The key to success comes through taking care of yourself. Looking after one’s physical and mental well-being is something that MI-GSO | PCUBED takes seriously. Becky Gaitch and Charles Wilman, consultants for MI-GSO | PCUBED UK, chat with Jennifer Kehoe, Paralympics Gold Medalist, about how to tend to your wellbeing when it matters most.
Charles Wilman: Hello, and a very warm welcome to a special edition podcast from us here at MI-GSO | PCUBED. I’m Charles Wilman. And today, we are very lucky to have a special guest talking to us about her distinguished career and some tips with managing wellbeing. A topic which is very close to our hearts here at MI-GSO | PCUBED. I’m delighted to introduce Jennifer Kehoe as our guest, who will be talking to Becky Gaitch, one of our consultants and a big advocate for wellbeing.
Jen has quite the CV – a serving British army officer, author, and professional skier who competes with visually impaired athlete, Menna Fitzpatrick, as her sighted guide. They became Britain’s most decorated winter Paralympians, most notably winning four medals at the Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang 2018, including gold in the slalom.
So, without further ado, I’d like to hand over to Becky and Jen. Please take it away.
Becky Gaitch: Thanks so much, Charles. So, Jen, first of all, can we start with you giving us a little bit of background to your career? How did you get from the military to being a Paralympic ski guide?
Jennifer Kehoe: Thanks, Rebecca. Thanks for that great introduction, Charles.
It’s brilliant to be part of the [MI-GSO | PCUBED] podcast. So, I’ve had a bit of a convoluted and unusual military career in so much as I joined nearly 12 years ago now and had a regular career for about five years, including a tour in Afghanistan. But when I went from my first dinner where I met my commanding officer, I sat next to him and said to him, “I would absolutely love to take soldiers skiing. I grew up in Switzerland.”
And he said, “Well, funnily enough, we are looking for an Alpine skiing officer, so, I’ll consider a request when you’re doing the regiment.”
And that was the start, really, of what has been an incredible adventure in Alpine skiing through the military. I was fortunate enough to be able to take the soldiers skiing, and then got selected for the army team myself.
I went on to represent both the army and the interservice teams in Maribel and even down in Australia, kind of in my own right, before getting involved in the Paraskiing. So it was in 2013, I was competing at the interservices in Maribel, and a coach who’s also a Royal engineer and was working with the Armed Forces Parasnowsport team as their lead coach at the time, came up to me and essentially headhunted me and said, “The team are looking for guides. Have you ever thought about being a guide for a blind person?”
And being brutally honest? I didn’t even know that blind people skied. It wasn’t something I’d come across. But I thought my past experience with paraskiing, I was really impressed by what it was, and how it gave people who had often suffered quite a lot of trauma, or had their opportunities limited in life, an opportunity to experience incredible freedom.
So, I jumped at the opportunity, and went on a trial, and was accepted onto the team in March 2013 as a ski guide.
Becky Gaitch: That is quite an unusual career path. Also, really fascinating that you’ve managed to build a career out of something that’s been a passion of yours. And then also something that you can help others to kind of get into that passion too. I think that’s really brilliant.
So obviously, this year has been a bit of a different year to usual. Can you tell us what’s been going on in 2020 for you?
Jennifer Kehoe: Menna and I continued skiing together until the end of the 2019 season, where we had the world championships, and the plan was for the off season – so winter 2019-20 – for me to return to the army to complete some essential training. We would then pick up where we left off in March 2020 and resume our Paralympic campaign for the Beijing 2022 Paralympics, which is our current goal. Clearly, March 2020 was a bit unsettling, to say the least, for everybody, and all of that went out the window.
So having expected to go back into a full-time training program, traveling all over to the world, time in Southern Hemisphere this summer on snow training, and lots of time in the gym, and a very clear goal of what we were going to achieve. It went to not knowing anything, being stuck at home, having to kind of self-motivate to do training, having to build up a gym at home, and just really find a lot of self-motivation to keep training, and keep working towards this goal, that actually none of us even know whether it’s going to still be there in years’ time.
With the Summer Olympics and Paralympics being moved to next year, we have no idea whether any of this is going to happen. So, March to July was at home, training on my own, trying to find some motivation.
Then in July, I was fortunate when it opened up in Europe to travel to Europe, to get some on-snow training and start my return to snow program. It’s by this point I had been off snow for about 15 months.
Becky Gaitch: Is that quite a long time for you?
Jennifer Kehoe: Yeah. Normally it’s only two, three months of being off snow in a typical year.
Yeah. So, from end of May to beginning of July, perhaps it’s maximum two months, so having 15 months off is quite significant. And while I’ve been doing a lot of dry land training, as we call it, you need to train the skills, the on-snow skills as well. So, I was very fortunate to be able to get out on snow in July, and then obviously it will all changes.
