guy will be competing at the British Swimming Championships from 2-7 April, looking to qualify for his third successive Olympics with Team GB.

And through fostering self-acceptance, the 200m freestyle and 100m butterfly specialist has found ways of using ADHD to his advantage, including winning two golds at Tokyo 2020.

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“If I’m doing something, I always commit to it 100%. It might take me a while to get there, but you’ll do things properly and not half-heartedly which is a valuable tool in everyday life,” he says.

A diagnosis is not always a neat resolution, as 80% of adults with ADHD have a mental health problem, external at some point in their lifetime.

This is all too familiar for the swimmer who has experienced health anxiety since his mid-20s.

“Sometimes I get really anxious when an important session or race is coming up in six weeks’ time,” he says. “Even though it’s a long time away, my stomach feels bloated, or my appetite goes for a few days.

“It’s not a nice place to be in, but I’ve learned how to acknowledge and manage it.

“Sometimes, I’m really afraid of getting ill because I don’t want to miss anything in the pool. I’ll search my symptoms and have all the medication ready to go.

“I’ll need the doctor to say to me, ‘don’t worry about it, James’. “If that support wasn’t there, I would genuinely struggle to deal with it on my own.”

Throughout this journey, Guy stresses the importance of not feeling afraid to talk about neurodivergence or mental health.

“My fiancee, mum, dad and brother have always supported me. They understand I have ADHD and don’t care about it. They love me for who I am.

“Look at the athletes who are doing really well. There are a lot of mental health issues because we’re cocooned in this bubble where we don’t know what real life is.

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“We put ourselves through pain every single day. It’s not normal and it’s not how I believe life should be lived.”

This support and awareness mean the days of feeling like an outsider are long gone for Guy. He only wishes he had grown up with it.

“I would tell 12-year-old James to… go and do an ADHD test,” he laughs.

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