© Paul Calver
Last week I brought you the first part of my Q&A with Christal Clashing, covering Christal’s historic Atlantic row and her freediving. In part two, we rewind a bit and chat about how Christal came to represent Antigua in swimming at the Athens Olympics when she was just 14.
As I said in last week’s feature, Christal suffers from a debilitating pre-menstrual condition, Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), which started in her teens and went undiagnosed until her twenties. The condition affects 2-10% of women and is something Christal continues to manage. In this Q&A, she kindly shares her experience and the deep impact it has had on her life.
Tell us how your love of the ocean came about?
My love of the ocean came through swim classes at the beach on a Saturday, and beach picnics with my Mom, Dad and little sister on Sundays during the early afternoon. This was our weekend routine from the time I was 6-years-old to about 10-years-old. I was an awkward child growing up. I was shy and reserved, but when it came to swimming in the sea, I had found my place and I had found my people with two other swimmers who I constantly competed against.
When did you realise you had a talent for swimming?
I found my competitive drive around the age of 7 or 8. I realised on the half-mile or mile-long sea swims I would do under the Dolphin Swim Club on a Saturday afternoon, that I could steadily pass some of the older swimmers as I worked through completing my weekly long-distance swim. When I was 8, I had my first pool competition on the French island of Guadeloupe and, later that year, was one of the youngest competitors to complete our National Open Water swim. By the time I was 12, I was the fastest female finisher and would compete for the overall fastest swimmer. This meant that in 2003 when I was 13 years old, I was chosen to go to my first World Championships.
What was your World Championships experience like?
That World Championship was held in Barcelona, and it was my first pool meet since I was 8. In Antigua, pool clubs hadn’t existed during my time as a swimmer. Due to legal disputes within our swimming association, the only club available on the island was a sea-based one. Since I had little experience with the pool, they put me in the 50m freestyle sprint, as the rationale was that I wouldn’t have to do flip-turns. As much as I wasn’t a sprinter, the whole Barcelona experience was an eye-opening one. I realised what real competitive swimming was about, and I wanted it. However, I realised I couldn’t stay in Antigua and train in the ocean if I was going to compete at events such as the FINA World Championships, which at the time was solely pool-based.
So that summer I discussed my thoughts with my parents, and we decided it was best for me to go and live with family members on another island with a better swimming system. Initially, that was Barbados, then my aunt in The Bahamas said she’d take me. So by the end of summer, I had moved to The Bahamas for better swim training.
About ¾ of the year in, I had a call from my parents telling me that I had been selected to go to the Olympic Games in Athens. I had a universality entry, and I was prequalified, having competed at the World Champs the year before. My initial reaction was to say no because I hadn’t qualified through the standard qualifying times. Then, I thought, “Who turns down the Olympics?” called back my mom and told her that I was in. And that’s how I ended up at the Olympics in 2004 at 14 years old, as the second-youngest swimmer.
A few years later you started suffering from depression and anxiety, which turned out to be PMDD. Can you share what this was like?
Having come back from Athens as an Olympian, I put a lot of pressure on myself. To me, being an Olympian meant being the best. Although I was the best in Antigua, I was near the bottom in The Bahamas and the rest of the Caribbean region. The narrative in my teenage head was that I didn’t deserve to be an Olympian, and every swim meet seemed to prove that. These thoughts were further exacerbated by moments of intense agitation, not wanting to get out of bed in the morning for swim practice, and insomnia.
Individually, these things seemed to me like procrastination, avoidance, laziness and just being a bit of an ‘oddball’ person. My aunt, who I lived with, saw it otherwise. She noticed a pattern. These symptoms would almost always occur before my period. We went to the doctors in Nassau, The Bahamas, to investigate it but the most they could suggest was birth control, which wasn’t an option either of us was interested in.
How did it affect your life and your swimming?
It got worse when I finished high school and moved to Australia at 17 to continue my swim training in prep for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I was now without constant family support, and when the agitation, scathing negative thoughts and insomnia came, it would come for two weeks before my period and then once my period came, I felt human again.
This Jekyll and Hyde behaviour wreaked havoc with my swim training, as I would be out for the count for up to two weeks every month. This added to my frustration about being a slow Olympic swimmer. I would make progress, only to slide back. It then got to the point that I realised I would have to be on antidepressants just to keep swimming. That seemed like a poor reason to be swimming. I thought there was something intrinsically wrong with me and my ambitions and desires if I had to take antidepressants to motivate me to get to practice. I, therefore, decided at 18 to stop swimming, because I couldn’t see myself taking antidepressants just to be able to swim. I didn’t realise what was happening to me had a name. Most doctors didn’t know either.
How did you discover it was PMDD you were experiencing?
I came across the term Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) on one of my desperate searches of the internet looking for answers as to what was happening to me. PMDD is the onset of severe emotional and mental PMS symptoms two weeks before menstruation. It presents like depression and can often be misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder. However, I was only diagnosed six years later, when I was 24. I was living in England doing my undergraduate and then Masters Degrees at the University of Portsmouth. My depression was still messing with my life; I never once handed in an assignment on time during my undergrad because, for half of a month, I would be paralysed with anxiety in the darkness of my room.
As I continued to search for doctors to help me manage what was happening to me, I came across a Dr Studd in London who dealt with PMDD. He was expensive, but I made it to his office. In 15 minutes of seeing me, he said he knew what was wrong with me and could help me. The next two years were amazing as I finished my Masters and moved to Costa Rica – all possible through an oestrogen-based gel treatment he had me one.
Then it seemingly suddenly stopped working. The next two years were a fog as I tried to navigate life with constant cycles of depression whilst trying to hold down a job. I moved back home to Antigua, which is when I saw a doctor here who put me on another treatment. However, in those two years, the self-confidence I had managed to build during the successful years of my treatment, was torn right back down. That’s when the Atlantic row came about.
How did the row help?
Antigua had its second ocean rowing team complete the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, which ends each year in Antigua. Upon their return in January 2018, the government issued a call for an all-female team. I didn’t realise I wanted to do the row until one evening I was writing up my goals for the year and wrote: “Rowed across the Atlantic”.
This is when water started to become a facilitator to a healthier relationship with myself. The row provided structure and purpose to my life. However, even upon my return a few months later, I sunk back into a depression. Then I got into freediving in Antigua and that was a game-changer. Like how the water was for me when I was an awkward 6-year-old, I felt it accepted and embraced me once again.
Freediving, with the help of my dive buddy, Nikolai Bohachesky, became a meditative place that didn’t allow me to devolve in rumination. Instead, it offered a goal, a release of expectations, and a sense of adventure. That brought me back into communion with my inner self. Along with finding the right balance of medication for me, it gave me purpose and community again.
What are your hopes and ambitions for your future within the adventure realm?
I want to get even more connected with the water. I’d like to master surfing and downwind paddling so I can feel, understand and play even more with the movements of the ocean.
I wouldn’t mind doing an all-aquatic adventure race or expedition. I’m thinking something like traversing various waterways using a range of aquatic crafts and modalities. I’m not sure if such things even exist (I may have to create one) but if they do, I’d like to do one.
Outside of that, I’ll like to eventually do an event with my fellow Team Onyx members.