Editor’s note: This story includes graphic descriptions of a suicide attempt. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the Samaritans at 116 123 or at www.samaritans.org.
BIRMINGHAM, England — Cyrille Tchatchet II’s voice barely wavers while he tells his story. He’s feeling comfortable, in his usual setting surrounded by weight racks in a small gym in Birmingham, but half a world away from Cameroon, the country of his birth.
Tchatchet has been on a journey in every sense. He has a lot to talk about: How he became an Olympian at Tokyo 2020 for the Refugee Team; how he earned a degree as a mental health nurse in a bid to help others; how he finally bought a house of his own and became a British citizen, with dreams to return to the Olympics at Paris 2024 as part of Team GB.
First, though, he begins by describing the low moments. Within minutes, he is talking about mental health and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. He’s talking about endings.
Tchatchet describes how he spent his teenage years in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, and took up weightlifting after seeing a picture of his uncle performing a lift. By the time he was 18 years old, he had arrived in a buzzing Scotland to represent his country as a weightlifter. It was his first major event, and he had a real shot at a medal, an opportunity to become a weightlifting star. Instead, he looks back despairingly, knowing he spent most of the time in the athlete’s village, holed up in his room.
Tchatchet competed in his event, finishing fifth in the men’s 85kg category. Then a day later, he fled the Games, walking out of the athletes’ village with just his weightlifting shoes and belt — he won’t publicly say why, only describing his personal situation as “toxic,” saying it was unsafe for him to return to Cameroon.
His journey began the first night when he slept outside on the streets in Glasgow, but he wanted to get away, so he travelled as far as he could: First on a train south, to London, then to Brighton. He didn’t know what to do. For weeks, he sat on Brighton’ shores staring out at sea, watching the tide draw in, then ebb slowly away. He was sleeping under a bridge. For food, he ate supermarket biscuits — the cheapest thing he could find.
“After my first night in Brighton, I think the reality hit me,” Tchatchet tells ESPN. “I started thinking, I’ve left my mum at home. I’ve left my brothers and sisters. Now, I’m here. I don’t have a house. I don’t know where to go. I’m scared to go to the police. My mood started dipping quite rapidly. I knew I was in deep trouble at that point.”
He still had nowhere to go. ‘What’s next?’ he thought, the clouds in his own mind growing darker. Tchatchet then m3ade a decision he now reflects on with regret. He walked to one of Brighton’s many cliffs until he was met by a fence and a sign — placed by The Samaritans, a UK suicide helpline and charity — that said: ‘If you’re feeling down, call this number.’ He did, but he soon hung up.
“I felt hopeless,” Tchatchet says.
He walked through the hole in the fence and over the edge, staring down below, where the waves crashed against the rocks.
“I came to a point where I was actually hopeless, and I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “At the time I thought that the right thing to do was to end my life.”
This is where Tchatchet’s story could have ended. The Samaritans had informed the local police, who arrived on the scene within minutes. An officer talked to Tchatchet, who made the decision to walk away from the edge, and then back through the fence.
“I was very vulnerable,” Tchatchet says. “I would say naive as well because at the time I thought suicide would fix things.”
The police took him to a station, where he was soon arrested for breaching immigration law by staying in the UK after his temporary visa had ended and was transported to a detention centre in Dover, a town on the English south coast. His initial attempt at staying in the country as a refugee was denied, although an appeal through his solicitor gave him a chance to stay, and a transfer to Birmingham where he was given a room inside a house with other asylum seekers.
It gave him a base, a place to feel safe and to shelter. It also led him to Warley Weightlifting Club in the west of the city, where the coach Gian Singh Cheema gave him the keys to the gym. Weightlifting soon became a mental respite.
“Lifting is quite addictive,” Tchatchet says. “When you start doing it then it becomes part of you. Going back to weightlifting was a big motivation for me because I had something to look forward to.
“In weightlifting, as soon as we start training, we start looking at competitions. I eventually signed up to some local competitions. I did a few of them, and from there I moved to nationals, soon I was competing and winning more medals.”
Tchatchet still faced an ongoing mental health battle. His legal case requesting asylum took 18 months in total, most of which he spent anxious at the prospect of being sent back to Cameroon. At one time, he attempted suicide again, which led to a stay in hospital, a diagnosis of a depression and a prescription for anti-depressants. It was the first time he sought help for his mental health.
“Life at that point was just weightlifting, which I was lucky to have because having something to look forward to gives you hope” he says. “I think that was one of the reasons I survived during those 18 months. My mood was very low.”
