Hi, and thank you for taking time to learn a bit more about me and Neurodiverse Sport.
I'm a former Olympic rower and diagnosed Autistic. I founded Neurodiverse Sport in response to the current lack of understanding and support available for neurodivergent athletes, and intend it to be a platform for support, education, and advocacy.
It is my belief that no athlete should feel misunderstood, isolated or unable to reach their full potential because they do not conform to neurotypical standards of behaviour and communication.
Through Neurodiverse Sport, I seek to help athletes, their coaches and managers, and their supporters to reach a mutually beneficial understanding and working methodology and ultimately maximise athlete and team performance and wellbeing.
I understand that some people are more comfortable reaching out to a person rather than an organisation, so if this sounds like you, please get in touch with me via Instagram or LinkedIn:
Caragh's Sporting Story
Caragh’s first experience of rowing was via an outreach programme called Project Oarsome, which was created to increase state school participation in rowing. After attending club-based sessions at Southampton Coalporters ARC, her hobby soon became an obsession and then a life-long pursuit.
She accredits her passion to both her neurodivergent traits, and to her incredibly positive experiences at Coalporters. These experiences were actualised by project volunteers Nick Chmarny, Alan Booth and Kirsty Bladen, alongside many other supportive club members. Caragh also fondly remembers enthusiastic crewmates, and an extremely vibrant coastal rowing scene. She still has a framed Coalporters lycra in pride of place on her wall today.
In contrast to her experience at Coalporters, Caragh’s journey through the Junior and U23 trialling system was quite solitary. However, during this time she still successfully made three boats, and medalled in two of them – winning a World silver medal in the JW4- (2009) and a World silver medal in the U23W2- (2012).
On joining the Great Britain Senior Rowing Team after the 2012 Olympics, Caragh quickly realised she found it particularly difficult to navigate the professional sporting environment she found herself in; to understand her peers and coaches; or to feel understood by others. In spite of these difficulties, she medalled at various World Cups, stroked the Women's Eight to a Henley Royal Regatta win against the Australian National Team, and even attended the Rio Olympic orientation camp for athletes who were likely to be selected for the Rio Olympics.
However, maintaining these performances whilst dealing with her own differences in private took its toll on Caragh, and she often burned out. These bouts of effort, burn out, and recovery presented from the outside as mood fluctuations, and in 2014, Caragh was misdiagnosed as having Bipolar II Disorder.
Professor Jan Burns, MBE had this to say on hearing about Caragh's experience:
Caragh was advised by various doctors to take Lithium, Lamotrigine, and Quetiapine, and did so for five years whilst training and competing on the GB Senior Rowing Team. Although she managed to maintain her place on the team during this time, she was far from thriving, and far from her personal bests.
She continued to fall ill and injured and experience burn out, and was subjected to frequent performance reviews that did not take into account the context of her situation. Caragh felt unheard and unable to discuss her difficulties. Perhaps if she had felt able, her misdiagnosis would have been identified sooner.
Caragh still finds it difficult to look back at this time in her life, but briefly describes how the medication she was taking impacted her on a day-to-day basis:
After a new Performance Director, Brendan Purcell was recruited to the Great Britain Rowing Team in 2018, Caragh's situation was looked at with a little more scrutiny - from more of a person-centred perspective. In 2019, she was referred to the newly formed UK Sport Mental Health Panel.
It was this panel of experts who re-diagnosed Caragh with High Functioning Autism rather than Bipolar II. They advised her to titrate off of all the medication she was taking and to instead receive therapy to develop a communication plan that she could share with her coaches. With the help of these professionals, she was also able to develop an understanding of herself with this new knowledge in mind.
Caragh's performance dramatically improved over the course of a year, and she rose from the position of team spare in 2019 to being selected for the Olympic Eight in 2020 (pre-Covid), and again in 2021 (post-Covid). Although her experience of racing in the Women's Eight at the Tokyo Olympics was disappointing; due to a wider team management issue affecting performance, she was grateful to have had the opportunity to race and medal in the Women's Four at the Lucerne World Cup two months prior.
Professor Jan Burns, MBE had this to say about Caragh's eventual re-diagnosis:
Caragh believes that gaining a correct diagnosis was as essential to her performance increase as was coming off the medication she was taking. Having a diagnosis and a communication plan allowed her to understand herself, to know what to ask for and have the confidence to do so.
For Caragh, no longer trying to change parts of her personality that were unchangeable was the greatest relief and provided her with the greatest payback of energy. In short, she felt able to give herself permission to be different.
Although her experience post re-diagnosis was drastically improved, Caragh still felt a lack of external support in sport, and too great an onus on her to advocate beyond her capabilities.
It is now Caragh's aim to change this for future generations.
Caragh's story has so far resonated with a great number of people
adding weight to our belief that the sports sector needs to change
Because, when assumptions are made about people's capabilities, when labels are assigned without true understanding, and most importantly, when responsibility for individual safety and wellbeing is diffused within hierarchical team environments, people suffer
Read Caragh's story below
if you're not a fan of reading, watch the reel
"Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for neuroatypical girls and women to be misdiagnosed or their diagnosis entirely missed. Caragh was diagnosed as having bi-polar mood disorder and as a consequence of that placed on heavy doses of medication including Lithium. Needless to say this did not help and put her Olympic rowing career in jeopardy." - Prof Jan Burns, MBE
"I would drive to training in the morning and feel like I was going to veer into a bush. I felt almost permanently sedated, but I believed I was crazy and that medication was what I needed. I had felt different all my life. I knew when I was by myself I presented differently. I was told by doctors that I had a mood disorder. I put two and two together and my conclusion was that I must be unstable, incapable, and crazy - that was my self-talk during this time." - Caragh
"Thankfully, her neurodiversity was eventually recognised and after coming off this medication she went on to achieve Olympic success. Caragh is now an activist and campaigner to get neurodiversity in high performance sport recognised and better supported." - Prof Jan Burns, MBE
The Lady Rebel Club "help women and other marginalised gender entrepreneurs, small business owners, creatives and leaders no longer feel like they have to hide their neurodiversity or disability."