With one hand on the wall, I fixed my eyes on the opposing team on the other side of the Olympic-size swimming pool – all of us tensed and ready to explode into action. At the sound of the gong, I ripped down through the water, powering myself to the bottom, kicking furiously with my fins in a headlong charge to reach the puck.
Octopush, known as underwater hockey outside of the UK, had once played a huge part in my life – before a long break made me wonder if I’d ever be able to represent my team, Southsea, again. Though I’d tried all sorts of other sports in the past, for me, nothing compared with lashing a puck across the bottom of a swimming pool towards the opponents’ goal. Now, pitting my wits against the opposing forwards, the thrill of it seemed even greater than before. I was back!
My sporting obsession had started when I was seven, feeling bored at the swimming lessons I went to along with my older sister, Charlotte. I saw a poster on the wall of our local pool in Portsmouth, inviting young players to join the Octopush team, something I’d never heard of, but which sounded amazing. ‘Can I go, Dad?’ I asked. He’d always liked to surprise us, so later that week, without saying a word, he took me along.
I instantly fell in love with the game and, from then on, if I wasn’t training, I was playing. I became one of my team’s most respected forwards. Then, when I was 13, I was scouted for Great Britain’s under-19s men’s squad, with my dad, Ian, and my mum, Nikki, bursting with pride. For three years, I trained with the squad, always with the aim of taking part in the 2013 Underwater Hockey World Championship in Hungary. When I was 16, I finally won my place on the team and got to represent my country against the very best in the world. It was the greatest honour. And when we finished sixth, I still felt like a winner.
A few months later, something happened to change everything.
I’d just run a charity 5K along the seafront to raise funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Mum was driving me home when, as we were stationary at the traffic lights, a car slammed into the back of us. At first, it seemed like everything was OK. Then, the following morning, I woke up with my back rigid and in spasm, and in so much pain I had to roll out of bed.
After a month of medical investigations, I learnt that the cartilage between my vertebrae had been seriously damaged and my back muscles had seized around it. The specialist told me that only time and intensive physiotherapy would help me to recover.
As the weeks went by, unable to train with my team, my spirits sank. ‘I don’t know what to do with myself,’ I said to Dad. ‘Octopush is my life – I’m lost without it.’ Dad could see how much it meant to me. ‘Why not go to the pool and just see how it feels to swim a few lengths?’ he said. Getting back into the water only confirmed my worst fears. Swimming a single length caused me unbearable pain. I felt lost and miserable as I tried to get used to a life that didn’t involve training, competing and pushing myself to be my very best.
Within a year, I noticed my weight was shooting up. It felt as though my purpose in life had been taken from me, and I knew I was using food to make myself feel better. To fill the gap in my evenings, I’d go out and meet friends, buying takeaways using the cash from my part-time job working at a leisure centre. The more I comforted myself with fast food, the less I looked like the toned sportsman I’d once been. Slowly, I put on 6st. Although the physio had kick-started my recovery, my back was still weak, and as it strained to carry my extra weight, it became more and more painful. And my breathing had become so noisy it sometimes sounded as though I was sleeping even when I was awake!
In January 2017, I started a new job working in telecoms at a hospital in Portsmouth. I now weighed over 19st, and walking into my new workplace for the first time, I felt clumsy and shy, where once I’d been so fit and confident. As I slowly got to know my colleagues, I tried to hide my low self-esteem by taking the mickey out of myself. One day, after I’d parked my car in its usual spot just a few minutes’ walk from the hospital, I arrived at work exhausted, and realised there was no way I was going to make it back again later. I took a taxi from the hospital doors to my car, then drove home, wondering how it had come to this.
Shocked by how unfit I now was and worried about my health, I went to see my doctor. He weighed me, then told me I was in the obese range and at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Losing weight, he said, could help with my back pain, improve my breathing and help reduce my risk of developing sleep apnoea.
There were so many reasons to take control of my weight… all I needed was to find a way to do it.
A few weeks later, I was enjoying dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house – something I did every Tuesday. I’d just finished eating their pizza-topped chicken and salad, when Aunt Clare dropped a bombshell. Not only was it a Slimming World recipe, but so were the other meals I’d had with them recently. I knew she’d been a member before her wedding and she told me then that she’d rejoined after her honeymoon to lose a little more weight. ‘Can I try it with you?’ I asked her. ‘I need to do something – and it’s got to be worth a shot.’ She was only too glad to help. ‘Of course, and I can show you some recipes I use,’ she said, adding, ‘but really, you need to come to group to make the most of it.’ I hadn’t bargained for that and later talked it through with Dad. ‘I’m worried it’s going to be full of older ladies, not for someone like me,’ I said. Dad laughed. ‘Just give it a try, Tyler – you might be surprised!’