Quarantine started coming back in and different rules. So, the last few months really have just been working out where we can go if we can go. And with the support of the GB team, who to their credit, actually, have been working very hard to try and enable us to, to get the best training we can do. And the government has now given permission for elite sportsmen and women to go and travel abroad without having to quarantine on the way back.
However, we still have to comply with the regulations to the countries we’re going in. So there’s a huge amount of uncertainty around what we’re doing, in the same way that I think we’re all feeling, whatever industry you’re in, the rules are changing weekly, the goalposts are moving as to what we need to do, what we can do.
Do we need to be tested? Is it safe to be going? There are so many questions and uncertainties around what we’re doing. So, yeah, we’re just having to be flexible and work almost on a day-by-day basis. To decide what we’re doing, which makes what is already quite an unsettled lifestyle, even more so.
Becky Gaitch: Yeah, of course, especially when you’re training for a goal that’s quite a few years away and I’m sure you have quite a regimented training program, as well. And it’s must be really difficult if you can’t stick to that and can’t plan where you’re supposed to be doing over the next weeks or months. It must be really challenging.
Becky Gaitch: You mentioned about how you had to self-motivate when you were at home. Do you have any tools for doing that that you could share?
Jennifer Kehoe: So, one of the things that has worked really well for me was actually getting in touch with Menna. So, Menna was injured back in the very end of February. She broke her leg in a race.
So, lockdown for her has actually not been that different to what it would have been under normal situations, because she’s been at home rehabbing. But we both found that we were struggling a bit to motivate ourselves. And so, we started doing Zoom gym sessions. So I think what I would say is having an external person arranging a time to meet up and actually do something together has really helped me because you’re you’re then beholden to that person. You can both help each other commit to your goal.
And so, I think sharing your goal and making a commitment with somebody else has really helped me to stay disciplined and keep pushing myself. Because it’s really easy when you’re on your own to not put that extra weight on, or to not do the session for quite as long, because actually there’s something that’s more interesting to go and do.
And actually, if we don’t do the training, we’re not going to be prepared for the games. It’s the simple truth of it. It has been hard to day-in-day-out find that motivation.
Becky Gaitch: And connecting with someone else to get a bit of accountability and encouragement with each other.
Jennifer Kehoe: Exactly, and Menna has really helped with that.
Becky Gaitch: She recovered now?
Jennifer Kehoe: She’s pretty much, yeah. So, we’re heading out to Austria on Sunday to go and do two weeks training on the glassy there, which would be the first camp that she’s been out outside of the UK for. Very exciting.
Becky Gaitch: So, the topic and practice of wellbeing is something that is really close to our hearts here at MI-GSO | PCUBED, and something we’re trying to really raise awareness of across the organization. So, it would be great to get your take on what wellbeing means to you.
Jennifer Kehoe: After you sent me the invite for the podcast, I had a little look into what wellbeing is sort of from more of an academic perspective.
And the three things that came up quite regularly was feeling comfortable, happy, and healthy. And I think that’s sums it up quite nicely, taking that for me in the context of wellbeing, meaning we’re comfortable, happy, and healthy. It’s important for that to be not only like physical wellbeing, but also mental wellbeing, which is something that is really, really important in the minute with so many changes in the world, but also social wellbeing.
And those are the three topics that I thought I’d used to frame my thoughts around it.
Becky Gaitch: Wellbeing is such a hot topic with COVID, with so many challenges, everybody feeling quite isolated, and there’s lots of discussion around how we can help improve people’s wellbeing, mental wellbeing, particularly. I think it comes back to this idea of resilience and being flexible in what we’re doing.
Jennifer Kehoe: So, on the physical side of it, for me, I use fitness as a way to improve my physical wellbeing. If I don’t do fitness on a daily basis, I get really stressed, and quite grouchy, and generally can be quite unpleasant to be around. I think probably because I’m used to doing it to such a high level. So, maintaining a really healthy fitness routine is something that’s really important.
I think if you can incorporate that into your daily life, whether it’s half an hour walk, or a bit of yoga, or some Pilates, or a run, or whatever, it is that makes you feel good. Then I think doing fitness in some capacity is really, really important to physical wellbeing. And I know it makes a huge difference for me.
And I’ll come on to about how that has affected me very personally, quite recently, as well, a bit later on. But the mental side of it, again, being in lockdown, I was quite lucky, and I had a housemate, so I did have somebody to talk to partway through lockdown. She got seconded over to a job in London and moved out for six, seven weeks and suddenly I had nobody to talk to.
