Desiree Henry: I lit the London 2012 cauldron, then my Olympic career hit a spiral of fear and panic

Desiree Henry
Having lost her British Athletics funding in 2019, the 2016 Olympic bronze medallist until this year had to fund her campaign to make Team GB for Paris by working full-time - Jeff Gilbert for The Telegraph

Desiree Henry is a member of one of the most exclusive sporting clubs on earth. The sprinter has her name etched on the steps of the Olympic Museum in Lausanne alongside the likes of Muhammad Ali, Cathy Freeman and Naomi Osaka having been one of seven British teenagers to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony of 2012 Olympic Games.

Now aged 28, Henry still has the same glint of excitement in her eyes as she did almost 12 years ago. Despite looking very much on track to fulfil the potential Daley Thompson spotted when he selected her as his choice to represent the next generation of Team GB in 2012, winning a bronze medal just four years later in Rio, she has endured torrid injury, mental health issues, missing out on selection for the Tokyo Games, loss of funding, and having to work full time. However, this year things have moved in a positive direction.

When we meet in Lee Valley Athletic Centre in north London, Henry – a local who “lives just up the road” in Enfield – can’t stop smiling despite the hardships she has experienced and the uncertainty regarding Olympic selection for this summer’s Paris Games.

In many ways Henry’s story could be replicated on the big screen, beginning with that famous night in London’s Olympic Park. The novel concept for lighting the cauldron had been a tightly guarded secret.

“When we were told that we’ll be the ones lighting the cauldron, it was just like a, ‘Huh, come again!’, says Henry, a broad grin spreading across her face as she recollects. “We were all just starting our careers. On TV there was speculation if it was going to be David Beckham or whoever. And then I was like: ‘Wait, you want us to be the ones?’”

Young athletes carry the Olympic flame
Henry, second left, second row, was one of seven young athletes chosen to represent the next generation of talent who were given the honour of lighting the Olympic cauldron at the London 2012 Games - SAEED KHAN/AFP/GettyImages

Rather than being distracted by 900 million people watching globally, Henry instead gained a laser focus that would prepare her for the Rio Games.

“I think from then that was my moment of having focus because I just thought naturally I want to be at the next Olympics. And it actually is doable. Now I’m way too young for this one at 16, but come the next one I was thinking I want to be there.”

Henry played a significant role four years later as part of the 4 x 100m relay team joining Asha Philip, Dina Asher-Smith and Daryll Neita on the podium to claim bronze after a disappointing showing for Team GB’s female sprinters individually. Having won an Olympic medal in the month of her 21st birthday, she seemed to have a long career ahead of her.

‘I actually don’t think I’m too happy’

In 2017, Henry returned to the London Stadium for the World Athletics Championships and was part of the relay team that went one better than Rio with a silver. However, injuries were starting to take their toll and she made the difficult decision to have surgery on both knees. The protracted rehab period turned Henry’s life upside down leading to feelings of severe anxiety.

Great Britain's Asha Philip, Desiree Henry, Dina Asher-Smith and Daryll Neita win silver in 2017
Desiree Henry, second left, wins silver at the 2017 World Championships alongside Asha Philip, Dina Asher-Smith and Daryll Neita - Martin Rickett/PA Wire

She is candid as she explains: “I think it was just panic and fear and honestly just having a little breakdown of crying, but I couldn’t really understand where it was coming from. But then a light bulb went off where it was just like: ‘I actually don’t think I’m too happy.’”

Initially she thought using the extra time and freedom away from intense training to spend more time with friends or indulge in forbidden foods did little to quell her sadness.

“I thought even being in a social setting doesn’t provide me with the calmness that I felt I needed.

With a wry laugh she continues: “And then it’s again, trying to do things that make you happy. Like eating junk food, especially because I was doing my rehab, I thought I haven’t eaten bad things, for most of my career, let me try and indulge in the sweet stuff that everyone tells me about. But it still didn’t make a difference.”

The issue of mental health in sport is not a new one but Henry is refreshingly open in how she explains the approach she took. Many athletes will speak about a sport psychologist or mental skills coach – she felt she was at a point where she had experienced that and needed to seek the help of a therapist rather than someone less qualified to manage her thoughts around performance.

She says: “I know that this isn’t a moment of, ‘OK, how do I set up my first 10 metres mentally?’ No, ‘it’s, how do I wake up and feel good about myself? How do I go throughout the days and have a change of mentality when I am doing rehab after not being able to run, watching competitions and knowing that I’m not there?’

“There’s no sugar coating it. I’d heard of therapy so many times, but there’s also that taboo even back then that, you know, you’ve got to be insane. But I also just thought there is, I’m sure that there is a space for me to just discuss how I think and feel and to have someone that doesn’t really know me to really help me. And I think I was just happy to speak to someone that wasn’t in my world.”

‘Henry gave me a different focus and is such an important part of my life’

For Henry, the other key to managing her anxiety was getting a puppy. Her dachshund is such a key part of her family that he is named Henry and acts as an emotional support for her, travelling to longer training camps. “Even just taking him to puppy classes gave me a different focus and now he is such an important part of my life. I think I’ve sat there, I’ve cried, I’ve been sad, and he’s just been there consistently. He doesn’t even know, but he’s absolutely incredible – we’ve even worn matching outfits!”

The other misfortune to befall the sprinter was to lose her British Athletics funding in 2019. This meant she was paying for everything out of her own pocket leading up to the Tokyo Games, which she did not make and after she was determined to get to Paris even if it meant taking on a full-time office job to pay for coaching, physiotherapy, scans and the costs associated with being an elite athlete.

It was through one of her passions away from competition – speaking to young girls about building self-confidence that her dreams of a second Olympics became more likely when she was approached by insurance company Domestic & General about them sponsoring her so she could return to being a full-time athlete.

“I was training until late at night. My body wasn’t recovering as well. I would say that I had more aches and pains, more problems. And it was just ridiculously difficult to the point where I was doing well at the new job that I had but again, my performance wasn’t there,” she says.

“I think 2023 became one of the hardest years for me because I was thinking, ‘What on earth do I do?’ But what I do know right now is that I need to work. And so that’s why I feel like what has happened… call it the universe, call it God.

“It was the most incredible thing to have met Domestic & General during that process of still working, trying to figure out what is my 2024 going look like because I knew that I would be working towards Paris.”

Henry will not find out until about a month before the Olympics if she has made the team but if her sporting odyssey has had an obvious impact it is that she is beaming with anticipation but also a sense there will be acceptance rather than wringing her hands as we parted ways.

“The aim for me honestly, is just to make the team. And that could look like an individual event, whether it’s the 100m or the 200m or being a part of the relay pool. I think realistically that’s what’s keeping me motivated. That’s what the goal is to make the team.”