Gary Schroeder, a member of Crystal Palace Triathletes sank to the depths of addiction and alcoholism, before turning his life around to compete in triathlon.
Were you interested in sport from a young age?
From a young age I was always playing football. I loved it and I ended up being a goal keeper. I did get fairly good at it and I played for quite a few years for a South London team as a teenager. I really remember loving going to Soccer Scene on Carnaby Street and buying new gloves for my birthday every year.
When I was about 12, my Dad took me to the (golf) Driving Range, within a year I was beating him and at 16 I won the club championship at Richmond Park and had dreams of turning pro when I was 17 or so. I really remember liking the fact that in a way I wasn't playing against anyone else, it was just me against the course, the wind, the rain or even my own head and emotions at times and my best rounds were when I didn't particularly play outstanding, I just seemed to be in a better frame of mind and accepted the bad shots quicker.
When did your issues with drugs and alcohol begin?
I began drinking when I was 16. At Sixth Form College we would go to the Parish Bar at lunch time and within a few months of starting I was the one who wasn't going back to lessons in the afternoon now and again. If I did I'd pick up a couple of cans to take back with us. I was 18 when I first tried cocaine and couldn't believe the effect it had on me. Within 2-3 years my "occasional" use had gone to 1-2 times a week and it was at this time I first began to steal money to pay for the drug. I could see I was using far more than any of my friends and then I realised it really was a problem.
How did it affect your day-to-day life and your health?
At the height of my using I was drinking at least a litre of spirits in a 12 hour period along with at least an ounce (28 grams) a week of cocaine. My world shrank literally to one room. I would fit and have seizures quite regularly. After a binge of 3-4 days of no sleep and no food my paranoia was at such a state I was too wary of walking around my flat in case anyone else was there, watching or listening to what I was doing. Completely insane. Along with this came a lot of self-harm.
Was there a low point which made you decide you wanted to get clean/sober?
There were many, many times I wanted to stop but simply couldn't. I would absolutely make promises to myself and to others that I could stay clean and sober. Only a month or maybe two later, I’d wind up in the pub again. Absolute rock bottom came in 2013 after losing my youngest sister, Caren, to depression. I managed to stay sober for her funeral and her memorial but used quite heavily for a few months afterwards. My last day of using I was terrified at the prospect of not having a drink but I really understood at that moment that that was a way to die, not to live. If I was to live I'd have to change everything, not just a few things I thought needed changing. Looking after my body since then has been the foundation of my recovery and still continues to be.
How did you begin to get involved with triathlon? What was your first race like?
In the Spring of 2014 I went to Hyde Park to watch my sister's boyfriend compete in his first Sprint Race. I'd been cycling for a bit and when I saw and heard the hum of the TT bikes out on the course I knew I really wanted to race. In August I entered my first race at Redricks in Essex and as I'd hardly swam since school it took me 32 minutes of doggy paddle, backstroke and skulling to get out of the lake. On the bike I made up loads of time, finishing 45.5km in 1:18:10 and moving up to 4th place. On the run I was overtaken once. I'm still in touch with the guy Craig who overtook me, he's an ultra-runner and Ironman, so I finished 5th overall which spurred me on to enter more races!
Photo credit: Charles Whitton Photography at Ironman UK
Do you think triathlon appeals to you as it is another form of addiction?
If there's one sport where being a recovering alcoholic/addict may have an advantage over "normal folk" it's triathlon. The advantages of obsessing over every aspect of training and equipment including HR training zones, power zones, running even splits on the marathon to nutrition and fuelling, vertical running oscillation, ceramic jockey wheels… the list goes on!
What are your racing plans for next season?
On the 27th of December I'm attempting to ride 24 hours non-stop around Regent's Park in London for a local cancer charity, The Chloe Balloqui Appeal. As for next year, I want to achieve my Cat 2 Race Licence for cycling and have two 70.3s in mind, one definitely being the Midnight Man in August. I want to concentrate on Olympic and Mid Distance as well as some more long distance rides of over 300 miles.
You can donate to Gary's fundraising for the Chloe Balloqui trust via his Just Giving page.
Photo credit: Horst Friedrichs