Brett Morse seemed to have it all – a world class ranking as an athlete, a successful modelling career, two doting daughters . . . but then came mental health problems that, as he tells Owen Morgan, turned his world upside down with days spent on his sofa instead of launching the discus.
There have been times over the past 10 years when Welsh athlete Brett Morse appeared to be living the dream.
Representing Wales at the Delhi Commonwealth Games aged 21 in 2010, becoming the youngest competitor to reach a World Athletics Championship discus final a year later, and then representing Great Britain at the London Olympics in 2012.
Away from athletics, he has modelled for some of the biggest brands and companies in fashion including Levi’s, River Island and Burton.
But away from the packed stadiums and glamorous photoshoots, there have been times when the Cardiff athlete’s life has been more like a nightmare.
Injuries and a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis – the same illness suffered by the likes of England rugby star Lewis Moody and Manchester United and Scotland midfielder Darren Fletcher – meant Morse lost his Great Britain athlete funding.
Then, just when things looked to be on the up again with high profile modelling jobs coming in and selection to represent GB at the inaugural Athletics World Cup in London, the 31-year-old was hit by a bolt from the blue.
Whilst on a modelling assignment in 2018, Morse suffered a terrifying panic attack which would have a devastating effect on his mental health and his career as both an international athlete and model.
Speaking to Dai Sport during Mental Health Awareness week, Morse said: “I was working away on a modelling job when it all started.
“I had been feeling tired for a couple of days and I put it down to my colitis because that is one of the symptoms.
“I thought I was having a heart attack, but actually it was a panic attack. It happened every single day then for about the next six months. It got to the point where I was scared of leaving the house. It was horrendous.
“It was a really scary time and I spent all my money on private healthcare just to make sure I was alright, so I had CT scans, MRI scans, tests to see if I had cancer. I had blood tests, numerous visits to A and E.
“It was a really weird time for me because I am one of those people who, if there is an issue, I’m like ‘don’t worry it will go away’. But I’d become the complete opposite of that, I was obsessed that there was something wrong with me.
“I don’t really recognise the person I was then. It’s really strange looking back, it’s almost like watching a film, like it wasn’t real.”
However, Morse is aware what he was going though was very much real and has changed his attitude towards mental health.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t think mental health was even a thing,” admits Morse. “I thought it was just people saying ‘oh I’m stressed’ or ‘I’m depressed’.
“I honestly thought ‘they’re just moaning about nothing’. I was pretty ignorant to it. I thought ‘there are worse-off people in the world, get over yourself’.
“But I can safely say that it is real.
“People who know me, if you’d said I had mental health problems, they would have laughed because of the way I am. I am a bit of a joker and all this kind of stuff. But if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”
Asked what advice he would give anyone going through a similar experience, Morse says: “Just speak to somebody . . . anybody.
“Whether that be your friends, your family, girlfriend, boyfriend, or anyone from outside.
“Somehow, find somebody to talk to. Have that ‘go to’ person. I never used to talk about anything – now I’m like an open book.
“I’ve got a lot of good people around me now, all trying to push in the same direction as me, people I can trust and people I can really talk to about stuff, which I didn’t have previously. I think that has definitely made a big difference.”
Morse says he is also grateful for the professional support he received from Welsh Athletics through national coach Chris Jones.
“To be fair to Welsh Athletics, they were amazing. They paid for me to have a clinical psychologist and everything else that Sport Wales could offer.
“I want to thank Chris Jones massively for that because he sorted it all out for me and he didn’t really have to do that.
“I talked to the psychologist about a lot of stuff. Obviously, I was a really promising athlete as a youngster, I was one of the biggest talents in the world at my event and then I got diagnosed with the colitis and that hit me hard.
“I went from being a really talented athlete to not even being a funded athlete and having to get a job.
“I know that happens to a lot of people, but I think in my younger years I had a bit of an ego so I didn’t cope with that.
“There were many things, really. When I discussed it with the psychologist there were probably five or six things that could have triggered it.
“I don’t know why it kicked off at the time it did because life was really good, actually, when everything went crazy.
“I had just got back into the GB team for the World Cup, I was modelling for some of the biggest brands in the world, so everything was actually really good, so I can’t really answer the question why it happened when it did.
“But I think there were a lot of triggers and I can now pinpoint a few reasons why it happened.”
Morse says he is keen to share his story in order to help others in the same way that hearing heavyweight champion Tyson Fury talk about his mental health problems helped him to come to terms with what he was experiencing.
“What also helped me was listening to Tyson Fury, the boxer. He’s 6ft 10ins and the world champion,” says Morse.
“If he can fall apart . . . he’s the definition of the Alpha Male – he’s got a lot of money, very successful, he’s got this huge personality, brash and what-not. If he can suffer, then anyone can.
“I think him talking about stuff really helped me because I didn’t feel like it was emasculating.
Lockdown can be fun 🙏 pic.twitter.com/PgQJq3hBwI
— Brett Morse OLY (@Brettmorseoly) May 15, 2020
“It was weird listening to him because the things he was saying were exactly what I was feeling, it was so strange.
“That’s why I think it’s important to talk about it. I think if I can help one person, if they can relate to things that I am saying, then that makes me really happy.
