Jenny Wallwork was one of the world’s best badminton players, but no one knew she was suffering bulimia. Now she has started a charity for sufferers. Catherine Scott reports.
Badminton has been a part of Jenny Wallwork’s life for as long as she can remember.
“My parents played badminton. My mum played for England and that’s where I got my love of the game from,” says the 28-year-old from Leeds. “I used to watch them play and I got the bug the instant I started playing with them at the age of seven. I just wanted to get onto the court all the time.”
But it was much more than just a sporting hobby for Jenny. It became her life. At the age of 17 she was chosen to join the national squad and she jumped at the chance.
For ten years she competed in the England National squad, reached number five in the world, was five times National Champion and also won both European and Commonwealth Medals.
But behind the medals and smiles Jenny was hiding something from the world, even her parents. She had the eating disorder bulimia.
“I was body conscious from a young age,” admits Jenny. “And from the age of 18 I became more so but it wasn’t until I was 22 that I started making myself physically sick.
“At the time I had put on a bit of weight. Being in a professional sport you are put under a lot of pressure from coaches, dieticians and even yourself. Quite quickly my weight became an obsession. I was weighing myself everyday, eating a thousand calories at night and then making myself sick. I just control it. I knew as an athlete that I needed to look after my health and that was I was doing was making me ill but there was nothing I could do.”
Unlike anorexia where weight loss is a clear indication that something is wrong, bulimia is far more difficult to spot.
“They call it the silent killer,” says Jenny. “People couldn’t necessarily see what’s going on. Sufferers of bulimia tend to be of a normal weight and so it is often hard for people to spot something is wrong.
“This often means people suffer in silence,” says Jenny who kept her bulimia from her parents and her boyfriend at the time.
What made it harder for people to notice what Jenny was going through was her success.
“I’d reached number five in the world, but I was really struggling in training. I was very tired and struggled to take in information.”
But eventually, after three years, Jenny realised that she had to do something about her obsessive behaviour.
“It got the point where I was very scared of what I as doing to my body. I’m naturally a very upbeat, smiley person, people say to me ‘You’ve always got a smile on your face’. But I became withdrawn and upset a lot of the time so I just didn’t know how to deal with what was going on.”
She decided to come clean, but the hardest part was telling her family.
“It was a real challenge for me. As an athlete you are supposed to be almost superhuman, and I wasn’t. I was embarrassed. But they were great and just talking about it and sharing what I had been going through, made me feel so much better.”
Although family friends were supportive Jenny says there really wasn’t much out there to help her cope with what she was going through.
“When you go to the GP they won’t refer you to a support unless you BMI is sufficiently low, which mine wasn’t due to the type of eating disorder I had. But I really needed help and there really wasn’t much out there.”
Now Jenny has launched her own eponymous charity The Jenny Wallwork Foundation with the aim of helping not only people with eating disorder but anyone with mental health problems.
“Alarmingly, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. With the burden of perfectionism, high self-expectations, competitiveness, hyperactivity, repetitive exercise routines, compulsiveness, drive, tendency toward depression, body image distortion, diet and weight obsessions, the pressure on athletes, as you can imagine, is immense. And it’s not gender specific, a staggering 15 per cent of bulimia sufferers are male.
“Within the sporting circles there’s a plethora of coaches, physiotherapists and nutritionists but nothing aimed specifically at eating disorders, which is surprising considering that significantly higher rates of eating disorders are found in elite athletes. That is something I want to change.”
But Jenny’s charity isn’t just aimed at helping athletes, it will be open to anyone.
“There is still an awful lot of ignorance out there about mental health,” says Jenny. “I wanted to start a support group and it has grown from there.”
She has enlisted the help and support of sporting colleagues and is holding a number of fund-raising events.
“I want to raise awareness of mental health problems and also raise money so that we can set up support groups and run workshops to help people and their families.”
Although her bulimia is now under control, Jenny knows that it will always be with her and she has suffered relapses.
“I did the same thing again. I hid it from everyone for eight months and then started talking about it.”
She has left badminton, unhappy with the direction the sport was heading, but she is now an athlete mentor with the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust.
“I absolutely love what I do. At the moment I am working with disadvantaged young people on Scarborough and Hull.
“ I have always had a very nurturing side to me and I feel very privileged to have met such fantastic althetes through the programme and to acutally feel that I am making a difference to young people’s lives.
“I love the fact that I am trying to motivate and inspire young people.”
The Jenny Wallwork Foundation is organising two fund-raising events.
On November 14 2015 there will be a Badminton Fundrasier at Leeds Badminton Centre, Garforth offering a one-off chance to play with and against some of Great Britain’s best players past and present. If you enjoy badminton at any level this will be a great day of fun and games.
On February 20th 2016 there will be a “Spring Ball” at the Hilton Hotel – Leeds City Centre offering a night with some of Great Britain’s most successful athletes
For more details of the events visit www.jennywallworkfoundation.co.uk.