Opinion

The art of bouncing back (according to men who returned from the brink of disaster)

Having been derailed by failure, mental health struggles and crises of confidence, men who nearly lost it all share how they came back from the abyss

The snowboarder

Jamie Nicholls is a professional freestyle snowboarder and double Olympian, But a crisis of confidence almost destroyed it all

A backside triple cork 1440 is one of the hardest jumps in big air snowboarding. First, you need a good speed down the slope – about 40mph – before launch. Airborne, you grab the board, twist your body into four 360-degree corkscrews while simultaneously performing three somersaults. Now, of course, everyone is doing them, but back in 2013 – when I first pulled it off – the backside triple won competitions hands down.

The first time I landed one in a competition was at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. It was the best run of my life – so well timed, such a sweet landing… I couldn’t believe it. Unfortunately I messed up my second run, but managed to finish sixth overall, which was Britain’s best Olympic performance on snow since 1968. I became a snowboarding name.

Then, everything changed. The next time I tried the backside triple in early 2015, standing at the top of the hill, looking at the jump, all eyes on me – the TV cameras, the crowds, the expectation – I was paralysed by fear.

I was going through some major life changes at the time: I had just turned 20, left home and my career was taking off. That was the problem. I became scared an injury would take everything away from me: sponsors, money, my new home, my car, my life as a pro snowboarder. It was growing up,

I suppose. I couldn’t do the jump. Over the next three years, the mental block of going upside down three times at such height and speed got worse. Every time I got to the kicker, I’d think, “I can’t do this. I’m not good enough.”

I managed other, easier jumps and found some success. But the backside triple became my nemesis, and that got me down. I began to lose my love of the one thing that made me truly happy. I was ready to pack it all in.

Snowboarding can be a lonely place if you don’t fit in with the crowd. I, for instance, don’t drink and I’m not keen on partying.

This exacerbated my struggle: I was always worried about people talking behind my back.

In the end, it was my wife Jen who saved me. She told me I had to see someone and got me an appointment with a sports psychologist. We did mindfulness, yoga and meditation. We trained my mind to think of my favourite jump – the backside triple in Sochi – every time I suffered anxiety, to send positive energy around my body. It worked.

In January this year, Jen, my friend Ross and I went to Laax, Switzerland, to give it a go. The only way to conquer my fear was to confront it. The sun was out, the jumps were perfect and my best friends were there: it all came together. The moment I landed it, I felt as though a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I was a different man. For the first time in years, confidence gushed through me. It was exhilarating.

However, by the time I got to the Olympics in PyeongChang the next month, I realised everyone was doing backside triples. I wanted to be different, so at the last minute I decided to do a switch 14 instead. I landed the trick, though it wasn’t the cleanest I’ve done and I came 16th overall. Now I wish I’d stuck with the triple!

I don’t mind that PyeongChang didn’t go my way. I’m happy to be back in the game, travelling the world and living my dream. I’ve learnt a lot about myself since overcoming that mental block, and I feel I’ve grown up a lot. Looking back, I can’t believe I was ready to throw it all away over something so silly as fear.

Jamie is sponsored by DC Shoes and Nitro Snowboards; dcshoes-uk.co.uk

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The inventor

Inventor man surrounded by kitchen items illustration by Giacomo Bagnara

Innovation marketer Warren Tuttle was lauded as one of the most creative leaders on the us invention scene. Then, one terrible creation nearly cost him everything

Inventing is about taking risks. I’ve always been a risk-taker and it has paid off in ways I could never have imagined. One of my greatest successes was Misto, an olive-oil spray bottle that I marketed with its inventor. It made millions in the first year.

I already owned a chain of kitchenware stores, a catering business and a cooking school, and had a partnership in a kitchen design business. Then it hit me: why not invent a saucepan-stirring device? It seemed exactly what the world needed. I gathered a team of engineers to design the StirChef, a battery-powered device that attached to the pan and stirred automatically. I got investors involved, built 12,000 units for around $1m (£759k) and secured thousands of retail orders.

