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World No.1 thrower’s pursuit of happiness

Tayla Clement is on track to become one of New Zealand's best Para athletes. But she’s made it clear to those around her that if her quest for records and medals impacts her mental health, she will walk away.

At her lowest, while she was swimming towards a place at the Rio Paralympic Games, Tayla Clement tried to take her life six times.

Now that the 21-year-old athlete has found a new sporting passion – as a world record-holder in shot put - she has vowed to never let anything jeopardise her well-being again.

“I feel I owe it to myself that I never let my desire to compete at any level of sport outweigh my happiness,” she says.

Clement launched herself into the spotlight in March this year by breaking a world record just six months after first picking up a shot put. Her next goal is to compete at the Para athletics world championships in Dubai later this year, with the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics also on her horizon.

She won't talk about specific goals around medals or records; Clement says she's just going out there to do her best.

"Expectations are detrimental to my confidence and anxiety. And, for that reason, I don't put pressure on myself to perform to anyone's expectations, including my own," she says.

"At the end of the day, no one can go out there and throw the shot but me. So it's more helpful if I focus on the enjoyment of sport and just doing my best. It's worked so far."

Clement has struggled for most of her life with depression, anxiety and poor body image.

Born with Moebius syndrome, which caused her to have facial paralysis and club feet, she always felt out of place because she looked different to everyone else. She was severely bullied at school, and felt trapped by something she knew she couldn't change.

Clement turned to swimming at a young age to try to feel normal. But, after years dedicated to the sport and a dream of competing at the Paralympics, her mental health began to deteriorate.

Around the end of 2016, after missing out on qualifying for the Rio 2016 Paralympics, everything became too much. She decided that maybe it was time to leave swimming behind for the sake of her mental well-being.

"I didn't want to stop swimming,” she admits. “But it got to a point where I knew if I continued to swim, I wasn't going to be able to move forward with my life."

At the beginning of 2017, she broke the news to her teammates and coach, and never looked back. To this day she has no regrets about leaving swimming behind.

Soon after finishing, the itch to become active set in again, and Clement began experimenting with fitness on her own terms.

Combining regular gym sessions and daily walks, she began to regain control of her mental balance and feel at ease again. The enjoyment of being active returned, reminding her how it could positively impact her.

At the end of that year, she tried athletics on a whim and was surprised to find she both enjoyed it and was very good at it.

On her first attempt throwing a shot put in competition, she set a new New Zealand F43 record (her Para sport classification) of 8.28m at the Victoria state championships in Melbourne. That throw ranked her number one in the world.

Tayla Clement has been very vocal and transparent about her struggles with mental health. Photo: Alisha Lovrich/Athletics NZ.

Enjoying the moment, Clement suddenly saw an opportunity to have another shot at becoming a Paralympian.

The first few months of training were a shock for her. The difference in training styles between the two sports made her feel like she wasn't training enough.

"I came from a sport where you had to train for at least two hours every day in the pool to be good at it. Adjusting to shot put took some time because you don't need to train for as long to be good as I did when I was swimming," says Clement.

Within six months of starting Para athletics, Clement broke her first shot put world record – throwing 8.40m at the national track and field championships.  

But it wasn't long before the feeling of elation wore off, and Clement was left wondering what was next.

"I didn't expect to feel so normal after breaking a world record. I had spent a lot of time dreaming about what it would feel like to break a world record, and then when I did it, I was underwhelmed by how normal I felt. I was just the same old Tayla I've always been," says Clement, who still holds the F43 world record, now at 8.74m

Clement began to dig deep to establish why she was involved in Para sport. It was clear straight away that, while the accolades, records and medals were nice, it wasn't her sole desire for competing. What it boiled down to for her was happiness.

If she was happy training and competing, Clement would continue on her Paralympic journey. If she wasn't, she had no problems walking away from the sport.

"I've been clear with my coaches and support team from the beginning. I'm not here for any other reason than I want to prove to myself that I can do it. I'm here because I love the sport, the people and the opportunities it has given me," she says.

"As long as I still love training and competing, I am happy to continue. But if I wake up tomorrow and I'm not happy, or the idea of continuing triggers a decline in my mental health, then I'm happy to walk away."

Clement has been very vocal and transparent about her struggles with her mental health. Three years ago, she decided to start documenting those struggles on Instagram, with the hope that by shedding light on it she could help others.

Now that she is in a good place mentally, Clement says she will never do anything to jeopardise her well-being again.

Having found a place where she is happy and confident, Clement is determined to keep it that way. Even if it means leaving behind an opportunity to write her name in the history books.

"Going to Tokyo to win a medal is not worth more to me than my mental health,” she says. “I've made that clear, and I will continue to stand by that no matter what anyone says."

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