As one of the more bubbly members of the British Cycling team, discussions with Elinor Barker invariably involve plenty of talking and a great deal of laughter. So when the flow of words momentarily dry up, you know to pay particular attention.
“Since surgery, I’ve kind of… got a bit of freedom back, I suppose,” the 25-year-old muses seemingly more to herself, perhaps momentarily lost among flashbacks of years suffering with endometriosis, the condition whereby tissue similar to the lining of the womb starts to grow in other places such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Symptoms include heavy periods, debilitating pain and fatigue, but with many similarities to other conditions, diagnosis takes more than seven years on average.
“Yeah, it wasn’t really nice feeling ill all the time. Or being in pain and constantly having to think about it and having it affect training sessions,” Barker continues, returning back to a manner more akin to her usual chatty style as she continues to reflect on the impact of the 'life-changing' surgery. "It’s not completely gone and the idea is that I'll have surgery again in a few years. It does still affect me from time to time and but not so much that I think anyone else would notice.”
Prior to her diagnosis just before last year's Track Cycling World Championships in late February, life appeared, on the outside, to be rosy for Cardiff-born Barker, an established rider with Olympic and multiple world and European titles to her name. And yet she had been fighting a seemingly endless battle for years – in both the physical sense and in her quest for answers. Set against such a draining backdrop, it makes her cycling achievements all the more remarkable.
"By 2017 I was going to doctors weekly, saying something is not right, I'm not accepting this is just periods," says Barker, about symptoms, which originally started at school with heavy periods but progressed into increasingly prolonged episodes of pain in mostly her stomach, but also her pelvis, back and femurs, that sometimes left her unable to stand.
"A few doctors said 'this is just something you need to put up with,'" she recounts. "I thought I don’t think I can. I don’t want to be going through life with this kind of pain, never mind racing at a high level."
While painkillers could sometimes dull matters, it was the fatigue from putting up it all which was increasingly troubling for Barker, who competes in a sport where fine margins can make all the difference. Not only was her training starting to suffer but there were alarming signs for her mental well-being too.
“Prior to the 2018 world championships the pain would be in blocks of five or six weeks," says Barker, who incredibly still managed to pick up team pursuit silver in Apeldoorn. "I would only have energy to train. It became quite isolating as I would train and then come back and go back to bed. I think I did that for a solid two weeks once. I don’t think I spoke to anybody outside training, it was pretty miserable.”
Barker eventually underwent key-hole surgery to remove the unwanted tissue, but not before incredibly winning points race gold at the Commonwealth Games in April.
She was back gently pedalling a week post-operation and in July she spoke about her story publicly for the first time. In typical Barker fashion, she laughs that 'it's not really coffee time chat, is it?' But she wants more people to feel comfortable talking about the issue and help others.
"If I had known endometriosis existed, then I could have said yes, those are the symptoms and that’s what I’ve got. But if you don’t know something existed, you can’t really relate to it," says Barker, who is now focused on preparations for next year's Olympics.
"Getting surgery was the only thing that really made a difference. It felt like I was physically carrying something around with me. Now I don’t have to anymore."