In the weeks leading up to a major international competition like the Commonwealth Games, plenty of different thoughts and emotions will be going through athletes’ minds.
Retired Great Britain sprinter Jamie Bowie knows exactly what that feels like. He ran in Team GB colours at European and World Championships, winning a silver medal in 2014 in the 4x400m relay while competing at that summer’s Commonwealths in Glasgow for the host nation, Scotland.
Across recent years, though, he has had a slightly different perspective as Team Manager for the gymnastics squad at the Gold Coast in 2018 – a role he is reprising in Birmingham later this month.
Having been there and done it himself, Bowie knows exactly how the current crop of athletes will be feeling, but where nerves would turn to focus as he prepared to step on to the track, he is yet to find a mechanism to deal with the emotions that come with sitting on the sidelines.
“As a team manager and coach, I do get quite nervous but it’s a different kind of nerves I think,” he explained.
“Not that long ago I was reminiscing with a couple of gymnasts about my journey and performances in athletics, and I definitely remember the 2013 World Championships and being like, ‘I’m ready for this. This is what I was made for. I’m ready for this experience’.
“I had a little bit of butterflies, but more controlled nerves, a positive sort of nervousness. It definitely wasn’t like I didn’t want to be there or didn’t think I deserved to be there. I guess I was always quite a chilled, cool character when I competed – or I certainly like to think so.
“As a coach, where you’re not in control of that performance, you feel like you’ve done everything you can to support an individual or team and then you’ve just got to sit back and watch what happens. It’s actually probably more nerve-wracking. So as a coach, as a team manager or whatever, I get more nervous than I did as an athlete.
“I think it comes down to when I was on the track, I knew what I was going to do, whether that was good, bad, or somewhere in the middle. I was in control of what I was doing, I had ownership of that performance. As a coach, you have given the athlete ownership, but you still feel responsible for the performance from all the planning and training that you have put in place.
“Then you’ve got to sit back and let them to do the hard work, which can be quite nerve-wracking to do. When you’re an athlete, you’re keeping yourself busy, keeping your focus. As a coach, I find myself being that calming influence in the warm up, cool as a cucumber. Then I find the nerves hit as soon as I’ve dropped off athletes to the call room and I’m up in the stands watching with that half an hour to wait where all you’re thinking about is the race.
“I probably need to bring some strategies of keeping myself busy like I used to when I was competing into the coaching and Team Manager realm.”
From the Highlands to the world stage
Long before challenging for medals at a world championship, Bowie joined his local athletics club in Inverness.
At first, his motivation was a simple one – by joining the Inverness Harriers, he hoped to gain the edge leading up to his primary school sports day. Unfortunately, the few weeks he gave himself to train would not have been enough to make a major difference.
That did spark a passion for track and field, though. For a few years, the future international would bounce around different disciplines from high jump to cross country, before eventually settling and dedicating himself to the 400m.
Bowie was 18 when Glasgow was announced as the 2014 Commonwealth Games host, a pivotal point in his career as it gave him something to work towards just as he left school sport – even if it may have felt like nothing more than a pipe dream.
“I remembered the Glasgow Commonwealth Games being announced and making that a real target of mine,” Bowie recalled.
“I picked up some other international caps along the way, but if you’d asked me at that primary school sports day if I thought the Commonwealth Games was achievable – I might have said yes being a cheeky 11 or 12-year-old, but whilst I was training in Inverness as a 15 or 16-year-old I definitely would have thought that was beyond the realms of my talent.
“I think my first real result was probably winning a medal at the Scottish Schools Championships, and then getting selected for the Schools International. That was a real breakthrough moment for me.
“Then when I left Inverness to go to university I talked with (coach) Charlie Forbes about the best options around coaching, and decided to work with Piotr Haczek, who was one of the national coaches at the time and was an Olympian and world medalist in his own right in the 400.
