‘You get pushed to your limits without realising you're not OK’: The gymnast driven to suicidal thoughts and self-harm

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson

When you watch Christian Cox take to the floor, he has such flair and poise. A real gymnastic talent, but what it took for him to become a World Champion gymnast, as a teenager, was difficult to hear.

He was 17 when he won the accolade in Putian, China in 2016, as part of the Men’s 4 Junior Acrobatics team. It was a tremendous achievement. His dream, but it drove him to the point of suicide.

Former World Champion Chris Cox told ITV News: "You get pushed to your limits without realising, that you're really not OK here."

In the weeks and months leading up to the contest he was perpetually training, four hours a day, seven days a week. He struggled under the pressure of it all, struggled to train in pain and struggled with some of the acrobatic stunts he was required to perform. He started to self-harm. He claims his coaches knew what he was doing.

“I was so manically depressed, I'd go into the changing rooms to self-harm and punch the walls. It was visible to the coaches. They could see. My coaches said, ‘You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to become World Champion,” Chris said.

“We even spoke to the sports psychologist. I wrote on a bit of paper. I want to run outside the gym and kill myself. Coaches were like, you can't really write that. Looking back on it now, it’s kind of like.....you should have taken me out of there or said honestly, gymnastics isn’t for you.”

Chris’ former club was Richmond Gymnastics Association, where those within it had a duty of care to him. RGA insists the club was unaware Chris was self-harming or having suicidal thoughts, and that the allegations are untrue. It also says it maintains detailed Health and Safety, and Safeguarding policies.

But under British Gymnastics guidelines, it states: “Where an event arises where a coach or other person in a position of responsibility, having assessed the options, concludes that it is in the best interest of a child, or adult at risk, the individual involved must provide a written report of the incident to the relevant Welfare Officer without unreasonable delay. “Where appropriate, a parent or carer should also be informed.“

Chris Cox trained with Richmond Gymnastics Association. Credit: ITV News

Chris’ parents say they weren’t. They feel let down by them. They believe Chris should have been told to leave or take a break from the sport.

Despite his state of mind before the competition, he wasn’t stopped from going to China. The team won gold, but their glory came at a cost.

"The National Anthem was playing and all I could feel inside was I'm a fraud, I don't deserve this,” Chris said.

The journey to get him to the podium destroyed his mental health. The journey home broke him.

"On the plane on the way back from China I took all the paracetamol and ibuprofen I had with me. I wanted to die. I thought you know what, I'm done with all the suicidal thoughts and being pushed too hard,” he said.

Fortunately, there was a doctor onboard who tended to Chris but an emergency landing in Russia was discussed. Ultimately, he was deemed stable enough for that not to happen.

Nevertheless, when they landed at Heathrow, Chris was taken to hospital. The first thing his parents knew about it was when Chris didn’t come through Arrivals.

After treatment, weeks later, he did go back to the club. He’d been replaced in the team. He asked them why they allowed him to compete at the competition, when they knew he was of a fragile state of mind. Chris said: "They said to me, we didn't know you were going to do it. I told them every day how I felt. I was obviously self-harming all the time and they didn't even tell my parents what I was telling them." Melanie Sanders is the Head of Acrobatics at Richmond.

She wasn’t on the flight and wasn’t Chris’ main coach, but she was in China at the Championships. Within British Gymnastics she is also Chair of the National Acrobatics Technical Committee. British Gymnastics say they have “no record of any complaint being formally made to them regarding these claims or coach."

Chris Cox (left) with Melanie Sanders. Credit: ITV News

And there are other, similar stories from former elite gymnasts within the world of acrobatics. One woman I spoke to, who trained from the age of 11, says her coach had a profound effect on her mental health as well.

"When I used to feel scared and anxious and stressed during training sessions, I used to scratch my hands, and my arms and my legs, because the pain of the scratching almost overtook the fear,” she said.

“My coach would take notice of it but she'd tell me to stop doing it because she didn't want other people seeing that. What she said to me and how she treated me still affects me to this day. I've suffered with depression and anxiety because of how she treated me. She's ruined my life."

She spoke to me anonymously because she is still terrified of the effect speaking out could have on her friendship groups, her family and her life, despite the fact she retired from the sport years ago.

I asked her: “Did you ever believe that there was a process in place to protect you?”

"No. British Gymnastics is riddled with the coaches. There's no way you can make a complaint without them finding it out and covering it up. I couldn't trust BG in taking my case because of the backlash that would come back on me and my family."

These are not the only tales we have heard, or will continue to hear, about a culture that has damaged a generation of children.

British Gymnastics says any mistreatment of gymnasts is inexcusable and urges any athlete who feels they've been mistreated to report it to their Integrity Unit or call the NSPCC or British Athlete Commission.

British Gymnastics has also launched a QC-led independent inquiry into the claims of abuse made within the sport.

But, so many of those who competed for British Gymnastics, no longer trust the institution, and want to reimagine a governing body that protects children first and foremost.

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