I was having to, again, self-motivate, do all my training by myself, had nobody to talk to in the morning, nobody to wake up and have breakfast with, or have a chat with. So it was quite a lonely existence, and I was really, really reliant on connecting with the outside world. sort of to get that,
So, to overcome the challenge of feeling really lonely and feeling like my mental health was deteriorating, I made sure I was challenging myself, different things each day. So, whether that be. Reading a new book. And the thing I took up during lockdown was actually the guitar. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for ages.
A friend of mine lent me a guitar back in January, and I’ve never really had the opportunity to do it. So, I decided to challenge myself and try and learn it. Thankfully, the Fender app became free for three months. So, I’ve really used that as a way to improve my own mental wellbeing and feeling challenged.
And the other thing I thought about with regard to the mental side is this idea of needing to feel respected, having the respect from our friends and peers. And I think that has been quite interesting, transitioning from the back end of 2019. Going from being very high profile in sport to coming back into the military and having to readjust to being in amongst peers who have gone and done incredibly well professionally in the military, where my experience is much, much less from a green army perspective. Although I can stand up and hold my head higher in my achievements in the sporting world, I was coming up back into a world, which was very unknown to me and quite uncomfortable.
And so, readjusting to that and believing in myself that I had earned the respect of my peers for doing something that was different, but not necessarily measured in the same way as perhaps the traditional army model measures it, was quite difficult. And it’s still something that I’m working on to deal with now that I’ve transitioned back from being fully military to being dual career.
So, there’s lots around that transition, and I think crosses over into the social side, where you’re seeking approval from friends, and this kind of idea of social currency, and making sure that we’re comfortable and happy and healthy in our environment. So, yeah, there’s been lots of challenges to my wellbeing from all three sides.
Becky Gaitch: Thanks so much. That’s a really thoughtful take on what wellbeing means to you. And I think that’s actually going to be really helpful for our listeners to think about it in those three different aspects. And is it to here you face challenges despite having such a kind of decorated career and that you are still human, even though you are such a superstar in many ways, including now being a rockstar as well, which I think is brilliant outcome of lockdown. So well done for that. My singing ability. It leaves a lot to be desired. So, I don’t think you’ll be seeing me on any stage.
Becky Gaitch: So, another question I have is whether you have a wellbeing, mental, or someone that you look to as a great role model for wellbeing.
Jennifer Kehoe: I do, actually, this person has really helped me on quite a holistic journey through personal wellbeing and understanding it. And I really do view wellbeing as holistic.
So, one of my founding principles, if I can be so bold to call it that, comes back to nutrition. What is really important as an athlete to eat well, because you know, that is your fuel. It’s also really important to eat well from a wellbeing perspective.
So, my mentor is a woman called Lizzie. She is a life coach and a very good friend. She was actually a friend of colleague of my mum’s before I met her.
But we were born on the same day where a few years apart. She’s a little bit older than me, but we look at life in a very similar way in many, many ways. And she has inspired me to understand myself better, and to look after myself, but also to look at the world in a different way, and to try and bring positivity, and improve the well-being of those around me.
So, coming back to nutrition. Whilst I was on course with Lizzy, training to do some life coaching, we were talking about nutrition and it suddenly dawned on me that food is the building blocks of our body. Everything that we are is because of the food that we eat, not eating good stuff and healthy stuff. Then we’re not giving ourselves the best chance of being happy and healthy and living a good life.
So, for me, nutrition is where it all starts and I’m trying to eat well underpins everything that I do. And then going back to the kind of social side, again, this idea of choosing very carefully, what we eat.
I’m not a vegan. I’m not that selective in the food I eat because I love foods across all spectrums, but I am starting to be a much more selective about where my food comes from and considering like the environmental impact and how sustainable it is. And I think that gives me a real sense of wellbeing because I feel like I’m making choices that make me feel good and help society. Hopefully, it makes a difference to the rest of the world.
So, working with Lizzie inspires me to have those thoughts and then she’s a Blue Health Life Coach. And by that, I mean, all of her coaching is done down by the beach. Being close to water is really important as this idea that water is medicine, and it helps our wellbeing.
So, for me, this idea is really important, and I spend as much time as I can in on or around water. It’s a really calming influence for me. And it’s a really lovely way to spend a day. She has really inspired me to think carefully about what I do, and also to incorporate this idea of water for wellbeing into my life and to continue to, to develop that
Becky Gaitch: She sounds like an absolutely fantastic person to have in your life. Someone who’s really positive also has some really good ideas about how to look after yourself.
What advice would you give to people that can’t necessarily be by the water or on snow all the time? Is there anything she would suggest that you could do as an alternative or a way to think about being in that kind of mindset?