“I think one thing I have learned is that people don’t really know what’s going on behind closed doors. So I was successful, but in my normal, personal life, I wasn’t very happy.
“You might see people being successful and smiling but it doesn’t mean they’re happy.
“So, just be kind to people.”
Perhaps this advice is more relevant now than ever with the country in the midst of the biggest health crisis in living memory.
Morse is doing his best to take any positives he can out of the current coronavirus situation, and he is once again grateful to the support he has received to get him back on course for a crack at the Tokyo Olympics, which will now be taking place in 2021 – a year later than planned.
“A rugby club near my house, Old Penarthians, basically gave me their whole gym, which I’ve now got in my back garden,” says Morse.
“I used to play for them and I know a few guys who are on the committee so I thought I’d ask and they were happy to help.
“So, I’m feeling pretty good and doing everything I need to. I’ve been doing a little bit of throwing over on a rugby field, so it has been alright.
“For the runners, a lot of their sessions are out on the streets and the roads anyway, so in that way they haven’t been impacted too much.
“But a lot of the other athletes in my event, and some of the other power events, are more technical and you have to be in good condition to do it.
“But I have been really lucky, there hasn’t really been much change. It’s been like being on a training camp, really – train, eat, sleep.
“I needed it because I didn’t really train or compete last year, so in a way it’s allowed me to play catch up a little bit, so it’s been good.
“I was basically in lockdown last summer as well because of my own issues. So I’ve kind of already been through this.
“Because I didn’t train I got up to about 130 kilos, I was hugely overweight and stuff, but now I’m in pretty good shape. Actually, I’m in good condition.
“I could do with a higher volume of throwing, but I probably won’t plan to compete now until 2021.
“So, by the time I compete I think I could be in the best shape ever. That’s the plan. Lockdown has kind of worked in my favour in that respect.”
Despite all the restrictions of lockdown and the cancelled athletics events, Morse is in a far better place than he was last summer.
“I think I did a British League, a Cardiff Throws Open and the Welsh Champs. The Welsh Champs was only because I was defending champion and they invited me, so I thought I might as well go along.
“The British League was because they begged me to because they were going to get relegated and the Cardiff Throws was just to go along and support a small local competition, but I was in no condition physically or mentally to do anything, really.
“I was a retired athlete more or less, but I thought I’d show my face. I was trying to get myself out of the routine because all I was doing was waking up, laying on the sofa and then going to bed. I was trying to get myself out of that routine, but that was then and this is now.
“This is where the lockdown has kind of worked for me because I didn’t train last year, even though I was saying, ‘yes, yes, yes, I’m going to try.’
“Making the Olympic games in 2020 was almost an impossible task just because of where my starting point would have been. But now that it is 2021, it makes it possible again.
“I feel a completely different person now – not even the same as I used to be a few years ago. I don’t take anything for granted now.
“I have got the hunger back that I lost for years in terms of trying to make it to the Olympic Games or trying to achieve certain things. I’ve got that back.
“Whereas, before all this happened I was sailing through life. I didn’t really care so much. Maybe they were warning signs of what was to come, I really don’t know.
“But I feel like I have gone back 10 years in my head. I’m switched on, really focussed, really determined.”
Morse says he has plenty of incentive to make it to the Tokyo Olympics next year – including his daughters, aged five and seven.
“I want my kids to watch me on TV at an Olympic Games. My eldest asked me if I could try.
“She came to the World Cup and watched me in the Olympic Stadium and she loved it, so I want to try and do something good like that if I can one last time so she can remember when I was good at athletics back in the day.
“I’ll try to get back to that level next year and see where we go from there.”
The former British Champion also hopes an appearance at the Olympics could inspire others, in the same way as Tyson Fury’s subsequent success has inspired him.
“I want to show people that I was low – real low at some points – but it doesn’t mean it is the end.
“I genuinely thought it was the end. I didn’t see how there was any way back whatsoever.
“So, if I can make it to the Olympic Games on the back of that, it would be a big thing for me. It would prove a point to myself but, hopefully, also to other people . . . that anything is possible.
“I think with moving it back to next year, it means I can try. And then there are the Commonwealth Games the year after.
“I think I might try to go to the Commonwealth Games and then call it a day.”
Morse says he is excited at the prospect of pulling on the Welsh vest again at the Commonwealths in Birmingham in 2022 – and possibly competing for GB at the European Championships in Germany and the World Athletics Championships in Oregon.
Social media Vs Reality pic.twitter.com/GwHBNOShXf
— Brett Morse OLY (@Brettmorseoly) May 10, 2020
The three events will be staged within weeks of each other due to the World Championships having been pushed back a year.
“I better get myself into some good shape! It’s alright for athletes like myself in the discus, we can compete at a very high level every single day, almost.
“The sprinters, for example, might struggle with competitions coming that close together, but to me that’s exciting – especially in the last couple of years of my career.
“If I can get back to some sort of decent condition like I used to be, I could have some really big events, so that is exciting, personally.”
Morse hopes his mental health will continue to thrive as well as his physical condition.
“I’m back to being my normal self, now. Hopefully, it is something that will never happen again.”