Arriving at the Rio Olympics having cycled 3,000 miles from London, TV and radio broadcaster Charlie Webster contracted a rare strain of malaria that would leave her on life support. Read her story of recovery, mental health and the power of the past.
We thoroughly enjoyed this conversation and we hope you do too. You can watch the full interview here or keep scrolling for the highlights:
On the sequence of events that unfolded in August 2016, Charlie says:
“I arrived in Rio and was meant to be broadcasting for Sky Sports. I didn’t feel very well but was fine the whole bike ride.
Christ the Redeemer: where Charlie’s challenge really begun
Everyone had asked how I’d coped physically with pedaling all day every day, but it’s actually the mental battle of having to get up and get on your bike again every single morning that’s hard”.
Despite feeling unwell, Charlie began her TV presenting duties in Rio immediately.
“I did a Live take where Scott Mills was DJing at the Olympic Stadium in London and they were about to hand over to me in Rio, and I remember the second before the camera was on me, my head was in my hands! And as soon as the camera moved off my face after the take, I could barely stand up”
“I was insistent that I wanted to go to the Opening Ceremony. I tried so hard to get through, but I was in so much pain. But I didn’t really want to tell anybody how bad I felt”.
Charlie Webster – on life support in Rio
Things really developed over the following few hours.
“I started panicking. It’s a bit awful, but I was sick everywhere and was bleeding down below, quite badly and then started bleeding from my mouth and nose. Ok, I thought, there’s something wrong”.
Charlie was haemorrhaging and finally took herself to hospital.
“I had multiple organ failure, respiratory failure, my heart stopped and when I came out of hospital, I had to learn to walk again due to the severe nerve damage”
What’s immediately clear is that despite Charlie’s admirable drive, it’s also in part responsible for her lack of wanting to seek help.
Sporty from a young age, Charlie is used to pushing herself but not necessarily at looking after herself
Her body was crying out for help, but she ignored it.
She pushed until she had to literally crawl to hospital.
Charlie Webster – on listening to your body
It’s similar to some athlete's attitudes, who push and push and ignore symptoms of overtraining syndrome and post-exercise immunosuppression. They accept fatigue as part of the process without recognising the hole they’re digging for themselves.
“I’ve done exercise and sport to a high level all the way through my childhood. So, you’d think I’d have a really good connection with my body. But actually, I cut off what I was actually feeling.
All I was obsessed with was achieving a goal, and I believed I could do anything. Which is a positive, but at the same time it means there’s been times when I haven’t taken care of my soul and myself”.
Charlie developed PTSD after Rio and has since worked with a clinical psychologist to piece together this disconnect between her mind and her body.
“I’ve realised we’re all really bad at self-care”.
Charlie Webster - nutrition was key to her recovery
Despite multiple organ failure, Charlie was told her kidneys were in such good health due to her high level of fitness.
Whole food now forms the cornerstone of Charlie’s diet
“The doctors said if I’d been unhealthy, then I would not have survived.
I haven’t drunk [alcohol] since and to be honest I find it really empowering. It made me realise how much alcohol plays such a negative role in many of our lives”.
Charlie’s diet has always been “fine”, but she never truly gave her body what it needed before, during and after training.
“I wouldn’t prepare very well. But I’ve really really changed that. I make sure that after training particularly I fuel properly”.
“I used to crash and bonk quite a bit, because I didn’t sustain the fuel. We forget when we train how much we need and that’s sometimes contrary to what the mainstream media put out there, but if you’re an active person it’s total nonsense!”
Charlie Webster – on sports nutrition
Charlie has become protective over her body and looks after herself with wholesome, natural food.
“The Elite Pre and Post Workout Shake is great for me. It’s completely natural with natural protein and lots of vitamins and minerals and I probably didn’t used to get enough of these micronutrients”
Like many of us, Charlie couldn’t handle the high-sugar, manmade products.
Elite Pre and Post Workout Shake - key to Charlie's recovery from malaria
Charlie Webster – on rest and mental health
Charlie is good friends with 33 Ambassador Chrissie Wellington who told Charlie how important rest days are.
As athletes, we’re very aware of how hard it is to take rest days. Within endurance circles, the implication that needing days off equals failure and halted progress is unfortunate.
“Our tendency as human beings is to suck it up and push on. Mental health problems manifest when we don’t actually look at how we feel and what’s happened to us.
Instead of looking at how amazing they've done, athletes look at what they didn't achieve. They didn't get first, or they didn't get a personaly best. We look at the begative. But where does this end?"
Charlie Webster – on her new tattoo
“I wanted a tattoo to mark what happened to me. It’s a gorgeous angel. She’s strong and empowered, she’s not fallen.
She’s a protector and a saviour.
I feel like I was saved and I survived for a reason. The importance of my tattoo reminds me what I've gone through so I don't lose sight of it”
The past is so important and needs to be part of your present and future. Don’t ignore it because the emotional attachment you have to it never goes away”.
The tattoo that reminds Charlie of what she’s come through
Charlie Webster – her charity passion
In 2019, Charlie ran the London Marathon to raise money for Malaria No More. Still on the road to recovery, she’s promised us she’s not going to push herself and instead aims to just “get around”!
“The marathon is about raising awareness for Malaria No More. Thankfully, I don’t have to live in a country that has malaria. That’s the thing about malaria: it’s totally treatable and preventable. There just need to be a sustained effort for us to end it. We can be that generation”.
It’s such a big killer yet is largely ignored because it doesn’t really affect us in the Western world. As Charlie explains, both morally and economically it’s our duty to do what we can to end this disease.
“For me, it’s about educating people in malarial areas and helping them understand what malaria is. You wouldn’t believe it – there’s a real lack of understanding what malaria is. They accept it as part of their lives, rather than understanding that they can change it”.