Jennifer Kehoe: Yeah, I think surrounding yourself by blue is one way of doing it. So, you can bring some paintings of water, having blue space and green space and having plants is not quite blue space, but it really helps. So, having plants around you, getting out into nature.
If you’re listening to this and you live in London, there are actually lots of waterways in London that you can just go for a stroll for, go for half an hour and sit and watch the water go by. And I firmly believe that most people will feel calmer after doing that, just sitting by the canal or, you know, if you can find a quiet spot, listen to the birds, take a minute and, and be in nature.
For her, water is a really important thing. For me, I’ve taken that further and I got into being in nature, and just listening, and looking, and feeling the environment.
Becky Gaitch: That’s just really fantastic advice and definitely something that we can all take heed of, whether we’re in London or working from home, wherever that my might be. So, thank you for that.
Becky Gaitch: So, can you talk about a time when you’ve struggled mentally or physically, how you ever came over that and perhaps what resources you used?
Jennifer Kehoe: Yeah, I think this is something I think which is quite common for many athletes, possibly not really talked about or necessarily understood. And when you have great success in the games, we won four medals, including gold at the Paralympics, and suddenly you arrived back in the UK and you’re a mini celebrity. We landed in Heathrow on the 19th of March, 2018, having had a really busy few days finishing racing, going through the closing ceremony, having a bit of a party to celebrate the end of the games, getting on flight, and then landing back in the UK.
We went into two hours solid of interviews with British media. And then for the next two weeks, Menna and I were dashing up and down for London to Manchester, working with BBC, which had been recording interviews, radio, all sorts of things. You get thrown into this. There’s no kind of preparation for it really, unless you’ve been through it before.
Once all of that started to wind down a bit, so firstly, that you felt a huge amount of pressure because you’re suddenly in the limelight. You feel like you need to have this external image, which perhaps isn’t natural, and certainly as somebody who’s in the military where we don’t talk about our public image, it’s quite challenging actually having this external persona and being thrust into the limelight, actually talking to the media is quite comfortable, but having your life on display is less comfortable. And I think I really struggled mentally.
I was going through quite a difficult time. In my relationship there was a lot of changes in life. There were all sorts of things going on in the background, and I was going through what I didn’t really realize at the time, but what many people would recognize as depression and really, really struggling.
And it wasn’t until probably nine months later that I really recognized that and started to be able to do something about it. So, I turned to my friends and started talking about it, which was really helpful. One thing, which I think a lot of people are unaware of is that a lot of contraception causes depression. So, I changed that to try and improve it.
And I also started seeing a counselor. There is still a lot of stigma around speaking to counselors, I feel, but I would recommend it to anybody, whether you are suffering from anything like depression or not. Actually, I think it’s a really useful tool. And particularly for people who work in a high pressure jobs in business, and the, the analogy I use is like, So when I have aches and pains with my muscles, I go and see a physio and I will see them.
If I’ve got something specific that I want to talk to them about to try and fix a problem, a pain in my back, but I also go and see them on a weekly basis. I will just go and go in for a checkup. And I see the counseling in a similar way, not, not on a weekly basis, perhaps, but certainly on a, on a monthly or a quarterly basis.
I still see a counselor and talk to them. And it’s just having that person who’s external to the rest of your life, who is able to just have a totally neutral perspective on life. They really helped me through quite a difficult, dark time in my life in 2018, understanding where I was in that transition kind of post-Paralympics, but I’ve continued to talk to somebody regularly just as almost a maintenance, and self-care mechanism to help me work through some of those issues that perhaps you don’t want to talk to your friends and family about.
And it’s been a really, really useful tool.
Becky Gaitch: Thank you so much for sharing that. It’s not something that’s always easy to talk about. So, it’s really good to hear you being so open and honest about it. Hopefully people listening will feel that they can reach out.
I know even talking to friends, they don’t feel comfortable talking about it or don’t want to admit, but when you’re open and honest with that kind of thing, I find people are more open and honest with you. So hopefully even if it’s one person that it helps them. That’s cool.
Thank you so much, Jen, for giving us such brilliant insights into your fascinating career and also for sharing some advice for how we can think about and also take control of our own wellbeing, really appreciate it.
Jennifer Kehoe: Thank you both so much for having me. It’s been brilliant, hopefully useful advice. If anybody wants to follow Menna or my journey to the next Paralympics in 2022, you can do so on Instagram @mennaandjen. It’d be great to see some of you following us.
Charles Wilman: Jen, Becky, thank you so much for your time. A great conversation with some really open and honest insight around the topic of wellbeing.
So, our audience, we hope you enjoyed this and found it useful. Have a great day. Thank you.
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