Aimee Willmott Talks Periods, Puberty And Performance
International Women’s Day (IWD)
To mark International Women’s Day, Swimming World is rolling out a series of features this Monday to highlight the achievements and work of pathfinders in swimming and raising issues that continue to have a massive impact on women in sport.
Here we speak to Aimee Willmott, the Commonwealth 400IM champion, Olympic and world finalist and winner of five European and Commonwealth medals.
Not only has Willmott had a fine international career, she is now using her platform to share her experience of the impact of periods on performance by speaking to young female swimmers across Britain and Ireland.
“The biggest message is you can do everything while you’re on your period: you can still train, you can still race. The example I use is what if you get to an Olympic final and you’re on your period? Are you going to say sorry I can’t race today? You wouldn’t dream of it.” – Aimee Willmott
Let’s talk periods.
Not “the curse” with its inference of sinister witchcraft.
Not the whispers of “women’s things”.
Not “that time of the month”.
Type slang words for periods into a search engine and you can come up with up to 5,000 euphemisms for something that affects around 49.6% of the world’s population.
That’s around 3.9 billion females. Who. All. Have. Periods.
Hundreds of years of stigma have conspired to bring us to a point in 2021 where there’s still a sense of shame, albeit slowly eroding.
Periods have been described as the last taboo in sport and only in recent years have athletes started to talk openly about menstruation and its effect on performance.
Willmott has chosen to use her own experiences and platform to address the subject with the goal being to keep girls in the sport.
She has spoken to girls and young women whose ages range from 11 to 18 at clubs across Britain and Ireland as well as Swim England Talent and Swim Ireland.
Willmott has been a member of the Great Britain senior team since 2010 and will conclude a fine 11-year career at what will be her third Olympics in Tokyo this coming July with the trials coming up next month.
Now 28, Willmott was 17 when she competed at the 2010 European Championships in Budapest and the Commonwealth Games in Delhi later that year, coming fifth and sixth in the 400 and 200IM respectively and eighth in the 800 free.
As she embarked on a senior career that has encompassed Olympic and world finals, Willmott had been having irregular periods for almost five years, something she addressed around that time.
Willmott told Swimming World:
“Emotionally I was all over the place – I was the moodiest teenager – and sometimes I’d be so exhausted.
“I ended up having anaemia because I was having so many periods and so many bleeds which wasn’t normal.
“Because of the energy requirements and demands I was putting in in the pool, my body just didn’t have the time and energy like any other girl my age to get into that rhythm and for my body to learn that this is what’s happening.”
Her mother Alison was proactive and no-nonsense and Willmott was referred to a nutritionist at the English Institute of Sport who said she wasn’t taking on enough fuel and advised her to increase her food intake – even in the classroom.
Willmott comes from a swimming family. Her father Stuart represented Great Britain at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles in the 1400IM and 1,500 free and sister Chloe was also a national-level swimmer and county champion.
Despite her irregular periods and all the changes to her mind and body that accompany teenage years, Willmott never considered giving up.
Her goal is to ensure girls remain in the sport by sharing her own experiences to encourage communication and counter the isolation that puberty can bring and the subsequent effects on performance.
“It became important to me – when girls just quit at 15, 16 because they’re like ‘I’m not PBing and all of a sudden I’ve slowed down. I’m growing, I’ve got a spotty face, I’ve got boobs I don’t really want to hide in a costume’.
“The clothes you might hide behind, you can’t as a swimmer and I feel that stops a lot of girls carrying on.
“They’re developing but they aren’t seeing the result they want in the pool so it could be two or three years but by that point they’ve already stopped.
“So it’s raising awareness of yes, you are a girl in sport, you might start your periods at 13 and it might cause havoc for your body.
“You might have no energy and even though you’re training hard you’re just growing, you’re not getting the results that you want on the clock.
“It’s trying to get girls to stick with it and continue.”
When girls in their teens leave sport, it is often attributed to changing priorities be that relationships, social life or schoolwork.
That, it seems, doesn’t tell the whole story with the effect of physical and hormonal changes being seen not only in the water but also on poolside.
“I went through a stage when I plateaud a bit but then all of a sudden I dropped three seconds to swim 4:37.
“Then I plateaud a bit more and all of a sudden at 19 dropped three seconds to swim 4:33.8 so it’s like if I’d have thought I’m not getting any better and it’s two years and all I’ve achieved is 4:37, that’s never going to win me an Olympic medal, why am I still swimming?
“I would have stopped before I could potentially have achieved my best.
