The Malta Independent 16 June 2019, Sunday

My journey through sports, an exclusive interview with Dr. Nigel Camilleri

Raymond Scicluna Sunday, 30 December 2018, 10:00 Last update: about 7 months ago

Dr. Nigel Camilleri, 38 years of age, married to Debbie and Father of 4 children. Nigel  studied medicine and surgery at the University of Malta where he was awarded an MD in 2003. He then started practicing medicine at St. Luke's Hospital, Malta and eventually began his psychiatric training at Mount Carmel Hospital, Malta in 2006. In 2008 he moved to Newcastle, UK and continued his training in psychiatry in the North East of England. Dr. Camilleri has been a committed Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at both Mount Carmel and within the independent sector since 2015. He established a mental health service composed of a multidisciplinary team of professionals committed to working with children and adolescents.


Nigel is an amazingly formidable middle to long distance athlete. His races range from 800m to marathon. He has been involved in sports since a very young age. His PBs are remarkable (800m 2.00.67, 1500m 4.07.3, 3000m 9.10.7, 5000m 16.27min, 10,000m 34.44min, HM: 1hr16.09min, marathon: 2hr50.08min, Half Ironman 5hr20min).  As of a year ago Nigel even embarked on triathlon and is in the offing to compete in the Ironman under the guidance of Triple Ironman Champion Fabio Spiteri, yet another incredible former 800m runner. As if practicing sports for competition and being a child and adolescent Psychiatrist were not enough, Nigel has lately embarked on painting too. Multi-talented by all means.

1. Dottore, first and foremost, please allow me to thank you for taking time to answer my questions albeit such a demanding work schedule. Dottore, apart from your impressive career as a Child Psychiatrist on the island, you are an incredibly strong middle to long distance athlete. To my knowledge, you have been into athletics since you were a child. You always took Sports very seriously. In fact, between 1998-2001 you were trained by Donato Sabia, an Italian coach who managed local elite athletes namely Mario Bonello, Neil Brimmer, Deirdre Farrugia, Xandru Grech, Karl Farrugia and others so this goes without saying, you were handpicked and selected due to talent and dedication. How did your love of running initiate and who were those whom you looked up to when you started? Am sure that during all these years of running and competing, you had some positive and negative experiences, can you relate a few?

Wow, those are quite big words you mention above. I do not assimilate myself with top Maltese runners, and I'm sure that quite a few athletes have faster times than me, but if there is one example I can give, it possibly is mastering the art of preserving and consistency. To date I have been running competitively for just over 30 years - I see running as a parallel to life, there is no easy mile. Both my parents practiced sports; they were swimmers but it was my father who introduced me to running. There were two pivotal points in my life which got me into athletics. The first was when at the age of 9 I ran my first race - it was the Swatch for Caritas 5km and at the age of 10 years, after the Olympic fun, Victor Camilleri asked me to join Pembroke Athleta (for which I am forever grateful). The Swatch for Caritas race must have been a week prior my St Aloysius entrance exams. At the time these exams were very competitive and only a small proportion of students passed. Therefore when my teacher discovered I had gone to participate in a race, she told me I would not pass my exams, and that she was wasting her time helping me with my school work. I did pass that exam. Throughout my career it was not passing exams that was the hardest challenge for me but running instead. Running and maintaining it rain or shine almost every day of my life has been the most challenging thing I have ever done. It may sound strange to someone reading this, but through running I have experienced the greatest ''highs' and 'lows' of my life. The 'lows' of running have helped me develop a resilience, my thoughts are if I can get myself on that start line again, then I can face anything in life. I use this metaphor with every challenging experience in life from a hard day at work to coming to terms with negative news.  

Running did not come easy, unlike basketball where I was one of the better players of my team and as regards football I would make the team as a decent left winger. As pertains running, I was overweight as a child. So when racing I would rank one of the last of the pack. I remember when I once mentioned to my PE teacher that I desired to win, I was told, "you are not fit to win, you are only fit to participate". I clearly recall other students win trophies at sports day and used be in bed at night, wishing that one day I could also win a trophy. I was determined to start winning, but it took a few years of winning the non-athletic races such as the boat race and three-legged race. It took me 4 years to start winning at sports day. That was the first lesson I learnt from running: in life if you want something so badly and put all your energy into it you will achieve. If you have the 'why' you want something then you will find the 'how'. Furthermore, I've always had this inner sense of restless, I was described as a hyperactive child and really struggled to sit through my lessons, I was often sent of out class for talking and was given many 'breaks-in' a consequence. Sports helped me focus in class and to sit through lessons, it also helped me study efficiently. The fact I had to attend athletics training meant that I had to be efficient with my studying, and not waste time sitting at a desk all day long dreaming. 

