Sam Oldham on Team GB Olympic glory and frustrations, his battle with depression and the road to Tokyo 2020

Former Team GB gymnast Sam Oldham is gunning for one last shot at Olympic glory – this is his story

Sam Oldham

Sam Oldham is more acutely aware of the euphoric highs and despondent lows that lurk at either side of the scale in the sporting world.

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As a teen sensation, he helped Britain to their first team gymnastics medal at the Olympic Games in 100 years.

Oldham – alongside Louis Smith, Max Whitlock, Kristian Thomas and Daniel Purvis – secured bronze medals at London 2012, but life since has been a rocky road to negotiate.

RadioTimes.com spoke exclusively to the now 26-year-old to discuss his journey – a tale of physical pain and missing Rio 2016, his gritty mental battle with depression, and writing his final chapter – the road to Tokyo 2020.


Oldham kick-started his gymnastics career, aged seven, after a school teacher suggested the sport as a way to channel his energy – and subsequent dashes of mischief.

“I was super hyperactive as a kid, getting in a little bit of trouble at school, just not sitting still,” he said.

“It was the same thing at home. I used to jump from one sofa to the other and a teacher suggested I should go along to a local gymnastics club.

“Gymnastics is a sport where you need to put in a lot of hours from a young age, so by the time I was nine I was pushing 30-35 hours a week. By 10 or 11 I was pushing 40 hours.

“At the age of 12 I competed for Britain for the first time and won the competition. I stood on the podium, listened to the national anthem, and that was when I knew I wanted to do this.”

Sam Oldham

He chose gymnastics for the “ultimate challenge” despite playing for Notts County and Nottingham Forest as a youngster.

In 2005, before Oldham had even entered his teen years, London was announced as the host of the 2012 Olympic Games.

“I remember when we won the bid. I ran around a field at 6am before training, and thought ‘right, I’ve got six years now’.

“In the back of my wardrobe I actually had this sheet printed off and it said ‘London 2012. Team GB. Sam Oldham’. It would always be there – I’ve still got it in tatters.

“At that point we were ranked 23rd in the world, the senior gymnasts were firemen and bricklayers – gymnastics just wasn’t a thing – so to dream of being an Olympic champion was a pretty obscure concept to have as a young kid.”

The fresh-faced teenager quickly shot through the ranks and at the age of 19, he got the call to represent Team GB in one of the greatest sporting spectacles the country has ever seen.

“It was an incredible experience, something you could never prepare for. At the time of the games, the guys that have been to multiple Games were saying we needed to ‘take it all in, it’s not always like this, this is different’.

“We walked out in qualification [at the O2 Arena] and they had the lights off, the whole place, with the gymnastics on a podium and you’ve got to line up next to the podium in front of the judges.

“The lights came on, but they slowly rose and obviously the crowd was all GB fans, and the noise was deafening. It was like electricity. It was mad.

“If I were older and understood the magnitude of the place I was in, it would have been a lot to handle. And if I had that opportunity again, I would have appreciated it so much more, particularly with what’s happened since then…”

Oldham secured his Olympic bronze in 2012 and was at the peak of his career when the 2014 Commonwealth Games came around in Glasgow. But at the start of the second day of competition, he landed fractionally off during an attempt on the vault.

“One centimetre either side and I probably would’ve been okay, but I completely ruptured the medial and lateral ligaments in my left ankle, dislocated it and snapped it back in when I put my foot on the floor.

“They had never seen an injury like that in the Olympic set-up. A lot of the recovery after that was trial and error stuff because they’d never tried it before.

“It was really tough, but I did eight hours a day to try and get back.”

Sam Oldham

Oldham made a rapid recovery to reach the European Championships the following April where he won a silver medal and competed in all six artistic gymnastics events, but a hasty recovery led to aggravating the injury and he was ruled out of action for the rest of the year with the 2016 Rio Olympics looming.

Despite winning the floor exercise in the Olympic trials and finishing third overall, Oldham wasn’t selected for Team GB’s travelling squad.

“That was a huge, huge life experience for me. I was committed, and I’m convinced I worked harder than anyone else to get a spot on that team and the toughest thing was that I felt I’d earned my spot.

“I hit the numbers, in my head there was no way I couldn’t be included and it was a really difficult time.

“And that’s when I had the love for the sport taken out of me for a little while because for me gymnastics was a pure thing. It was something that was really precious to me.

“For me it felt like I had that little seven-year-old kid that went into the gym and just loved to jump around taken away from me.

“It taught me a lot, gave me a lot of perspective, and once I decided to commit to four more years, Tokyo became the goal, the aim, and now I’m in a spot where I’m really happy with everything I achieved.”

Now age 26, Oldham is out of Team GB and hasn’t competed at major championships in several years, yet he remains focused on making a surge for a place in the squad for Tokyo.

“I remember at 17 at the World Championships I shared a room with a guy who was 27 and I remember thinking: “This guy is so old! I’ve got my whole career ahead of me!” and now blink of an eye, I’m there.

