Olympics-bound Beth Dobbin on living with epilepsy

Doncaster sprinter Beth Dobbin distinctly remembers weeping in the doctor’s office.

Wednesday, 26th May 2021, 10:31 am
Beth Dobbin. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

It was hard enough simply coping with teenage girlhood, but the 14-year-old future British 200m champion had just been diagnosed with epilepsy.

At this point in the Magical Dobbin Fairy Tale, the narrator often skips ahead to 2018, the year of her shocking late breakthrough on the international stage, the year she saw world champion hurdler Dai Greene speak about his own journey with the disorder and convinced herself she could make it too – the year she did make it, smashing Sandra Whittaker’s 34-year-old Scottish 200m record and attracting the attention of agents and shoe companies in the process.

But no fairy godmothers were involved in the making of Beth Dobbin.

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Beth Dobbin in action at the 2019 World Championships in Doha. Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It was sheer graft, not pixie dust, that placed her in contention for Olympic selection in 2020, and epilepsy isn’t something she can – or wants to – write out of her story.

She said: “It was hard to deal with psychologically, because at that age you’re going through so much anyway, and I didn’t really deal with it then.

“I used to have regular appointments with my neurologist, and I always used to cry in them.

“And he used to say, ‘why are you crying? Why are you crying? And I couldn’t get into words why I was crying.

“It just felt so emotional, so I think it is a real psychological battle, not just physical.”

Monday marked the start of National Epilepsy Week in the UK, and Dobbin is still getting used to her own status as an inspiration to the other 600,000 or so Britons diagnosed with the condition.

Several years ago, after a lengthy spell without a seizure, doctors offered Dobbin the chance to come off her medication.

She said: “I felt tired, really lethargic, just didn’t feel like myself at all, so my athletic performance was really hindered for pretty much all of my teenage life.

“I missed out on a lot of junior success because you’re just on this medication. A lot of sprinters come through at like 18, but I was playing catch-up, I didn’t have my breakthrough until I was 23, 24.

“It’s definitely delayed my career, but I’m hoping that maybe I have a bit of a later career.”

She’s doing just that. For years Dobbin worked as a receptionist and security guard for a Loughborough gym, following up her eight-hour shifts with gruelling four-hour workouts.

It paid off in 2018 when she stunned the competition and walked away with 200m gold at the British championships.

A year later, she was a world semi-finalist on the same track as Dina Asher-Smith.

A top two finish at the national championships in June would punch her ticket to Tokyo, a prospect that once seemed beyond even her wildest dreams.

She said: “I saw Dai Greene, and he was speaking about his epilepsy, and that helped me massively, because I was thinking, ‘well, if he’s world champion, and he’s got what I’ve got, there’s nothing that can stop me.’

“I’m not saying I’m going to go and become world champion, but it definitely shouldn’t stop me from achieving my goals.

“So I think the more people that come out of it in various walks of life, but in sport in particular, it shows you that it’s actually not a barrier.

“And obviously there are so many different types of epilepsy, and some people are a lot worse than others.

“And it can be hard to manage. But hopefully [I] can just inspire people. It is going to get better.

“You have a lot of dark days in epilepsy, especially at its worst. I’m a big believer in that it will get better eventually. They’re always finding new things out, trying different new medication, and there will be something that works eventually.”

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