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Spofforth Faces Pain Barrier Once More

Mar 24, 2011  - Craig Lord

A version of this article appears in The Times newspaper today.

When Gemma Spofforth, Britain’s 100m backstroke world champion, finished fifth in the 200 metres at world-title trials in Manchester this month, she put it down to a bad day at the office.

Today, the 23-year-old reveals the "devastating" truth of a family tragedy that brought memories of her mother’s death flooding back. 

After Lesley Spofforth lost her battle with bowel cancer in December 2007, her daughter channelled pain and anger into performance in the pool. In July 2009, Spofforth mouthed the words “this is for you” and blew a kiss heavenward to her mother on a blue-sky day at the Foro Italico in Rome before taking the plunge for a 100 metres backstroke world-title race she would win in world-record time.

In the weeks leading up to nationals in Manchester, which doubled as the trial for the World Championships, Spofforth, back in Britain for several months while awaiting a green card to provide her a ticket back to her home in Florida, learnt from her father, Mark, that his new partner had had lung cancer diagnosed.

On the day of Spofforth’s 200 metres race, June White died at 2am at the same care home, St Wilfrid’s Hospice in Chichester, where Lesley Spofforth had passed away.

Spofforth, who has often spoken of the mental strength she was able to harness through the death of her mother, told The Times newspaper that watching her father have to face the nightmare all over again had been “devastating and infuriating”.

On the phone to her father a few hours before his partner passed away, Spofforth had tried to draw on her experience as an associate voluntary counsellor at the Alachua County Crisis Center in Florida, where part of her role involves making mercy dashes to would-be suicide victims during the night. She sought to offer comfort but had found it almost impossible to do so by the book. “I froze and almost forgot every single lesson I had been taught in crisis intervention,” she said.

“The night before, I felt like I needed to call Dad for some reason. It was 10pm. His voice cracked under the huge weight. He told me that June probably wasn’t going to last the night, that she was likely to die in the same hospice that Mum died in, from the same disease. I felt the floor fall from under me.

“I walked into the pool the next morning, lost. I took a lap around the poolside, I never do that . . . I didn’t really know what I was doing. I couldn’t focus on one thing and I couldn’t understand why I was there.”

She had “wanted more than anything to go and comfort Dad in his grief” but he had sent a text asking her to stay and finish the job in Manchester, which would serve as a distraction for him.

The night before the 200 metres race, Stephanie Proud, a team-mate at the Florida Gators who would win the title and book her first place on a senior Britain team for the World Championships, in Shanghai in July, was there to comfort Spofforth. “She held me as I cried, I was exhausted,” Spofforth said. The texts of others, including Martyn Wilby, her coach in Florida, and a correspondence with a colleague at the crisis centre helped too. “I tried to make sense of the pain I was feeling," she said.

“We were thrown a ticking bomb without a clock - my family, my Dad, my rock. It has been one of the most confusing and emotional times in my life," said Spofforth on a day when Cancer Research UK revealed that better screening programmes are helping to reduce the rate of death through bowel cancer in Britain.

“My skills of recognising and utilising emotions were clouded and I had fallen down the well. Even with my aptitude I was drowning under the weight of it all.”

And that had raised feelings of guilt. “I felt it ought to be about what June had gone through, what Dad was going through, not about me,” she said.

Spofforth was far from her best in the 100 metres at the trials but lifted the national crown and will defend her world title in China. She has opted not to return to Britain in June for a last-chance at qualifying for the 200 metres at the ASA National Championships.

After attending June’s funeral next week Spofforth will return to Florida to prepare for Shanghai world titles. Part of that work will include advice from fellow counsellors at the crisis centre where she works.

“The green card is all sorted,” said a swimmer who has been keen all winter long to get back to her home in the US. “I have a six-month visa and when I arrive in the States my green card will be ‘activated’ within that time.”