“It feels like five minutes ago I was 21 in my peak, my prime, and now this is towards the end, the final chapter, I know it is, I know it’s coming.

“On paper, right now I’m in the worst possible place I’ve been in. I’m 26, not in the GB squad right now, my funding got dropped, I’m actually living with my grandparents.

“But it just gives me a lot of confidence going into the next year that the two times in my career I’ve needed to pull it out the bag I’ve done it: pre-London and pre-Rio.

“However, I’d be really angry if say I go to the Olympic Games in 10 months and win a gold medal – which right now you’d get good odds for that – and didn’t enjoy this 10 months and it was miserable, I’d be really angry with myself.

Sam Oldham

“I want to look back and think I really enjoyed that last year and that I do it for the right reasons. After, I feel like I can step away and move onto other things.

“But I’ve gone through some real challenges this summer particularly outside the gym and faced some mental battles.”

Throughout this week, the focus has been on mental health awareness, and Oldham was keen to share his battles with depression and anxiety. He revealed he has struggled with “periods of feeling isolated” but said he found himself in a “really deep hole” that he “couldn’t snap out of” during the summer.

“I stopped everything. I stopped training, I needed to get away. I wasn’t sure what was happening to me. It didn’t feel right,” he said.

“There were two months where I just wasn’t feeling any emotion, just numb to everything. Then I got to a place where for about two weeks I was quite angry, upset, frustrated and quite aggressive in the gym… and that’s when it hit me, for the first time in my life I needed to stop.”

He continued: “I had a conversation with my coach in the gym, I kinda broke down, I was crying a little bit, I got really upset, and said: ‘I need to stop. I don’t know what’s happening. I’m not happy, I just feel sad all the time, I got this pain inside my stomach’.

Oldham recalled later opening up to his “incredible” mother who “couldn’t fix” his problems. He was referred to a therapist after opening up to a doctor during a consultation about a neck injury which was being aggravated by stress, among other factors.

“It’s important to say I had a misconception about what it was when I went into it. I thought it was counselling, to talk about what was happening to make me feel better, when actually it’s quite challenging what you do,” he said.

“It was someone challenging my thoughts and thought processes and understand why I think the way I do, why I do the things I do, about how habits form. It was mentally draining and afterwards I feel mentally spent.”

“A lot of people just think ‘oh, you just go an talk to someone’ and I had no idea – I thought that’s what it’s going to be.”

He continued: “I’m not naive enough to think there’s a magic bullet, a quick fix, this was going to be something I had to work at. I want to understand how I got to that place because I never want to get back to that place.

“If I have that knowledge then I can help someone else going through that.”

Sam Oldham

With the stakes being constantly raised in sports of all disciplines, with margins being cut finer and competition rising, sports psychology is playing an increasingly important part in athletes’ preparations, and Oldham encourages the shift from years gone by.

“About 10 years ago in gymnastics, we’d get told: ‘don’t go see the physios, they’ll stop you training’ so you can imagine the stigma and thought process around seeing a sports psychologist, whereas now the education is there.

“I hope this talk of mental health – especially in sport – helps people come out.

“I remember I went to watch Carl Froch v George Groves and Froch came out saying he’d been seeing a sports psychologist and everyone thought if you need to see one, there’s got to be something wrong with you, you’re going to be unstable, so they’re probably not going to put you on the team.

“This was just a few years ago, but hopefully the younger athletes can open up about that a little more. The most important thing is just talking to people.

“If I see someone, normally you have surface-level conversations with people.

“Now if I’m not having a good day, sometimes I’ll say ‘actually, I’m struggling today, a bit frustrated’ and you tend to find that whoever the person is, they have time, they’ll listen and they might share something with you and it’s really important to do. That connection with people, we’re losing it a little bit.”

Oldham is readying himself for a huge 10 months – his last shot at Olympic glory has arrived.

He’s the hardened veteran and the plucky underdog rolled into one, and he’s readying himself physically and mentally in equal measures for the assault on regaining his spot in Team GB – whether he achieves it or not, he won’t let it change who he is.

“I can walk away and feel really proud of what I achieved but I still want [Tokyo], I just don’t need that any more. Before, I needed that, my whole identity was attached to that.

“Now, I really want it, I’m going to give it everything, but I’ll be fine if I don’t get it.

“Gymnastics is something I do, it’s not who I am.”


Sam Oldham spoke exclusively to RadioTimes.com on a day to celebrate the Sky Scholars program, a scheme designed to fund athletes throughout their careers to allow them greater time to train and prepare for the next big event.

He’s indebted to their help throughout his injury-stricken years.

“I feel really strongly about the Sky Scholars program. It’s an amazing thing they do.

“There’s only two or three guys who have ever made a real living out of gymnastics and once you’re done, you’re done. That’s it, you have to move on, you have three quarters of your life left. I’m passionate about giving back to that younger generation.

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“They get a lot of stick, the younger generation, but I think that’s more the environment they’re in. I’m a big believer in if a flower doesn’t bloom, you don’t change the flower, you change the environment that it’s in.”