“Really that’s where I took my athletics to that next level. Charlie always inspired me to be my best and go down to big competitions and expose myself to British level championships – even though I remember the first time I went down I probably finished second last in my heat.
“That was a bit over my head that weekend, but I went from that to going down a couple years later as an under-23 and winning a medal and getting selected for the European Championships. That helped me believe I could achieve that, and then I actually did – and along the way the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow was a big focus.”
For any athlete, competing at a Commonwealth Games would be a highlight. When it is a home Games, that makes it all the more special.
The wall of Scottish support is the lasting memory of the competition for Bowie – even though he was part of a team that broke a long-standing Scottish 4x400m record.
“That Scottish record had stood for a long time, but also if you look at that class of 400m running in the Commonwealth, it’s pretty spectacular,” Bowie said.
“Most of my GB teammates who had won a World Championship silver medal were in Team England. We had the Olympic silver medalists, the Bahamas, and Jamaica who won a bronze – now silver – medal at the World Championships in Moscow. We had some really tough competition there, so it was really great to put on a Scottish record, even in the pouring rain.
“I must have been at Scottish schools level when Glasgow was announced as a host city, so the stretch of imagination to get there was huge at that point, but I think having the opportunity to be at a home Commonwealth Games was absolutely huge. We got to do a lap of honour after the race, and I saw some Inverness Harriers there. There’s a photo of me with a saltire and the Inverness Harriers logo on there, and having all my family there watching was amazing.
“Really, 2014 was a summer of sport for Scotland. Everyone was talking about the Games, being involved or going to go see it. It really was a huge thing.
“For me, the bit that was the most surreal or inspiring was actually the opening ceremony. We were fortunate that athletics was on quite late on the calendar, so we got to go to the opening ceremony – that’s not always afforded to everyone if you’re on the first or second day and you’re focusing on performance.
“As hosts we were last out, and I remember hearing the noise and just waiting outside for an age. An opening ceremony sounds super glamorous to everybody, but they in reality they are not – it’s just a long waiting game.
“I remember just stepping out at Celtic Park, them announcing Scotland and the roar. I feel like we actually sprinted round Celtic Park, and I wish somebody had said stop, walk so slowly to absorb it, take everything in, because that was the moment it hit that Glasgow was going to be a big Games. Hampden was a huge atmosphere every night we were on track, but I do particularly remember stepping out for the opening ceremony and just being hit by the noise and the atmosphere. It was crazy.”
Calling time on his career
In hindsight, it is probably fair to say that Commonwealth Games is where Bowie’s exploits on the track peaked.
He worked hard to try and break into the Team GB squad for the Rio Olympics two years later, but it was not to be, and in 2017 Bowie officially announced his retirement.
At 28 years old, he was still on the young side even for an elite sprinter to be calling it quits, but although Bowie feels there could have been more to accomplish he has no regrets about stepping away.
“There was probably a little bit more left in the tank, but I was done with that,” he reasoned.
“I would say I was pretty close to achieving what I could achieve, and I don’t think I was necessarily prepared to wait another four years – which then would have been five years, having retired after not making Rio.
“Getting to an Olympics was the one accolade I really felt I was capable of doing that I didn’t, but for a variety of different reasons I didn’t quite make the cut. There was probably a wee bit to come off my PB too.
“At the time, a couple of my training partners had decided to give up or wanted to have a baby, and then my coach had moved abroad a new role outside of the UK, so I was kind of left to manage things myself.
“I’d been doing it since the back end of 2015 with the sole focus of doing everything that I could do to make the team in Rio. I put in a lot of energy into that, so then not making the Games, I had expelled all that energy and I didn’t have the same support network around me to bring me back up.
“That took its toll on me, and reflecting on some of the great coming out stories that have been shared – I wasn’t being my authentic self, and that was eating up energy too. I was married to my sport, which is definitely not a balance I recommend to anybody nowadays. I was fortunate that I didn’t have a serious injury then that probably would have brought that to a head a little bit.