In my teens I started to win most races. I used to participate in most races together with other athletes like Leandros Calleja, Kris Briffa and Danica Bonello Spiteri. I was probably one of the youngest to have completed the Malta half marathon at age 15 with an unofficial time of 1hr 31minutes and the Malta Challenge at age 16. I remember Barry Whitemore (the race organiser) trying to stop me from running the race since I did not have a race number. Looking back makes me smile.  I do understand why he tried to stop me but I was so determined to run, that nothing would stop me. I used to dream big and believed that by the age of 20, I would get an opportunity to participate in the Sydney Olympics. This dream of course never manifested, but having a goal, kept me motivated and eager to achieve more.

In my late teens one of my biggest challenges set in, that of performance anxiety. I still clearly re-play in my head one of my most important races to date and that was the FISEC final 800m. Back then not many Maltese would win a medal, so getting to the final was considered to be sufficient. In fact, that year I believe only Lisa Bezzina Camilleri won a bronze medal in athletics. I remember Maltese coaches commenting after one of our athletes ranked one before last in his 400m heats, he said "us Maltese never win anything". So when I qualified in the 800m to the final, I was pleased. I remember standing at the start line for the 800m final and looking around me thinking: every other runner was better than me, the bigger runner to my right was stronger, the skinny lad to my left was swifter! So in my head I found an excuse for why every runner should be a faster athlete than myself and that way I put myself down, and lost the race before having even started. Had I concentrated upon my rational mind rather than my emotional one and looked at the start list race with the athletes' PBs, I would have noticed that my running time was actually the 2nd fastest. I listened to and believed my coach Ralph Mifsud before the race when he told me "I was fit enough to run even sub 2min". I potentially could have ran the race of my life, but instead I started that race by freezing at the starting line when that start gun went off. I don't remember how long I stood on that start line for but by the 400m mark I was the runner before last but then at the 600m mark I was suddenly in 3rd place. At that point my mind started playing tricks on me again. I started thinking "how can I be in 3rd place? Is something wrong? This cannot be. The other runners must be taking it easy cause they are focusing on other races, etc...". During the last 50m I seemed to lose focus and slowed down, was passed by another runner and came 4th pace by 0.2 of a second. I finished the race in 2.06min, my PB was 2.04min. There was no reason for running a slower time since I was a young fit and healthy physically well prepared athlete but I certainly was mentally not well prepared. There is no good physical health without good mental health.  

During my adolescent years sports helped me not go over the line and maintain that work- and leisure balance in life. When I did stay out late with my friends, I pushed myself to compensate and still train the next day. Sports was my coping strategy with emotions of anger, frustration and anxiety for all challenges which I went through as a growing teen. Until today, when stress at work piles up and the days at work get harder, I make sure to compensate and achieve that balance through running for longer or training harder. Distressing running therapy is a new concept which is being introduced as a form of evidence based therapy, I was never aware of this form of therapy, but I can say that I'm a case example of having used running as a form of therapy.

Upon turning 19, I left the junior ranks and started to race with adult athletes. As is the case with 90% of all other junior athletes I became a statistic and never made it to the top places as an adult athlete. Although my 800m times were around the 4th fastest in Malta for a number of years, I never raced for my country again and in my opinion never viewed these times 'good enough'. So by the time I was 20, my focus was elsewhere. I was more interested in going out and meeting friends and drinking. I still kept training hard, but I would attend most races after a night out and with a hangover. There was one race in particular where I recall going to the race directly after camping on the beach. That evening I drank so much I was awoken by the tractor cleaning the beach in Golden Bay somewhere away from my friends and my tent. That sunny summer day, I got to the start line with my spike shoes cause they were in my car and just swimming shorts but no running top, since I drove straight from the beach to Marsa track. I remember having to borrow a running top from someone to be allowed to race, since I obviously was not allowed to race bare chested. That day I won that race, but by then the number of races I won had become few and far between. My coach Donato Sabia would tell me that I could race better, based on my training times, however races were during the weekend, when my mind wasn't focused on running. Running became a way of coping with stress at university. So running took a different direction in my life, it was saving me and helping me keep some form of balance. No matter how much I would go out, I always woke up and no matter in what state I was in, would go for a run. I think running saved me during university years. I started to get many injuries but no matter how many sustained, I still persisted with running. 