It was fitting, then, it was on a walk back from the Warley gym when his solicitor called with news that he had been granted refugee status. Tchatchet was now allowed to live and work in the UK.
“It was the best day of my life,” Tchatchet says.
One of the first items on his agenda was to gain an education. Tchatchet moved to London and enrolled in a course at Middlesex University to study as a mental health nurse, hoping to help people like himself. Now he works as a community psychiatric nurse.
Another goal was to qualify for the Olympics. That dream came true when he gained entry to Tokyo 2020 as part of the Refugee Team and was even selected to carry the Olympic flag into the opening ceremony. All the while, he developed new skills to better handle his mental health.
“I will say I’m settled. I’m able to cope with the day-to-day stress.”
Now 27 years old, Tchachet uses those new skills everyday day. Sometimes, it’s in little ways: How he talks to himself or feeling more comfortable being open with other people. Other times, the battles are tougher, when familiar dark clouds return, like at the Commonwealth Games last summer, when a serious setback put it all to the test.
Tchatchet’s life felt like it had come full circle. He became a British citizen, meaning he could compete for England at the Commonwealth Games. Better yet, the Games would be staged in his adopted hometown of Birmingham.
“My mindset going into the competition was: I must get a medal,” he says.
The competition started well. His story was well-reported before the Games, and the crowd roared at his entry. The first half of the event was the snatch — when he must lift the barbell from the ground to overhead in one continuous motion. He was feeling good, and his performance matched it: Second-place. Next came his favourite movement, the clean and jerk. All he had to do was lift the barbell first from the floor to the shoulders, and then over his head. He had nailed this weight hundreds of times. A medal hope had become a likelihood. This new chapter of his story was about to achieve a perfect ending. Or so it seemed.
In the backroom before his first clean and jerk, Tchatchet went into a full-body cramp. His legs seized up, his arms grew tense and his body became weak. Minutes later, when he tried to perform the lift, pain shot through his body, as if his muscles were screaming for him to stop. He could barely lift the bar. That wouldn’t stop him. He tried anyway, almost successfully performing the lift. His coach later said he had never seen anyone drop the bar amid a full-body cramp.
“It was sad seeing it slip out of my hands slowly, very slowly,” Tchatchet says.
After three failed lifts, Tchatchet was disqualified. He retreated to the back room. His dreams, once a likelihood, now dashed.
“I was devastated. I was crying, I was shouting, I was talking to myself, talking to my coach. I was in a very bad state,” Tchatchet says.
“I never felt like that before. Even the day [in 2014], that I wanted to terminate my life. I don’t think the emotions were that strong. I didn’t know I would cope. I didn’t know I would come out of it. A lot of things were going through my head, obviously negative things. I was in a very bad state. I didn’t know what to do. I was thinking, ‘How am I going to survive this night?’
“I was like, ‘I’m not going to be alive tomorrow’. I was telling my coach, ‘I don’t think I will survive’, but I don’t think he understood what I said. But I was literally meaning, ‘I don’t think I will be alive tomorrow.’
“To say bluntly, I was suicidal.”
It was still daylight when Tchatchet left the arena in Birmingham, his mind still coming to terms with what just happened. He made the short drive home, had a shower and tried to switch off, only his brain was still racing: What if he had taken salt? Maybe that would have solved it. What if he drank more water? What if he had trained differently?
He asked himself those questions “off and on” for hours.
“My partner was just trying to console me, trying to rationalise and explain that bad things happen,” he says. He had a long sleep, then woke up the next day. “I was alive,” Tchatchet says.
Almost a year has passed since that day. Tchatchet is still in the gym in Birmingham, still talking through his journey, still reflecting.
“Before the event, I didn’t think about me walking out of there without a medal, which was a big mistake,” he says. “I have learned a lot from that experience because going into a competition, you need to think about both sides. You could win a gold medal, you could be last, you could break a leg. But I didn’t think of that.
“I have accepted what happened. Things don’t always go as we planned. I have to think about the next one. I have to think about other competitions. Paris is coming.”
Tchatchet’s bid to return to the Olympic Games will be more difficult than ever. Since Tokyo, the number of places for weightlifters significantly cut from 196 to 120 amid doping and governance issues. That’s okay, though. This time Tchatchet will head into competition at the other end of a mental health journey that has given him skills to control his emotions and his thoughts.
“I had to use that to kind of motivate myself that this is not the end,” Tchatchet says. “We can win, we can lose, and it’s okay. I can qualify for Paris, I may not qualify, and it’s fine, but I’ll still carry on doing the sport I love.”
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