Then we put it up for a test on one of the shopping channels…and disaster struck. It was one of the worst tests the channel had ever conducted. Nobody wanted it. Not only that, but retailers wanted to send the units back and not pay their bills. Then, two of my three partners quit and I was left holding the crumbling fort – and almost $1m in the red.

I spent the next year sitting alone, making calls for 10 hours a day, trying to move the stock. It was profoundly depressing. I still get a lump in my throat when I think about how close I came to putting my wife and kids on the street.

It was hard to realise at the time, but StirChef simply didn’t fill a need. It was useful for risotto and tapioca, which you stir constantly, but for anything else, people don’t need help. The venture lost more than $500k (£380k). Nevertheless, it taught me a lesson. You’ve got to make a decision: are you going to run from your mistakes or face up to them?

The same year, my luck turned around. An inventor came to me with a Tupperware storage invention called Smart Spin. I helped him develop and market the concept. It has sold more than 12 million units.

The business world is very scary. There’s noise and pressure around you constantly. But you have to think through the noise, the complaints, the ringing phones, the unpaid bills, and stop, breathe and focus.

We all face failure in many ways, but when we collapse, we get up. I’m just happy I managed to bookend my disastrous venture with two winners and not the other way around.

Tuttle is president of the United Inventors Association of America, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to inventor education and support; uiausa.org

The spy

British or Mi5 Spy illustration by Giacomo Bagnara

Tom Marcus spent eight years tracking terrorists on Britain’s streets as an agent for Mi5. But after being diagnosed with PTSD, he was pensioned out and, with a CV full of inexplicable holes, found himself taking a job in a call centre

People think being a secret service agent is all casinos and speedboats; that we all look like Daniel Craig or Chris Hemsworth. It’s not like that. We are ordinary people with specific skills. Being aware of your surroundings, a good memory and an ability to read people are key.

I was recruited from the Army after the 7/7 terror attacks. For eight years I specialised in surveillance, adopting disguises including a homeless person soaked in my own piss. I helped foil al-Qaida’s plot to bomb Manchester over the Easter bank holiday in 2009 and stop an extremist en route to attack two school coaches full of kids.

But I also suffered several traumatic events that would haunt my nightmares for ever, such as the time I was forced to leave a member of my team to die in the street following a motorbike crash because we were racing to prevent a terrorist from blowing up a London Tube station. Then there was the death of my MI5 handler, found dead in an apparent suicide. I was told to ask no questions, but it never quite stacked up to me.

But probably the most terrifying was the day Islamic extremists tried to kidnap and behead me on the internet. We had been following a potential terrorist through Camden Market, oblivious that he knew who we were. He lured me down an alley where a van was waiting. But before I was bundled in, the van inexplicably sped off. They got spooked.

All this we found out later because we’d bugged his car. When police raided the address he’d planned to take me to, they found plastic on the floor, a video camera, a black flag and a selection of butcher’s knives.

Experiences like that are what broke me in the end. It started with not sleeping, then came extreme nightmares. I ended up sleeping propped against the wall with a lamp shining in my face. I thought if I didn’t go into a deep sleep I wouldn’t have nightmares. I became paranoid I was being followed. After eight years of service, I was diagnosed with PTSD and pensioned out.

I hit rock bottom. I needed to recover from PTSD, but I also had to earn money; I have a wife and son. The trouble was, I couldn’t tell employers about my past so there was a gap in my CV.

I ended up flipping burgers and working in call centres.

My mental health was creaking under the weight of my past. MI5 was fantastic in giving me support, but I needed a vocation, something to fulfil me. I missed my team; knowing they were still out there exacerbated my desolation. I never lost my self-confidence however. I knew I had something to offer.

Then it came to me: I should write a book. Soldier Spy came out in 2016 and I’ve been writing ever since. Even though I’m not with my team, it keeps me in that world. It has also taught me that no matter what happens to you in the past, it doesn’t determine what happens next. You control you, and you have the power to bounce back from anything if you want it enough.

Capture Or Kill is out now (Macmillan)

(Illustrations: Giacomo Bagnara, main image: Getty)