The Resurgence of Becky Gribble: An Athlete Reborn
We’ve all participated in P.E, done our duty handing out bibs, played for our local club or been glued to the tense atmosphere of two teams vying for the winning try. For some, sport is a bit of entertainment, something we do to keep fit and stay healthy, but for others? It’s life’s purpose. A cycle of early alarms, grizzly training sessions, finding discipline over motivation. It’s the ecstasy of winning and basking in the blissful high of post-race endorphins, while also overcoming injury and navigating the depths of loss. It’s a fiery passion that can’t be put out. It’s who Becky Gribble is.
Becky Gribble loves sport, ever since she could walk and talk it was her driver. From a young age, she was catching unaccompanied international flights to various sporting events, clutching her ticket in one hand, and her dreams in the other. "I was a bit of a nightmare for sports to be honest, anything I could do; I did. Gymnastics, football, rugby, dancing, swimming… It got to the point where my parents couldn’t get me to everything I wanted to do and they said ‘right, you need to pick’. In the end, swimming became one of the ones that I loved too much to give up.”
You could see in the way Becky spoke about swimming that it had a piece of her heart. Once she’d made the call to put her all into swimming, she was unstoppable. But what was it that ignited the spark? “It was a bit of everything, but mainly the women in Kuwait that I was swimming with. There was such a small group of us, we all got on so well - most of them were older, so they looked after me and were like little swim mums which was lovely. We also had a pool at home, so every time I wasn’t actually training I was still in the water, messing around with friends out in the heat, it was just dreamy.”
Becky’s dreams of racing for Kuwait and Great Britain were fast becoming a reality as she flew to Dubai for the ‘UAE International Swimming Championships’, year after year, where she’d not only compete against the world’s crème de la crème of swimmers, but meet - and race against - big names like Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington.
In between her fast-paced schedule, solace was sought in Cornwall; a place that is now Becky’s forever home. “Cornwall’s always felt like home, I remember being a child coming back to the UK for summer; every time we’d come down to Cornwall we’d play in the sea at Crantock, swim in the Gannel, surf - whatever it was, it was always ‘Cornwall is the place I want to be’. It was nice visiting family elsewhere, but Cornwall had that homely feel.”
As Becky’s hard grind, gruelling training schedules and unwavering determination had her conquering dreams left, right and centre, a new goal of making it to the Olympics was emerging.
It was the November of 2019, Becky and her friends were out at their local Bonfire Night, celebrating the change in season with dazzling firework displays, all-you-can-eat sweets and a smorgasbord of rides; but when the call for one last ride was made, everything came to an abrupt halt.
”Bonfire Night was a good night, it sounds odd but it was as normal as it could’ve been until the seizure happened. We decided we wanted one more ride before heading home, everything was fine throughout the ride, but as it came to a stop I stopped in front of a strobing light. As it got quicker my head focused on the light, it kept flashing and I couldn’t look away, I was locked on it. I was scared, this had never happened to me before. I was conscious of the fact it had locked, I couldn’t move my body, I was stuck in the restraint on this ride and couldn’t do anything to help myself. The adrenaline of what had happened had worn off, I was in pain; my tongue hurt because I bit through it… I felt the bruising from where the ride restrained me.”
“The doctors explained what had happened, told me about the testing I’d have to go through, that I couldn’t drive for 6-12 months. As soon as I heard the doctor say I shouldn’t be swimming anymore, it was heartbreaking… it took away a big chunk of me.’
Doing the sport she does, Becky had had her fair share of injuries and turbulent moments over the years, but this was whole new terrain. Yet, being the professional she is; she persevered and adapted. Becky had always known she’d be an athlete again, but didn’t realise it would come so soon. "Originally a lot of it was taking the time to be by myself and work through what it meant for me in terms of what I could and couldn’t do. My family and friends, once I’d told everyone and started replying to messages again, were so nice and so supportive that it made it all a lot easier. Then it was just a gradual path back to getting back in the sea, getting on the bike, going to appointments, managing my meds - a mixture of everything aligning and working out where to go from there really.”