“I had different goals and targets. I was very focused on trying to make that team in Rio, and when it came to then not making that team I didn’t think I had enough energy to wait another four years to prove my worth again.
“I probably felt a little bit lonely, a little bit lost, and then that opportunity came up for me to explore the next chapter in my life and I felt like at that stage it was probably right for me to move on.
“I had thought about moving training groups, or finding a different training base and moving away from Edinburgh, and if I hadn’t got that role with Scottish Gymnastics I probably would have explored that a little bit further – but at the time it was the right choice for me.
“I definitely don’t live by that ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’, mentality. I know in my heart that I gave 100%, it just wasn’t to be.”
Being his authentic self
Such was Bowie’s focus on his sport, questions or thoughts about his sexuality got pushed to the side for a long time.
It was only after the Glasgow Commonwealth Games that he began to understand it a little more. Looking back on where he was at personally at that point, Bowie says he was not being his true self – even if he may have disagreed at the time.
In the years since he has taken inspiration from reading other stories. There was no reason to suspect any issues would have arisen from coming out while an active competitor, but Bowie will never know exactly what the outcome would have been.
Now, he would encourage others to be their authentic selves, with people like Bowie ready to provide support to anyone who needs it.
“For me it probably was a non issue, certainly up until 2014,” Bowie pondered.
“My training group and would have been super supportive, and I keep in touch with some of them now. That wasn’t a barrier, but at the time I probably saw being anything other than Jamie the athlete as just a distraction. Reflecting now, my advice to anyone – and it’s definitely reaffirmed by stories like Kelly Holmes’ – would be to be true to yourself.
“At the time I probably didn’t think I was being anything else, but reflecting on it you’re not giving 100% of you or your energy, it’s like you’re holding something back. I do wish I had been a little bit more open and true to myself at that stage in in in my career, but the challenge everybody in the LGBT+ community faces is that coming out part.
“Probably most people have had a negative experience in the past causing some reluctance to be open. I probably had the most supportive environment around me to be my authentic self, but I never quite took that opportunity and capitalised on it.
“It sounds really cliche to say it, but having read some people’s stories it is definitely about being really open – that really can be so empowering.
“We are fortunate that on the whole we live in a LGBT+ friendly society, and sport from participation to performance level are safe places for people to be who they want to be. My words of wisdom to a younger me would be that you’re making more of an issue out of this than anybody else would.
“Obviously going to some countries to compete that aren’t LGBT+ friendly can be a little bit daunting, but I don’t think that played a role in me not being more open in my athletics career. I just wanted to fit in, and I was probably feeling a little bit like an imposter. How can a wee Scottish Laddie be on a GB team?
“On the whole, I had a positive experience in athletics, but there was definitely some moments – not linked to being gay – where it was a little bit intimidating. That imposter syndrome probably reaffirmed me not wanting to be more open, because it was just a distraction from what I was trying to do and focus on.
“Reflecting back I definitely am embarrassed by that and really kind of disappointed in myself for not being more open. I think I’m being more true to myself now, and I definitely applaud the individuals that are being themselves and creating those safe spaces in sport and being those positive role models in sport.
“The breakthrough of having an active professional footballer attracts everyone’s attention because it’s the number one sport in Great Britain, and there are other individuals that have raised the sporting bar and are competing at a high level and winning Olympic medals and world medals that are LGBT+.
“It’s really exciting in sport to see some really great strives towards the likes of Rainbow Laces, and I think there are things that are far more substantial happening in athletics. They’ve created the Athletics Pride Network, and whether people engage in that or not that sends a really strong message that our sport is welcoming to people regardless of their sexual orientation. That’s a really important message.
“If I had been starting in my career now, or just coming to my high point now, I would certainly hope I would be far more confident and comfortable with coming out and being 100% true to myself. We’re starting to see more people. Certainly within the sports environment there are a lot more people that are LGBT+ that I’m aware of, and that’s really great and really good to see.”