As I walked into group with my aunt in July 2017, the first thing I noticed was that, yes, I was the only man. But even before my Consultant had taken me through how Food Optimising worked, I could tell by the friendly atmosphere I wasn’t going to feel out of place. Everyone who spoke to me was really supportive and I went home full of confidence that I’d found an enjoyable way to lose weight. There was one major challenge ahead, though – I’d realised that I’d have to learn to cook to break my reliance on fast food. And, as it happened, the timing couldn’t have been better, as I was just about to move out of my parents’ place to house-share with my friend, Joe. Because I worked shifts, Joe and I rarely saw each other at mealtimes, which meant I had free rein in the kitchen.
Although I’d never cooked before, I invited my older brother, Ryan, to be my first guinea pig and threw myself into preparing a complicated pasta dish. I’m not sure where I went wrong, but as I took a bite and grimaced, I decided I’d try something a bit easier next time! Ryan was a star, telling me enthusiastically that it was great, even though it really wasn’t. His encouragement made me determined to get better at cooking, so next time the compliments would be genuine.
I’ve always loved spicy food, so after mastering the basics, I turned my attention to simple Asian recipes. I cooked dishes from a selection of Slimming World recipe books, finding some real gems, like beef pho, sweet chilli chicken and a range of curries, which became my new staples. Every success gave me more confidence and I started to consider myself a bit of a dab hand in the kitchen. Meanwhile, I was getting more active, finding I could walk further without getting tired and achy, and I took up cycling. I couldn’t wait to go to group each week, when I’d be able to step on the scales a few pounds lighter and see how pleased all the other members would be for me.
And the more weight I lost, the more physio exercises I could complete, which was speeding up my recovery. By the time I’d lost around 3st, the constant pains had become occasional twinges.
In nine months I’d reached my 14st target, having lost 5st 12½lbs. When I told Dad, I could tell by the look on his face how proud he was. Basking in my success, I wondered… Could it be time to take another big step? ‘I miss the pool, Dad,’ I said. ‘Do you think maybe I’m ready to join Southsea again?’ He paused, then said: ‘Well, why don’t we start off just getting back into swimming?’ Dad sought out a quiet pool and, that Sunday morning, we went for a swim together.
Gliding through the water in my swimming trunks, I was actually less self-conscious than I’d felt when I was outside and fully clothed. My back didn’t hurt at all and my confidence rocketed just by being there. I knew I was where I belonged, and I was sure it wouldn’t be long before I was able to get back to my sporting best.
Back home, I looked at myself in the mirror and knew, deep down, I wasn’t quite at the end of my weight loss journey. Though I felt so much better than I had done at my biggest, I knew losing another stone would boost my self-confidence – and my energy – even more. So, the following week at group, I lowered my target to 13st, and decided I’d ramp up my exercise to support my weight loss. I followed a Couch to 5K running app, and every Sunday morning, Dad and I went for a swim. With the end in sight, I was even more focused on Food Optimising than before. And when I reached my new target, weighing less than I had when I was competing for Great Britain, there was only one thing left to do.
A month later, I took a deep breath and walked through the doors of my old club, smiling broadly as my old teammates welcomed me back. At first it was really tough – the stamina and lung capacity I’d once had was never going to return overnight. After my first training session, I got home exhausted, then a text pinged up on my phone. It was from one of my teammates: ‘It’s great to have you back – you have a natural talent.’ My spirits soared as I read that. It meant so much to know I was still a valued part of the team and that, after five years away, I could still hold my own in the pool. While I’m still building up my fitness, being part of the club again means everything to me. I hope Octopush stays a part of my life for many years to come!
Breakfast: Takeaway sausage and egg muffin
Lunch: Buttered ham, cheese and tomato baguette with mayo from the bakery, a cupcake, muffin or bag of sweets and a full-sugar fizzy drink
Dinner: Oven-cooked frozen battered fish and chips with peas, or a takeaway
Snacks: Crisps, cakes and biscuits
Breakfast: Mushroom omelette
Dinner: Home-made sticky chicken with veg, bibimbap or beef pho
Snacks: Fresh fruit, such as apples and bananas
*Weight loss will vary according to your individual circumstances and how much weight you have to lose.
If you’re planning to start a new exercise programme, we recommend you check with your GP first – especially if you have an existing health condition, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or asthma. If you’re pregnant, check the suitability of the exercise with your midwife.