A fear of the unknown was setting in, whether another seizure would happen while in the sea, but with the help and reassurance of her partner, Jago, Becky was able to breathe again. “To be honest I think it was mainly knowing I could go in the water with Jag’s anytime I went in, he’s a lifeguard; I know his surfing ability and I knew that overall if anything happened he wouldn’t hesitate to come and help. I felt so guilty for putting that pressure on someone, but he was the one person who made me feel like I could put it on him.”
It wasn’t until 2022 that her fear of water morphed into a moment of acceptance. It was during shooting for a short film, Perseverance, that Becky and Alice (director) were working on. “Swimming wise it wasn’t until about last year, when I did the film with Alice, she’d said ‘right, I want some pool shots to show what you were doing compared to where you are now.' It was such good fun, and as much as she was in the water with me and we were at a pool with lifeguards, I still had so much anxiety before it. But after, I remember thinking ‘I can do this, it’s going to be okay.’ But before that moment, it was more surfing where I always had Jago or other people in the sea. I knew that if something did happen, it would’ve been fine but something in the back of my mind was always thinking ‘what if?’.
After filming the pool scenes, Becky found herself thinking about the new role swimming now played in her life, ”I was thinking ‘wow, I could get back into swimming a bit if I wanted’, on my sea dips Jago is either in the water with me or sat on the edge, he’s always around which gave me that peace of mind and confidence.”
“I had to have my hat and goggles (for the shoot), I found them with my swimsuits and I thought ‘I love these suits’, I had so many pretty swimsuits that I really loved. As well as my wetsuits and cycling kit, you fall in love with the bits of kit you get, you have your favourites and I found them again and was excited, saying ‘I'm going to wear them for the shoot, I'm going to wear them for the shoot!’”
After coming to terms with her epilepsy and what it meant for her swimming career, Becky had taken up a new sport, one she was quickly falling for. “I always knew I was competitive and that I can’t sit still, I have to be doing something, so I knew that I had to still be active; but I didn’t think it was going to be as competitive as it used to be. But then, cycling is a whole different world so once I did manage to get stuck into it; it was learning the ropes, giving a few events a go, seeing how they went, just training for a while, adapting so I could manage it.”
Moving into a new sport at that level is never easy, especially when athletes devote their whole lives to perfecting it, but that didn’t stop Becky. “I was up for the challenge. Growing up I had loads of male friends, I didn’t have that many female friends. I think being sporty, I always seemed to gel with the guys better. So going into a largely male-dominated sport I wasn’t that phased because I was just like ‘hey guys, how’s it goin’?’. They were all so lovely to me as the only girl on the team and the new girl, they acted like big brothers. And even now that I'm not on that same team, I still see a few of them, we are still in contact which is really lovely to check in every now and then. It’s a good community, everyone is so supportive, even if you’re out on a train ride and you’ve punctured, one of them will ride past - even if you don’t know them - they’ll tend to stop and say ‘you good? You need help?’. You’ve always got someone looking out for you.”
And now? It’s been four years since Bonfire Night, and Becky has not only become an avid wild swimmer and continued surfing, but has competed in gravel and off-road races across England; taking home first place. Although she does wish there’d be more events for cyclists close to home, “You get some (events) in Devon; around Plymouth, Exeter, and in Torbay there’s a racing circuit, but you hardly get anything in Cornwall. It’s starting to build a little bit, but nowhere near what you’d hope it’d be. You have to go to Bath, London or Wales to get major cycling events which obviously adds up. It costs so much, especially if you have to stay overnight, drive up and back.”
For someone in their early twenties, Becky has had one heck of a hand dealt to her, but with her can-do attitude and fierce love and respect for what she does, she came charging out the other side; embodying what it is to be a true athlete. When asked what advice she’d give to someone in a similar situation, a knowing smile spread across her face before answering, “embrace it, but also take your time to navigate through it. Don’t push yourself, don’t rush yourself, do it at your own pace and then find that support network once you’re in it, it makes a massive difference.”
We’d like to thank Becky and her partner Jago for spending the day with us, we were blown away by Becky’s story and are wholeheartedly cheering for whatever her next steps are. If you’d like to keep up with Becky’s adventures, follow her on instagram at @becky_gribble
While the majority of these quotes were taken from our interview, others were reused from the ‘Perseverance’ film linked here.