“I was still growing and changing shape and until I was 17 I had no chest, no bum and I was still very slight.
“I developed and grew and got that womanly figure and then dropped a bit more time.”
Teenage girls are by their nature self-conscious and there is nowhere to hide on poolside, something that resonates with Willmott.
“I am quite honest and open about my experiences and what happened with me.
“The fact I had extremely hairy legs and a really hairy bikini line that I was so self-conscious about that I shaved and made it sore and then had to wear dry pants to cover that rather than just leave it because it’s not the end of the world.
“It’s giving girls the confidence to be like – why should I have to worry about having hairy legs just because I’m a swimmer and other people see them?
“If you did any other sport you could wear long trousers and a long-sleeved top and it wouldn’t make a difference but we can’t in the pool.
“So it’s giving the girls the confidence to be like we’re all different shapes – yes, it doesn’t matter – but we’re all going through puberty at a total different rate and at a different time.
“You might have a chest at 13 but it’s nothing to be embarrassed about or the flip side of that – you might be totally undeveloped until you’re 16 or 17 and that’s also fin because everyone is completely different.”
Communication Is Key
While Willmott’s relationship with her mum has always been open and communicative, she was shocked to hear some girls say they couldn’t approach their own mothers or their friends about periods.
One reason is embarrassment – the consequence of hundreds of years of it not being talked about and hidden away.
The University of Stirling swimmer continued:
“I’ll be speaking to 50 11 and 12-year-old girls and talking them through what a tampon is, what size they are, where you buy them.
“How has it got to that stage when it’s that bad? That they’re so nervous to tell other people that they’re even having a period.
“If you can’t speak to your own mum you’ve got no chance of speaking to a coach when you’re struggling.
“But he doesn’t know what’s going on, doesn’t know that you’ve just started your period or doesn’t know you are always struggling with them or you get really bad migraines.”
So too can parents’ worry or panic transfer to their daughters, at times pulling them out of training or competitions.
One consequence is to magnify the fear of periods that girls who are experiencing them for the first time may feel.
Willmott encourages the girls and young women to overcome their embarrassment by stressing the normality of periods – after all, all women have, will have or have had them.
“Girls have periods – you might really struggle but if you were ill you’d turn round to the coach and say I’m not very well so when you’re really struggling with a period why can’t you turn round and say that?
“’There’s nothing wrong with me and I’ll be fine in a couple of days or maybe even tomorrow but right now I have the world’s worst stomach cramps’.
“It’s having that communication you’d have if there was anything else wrong with you.
“You just to have the same voice and it not be a big taboo that we have a period because every girl in the world has them.
“You can do whatever while you’re on your period is the biggest message: you can still train, you can still race.
“The example I use is what if you get to an Olympic final and you’re on your period? Are you going to say sorry I can’t race today? You wouldn’t dream of it: some of the girls laugh but you wouldn’t race at regionals or counties so it’s exactly the same thing.”
Women On Poolside
Mel Marshall is the sole woman on British Swimming’s senior staff and is Lead Coach at the National Centre Loughborough.
Willmott also worked with Lisa Bates who was head coach on the performance programme at the London Aquatics Centre.
Danielle Brayson is assistant head coach at City of Glasgow Swim Team and Emma Collings-Barnes is director of swimming at Mount Kelly, an independent school which combines a performance programme with education.
The majority of coaches however are male and Willmott feels that although things are improving in terms of communication, more females on poolside would help.
“Normally when I have males in the session, girls don’t answer any questions so I’ve learned if you’re joining in change your name, turn your camera off.
“Or if you want to listen and be educated because you’re not really that sure as a male coach what happens.
“If you’re there sometimes the girls don’t ask questions because they’re just a bit embarrassed.
“It would help I think if there were a couple more females at development level because you do just feel a bit more comfortable speaking to someone else who has been in the same situation rather than go to a male.
“But what I tell girls regardless if they’re male or female they have wives, daughters, mothers that have this so it’s not unknown.
“Yes, they might be a bit shocked the first time you come to them but they shouldn’t be like that either because it’s a normal thing to have the conversation.”
She returns once more to her desired outcome – girls continuing in the sport when bodily and hormonal changes can wreak havoc and going on to be the best they can be.
“Just trying to give them the confidence to have the communication with the coach, not to be too hard on yourself if you’re not PBing or if you’re not getting the result you want because if you’re doing everything right, at some point or another, you’ll get the result you want.
“But if you give up before that you’re doing yourself the injustice.”
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