2. In 2008, you moved to the UK to pursue your career in psychiatry in the North East of England.  How was the transition process from Malta to the UK both in terms of studying and training? What differences in training and competing did you note?

Yes I moved to the UK in 2008, and surprisingly enough just as my life took another turn, my running career also took on a different perspective. Sports helped me find friends when I was lonely and living in a new country. Through joining the Gateshead Harriers running club I met some of my most treasured friends in the UK. Gateshead became a family to me away from home. I started to enjoy training, to cope with life stressors. I achieved some of my best race times when I was in the UK. There was one race where I placed 2nd; the North East cross-country race. It was a miserable winter day, extremely windy and cold, my coach asked me to participate in a race that day, since there was a chance that as a club we would get enough points to move from 2nd division to the first division. That day I just ran, without thinking too much. The person who overtook me was a Welsh international runner. We made it to the top division. Other memorable achievements where when we were with Gateshead Harriers; we placed 1st and 2nd two years respectively in the North Eastern Crosscountry championships. I lost my spike shoes in the mud during the race and had to pull them out, then I had to put them on with frozen hands, and then continue running to catch the runners who had overtaken and regain my place as a counter for the team, to be one of the athletes which counted for overall points. There was one year we just missed out on 3rd place in the Northern 12 stage relays (which are the second most competitive race for the club after the National relays). That year our 12th leg runner was beat and we lost our 3rd place position to finish 4th overall. One of the races I enjoyed most was participating with the Gateshead Harriers in national relay championships which are held yearly at Sutton Park - Birmingham. We are considered a premier level club and would do our best to finish in the top 20 every year. I also placed 72nd and 78th overall in the Great North Run from 55,000 participants (this is the largest half marathon in the world), and I would be extremely proud to see my name in the local newspapers being listed as being one of the top runners 20 runners in the north east of the England. Most of the first 50 runners were professional athletes including Mo Farah, Bekele, Gabriel Sallasse and many others were international runners. 

Reflecting on my performances in the UK compared to Malta I wondered "What was different between the Nigel in Malta and the Nigel in the UK? There was nothing physical, in fact I was getting older, but faster, the difference being that I no longer believed that every foreign athlete was better than me, I believed that I was good enough and also that I was enjoying it. When we would walk out on the running track and wore the Gateshead Harrriers running vets we all held our heads high. We were considered a premier level running club. This was very different from the underdog approach I held in my head in Malta.

Keeping up the training was no easy feat.  I will never forget getting home from work at 5.30pm and my wife asking me to stay home with our young children since it was dark, grey and cold outside yet I would still push myself to get back into car. At times I remember the temperature would read -15 degrees, and then facing a running session of sprinting up hills in a grey dreary industrial estate in Gateshead, on a slippery road with sleet and my lungs burning with the cold. These training sessions thought me the meaning of 'never giving up'. 

When I returned to Malta I started suffering from the same performance anxiety I had before. I would put a lot of pressure on myself, but one of the key factors in anxiety is avoidance. I was determined not to give in and let anxiety win, so I kept on racing. I started doing track races again and was surprised to break the national record for over 35 800m. However I started to lose the enjoyment in running and my body started feeling tired all the time. It was time to rediscover myself as a sports person. I cannot thank Fabio Spiteri, my coach enough for introducing me to triathlon. Here I have found my mojo again and joy in training and racing. The thrill or athletes high I get from doing a triathlon race or even waking up for a training session early in the morning cannot be paralleled to any good night out with booze. 


3. Dottore, we have been Facebook friends for so long and day after day I was impressed by the number of races and challenges you undertook abroad namely various mountain climbs, cross countries, Il Cammino di Santiago and road races.  Locally, am eye witness since we are either competing in the same race or am acting as MAAA official at Marsa track. Results are overwhelming most of the time. I cannot but mention the impressive number of events you raced during the World Medigames of this year's edition held in Malta where you even competed in the Relay 4 x 100m. Dottore why this crave and thirst for competing after so many years? From where does such motivation derive?

Sports has taught me to choose life. Sports has given a goal and motivation in life. It has made me who I am today. Sports is my greatest therapist and after a long day a work, a run in the evening always help me re-set myself and feel fresh again. After my evening run I feel I can start a fresh new day. Sports has helped me experience a state of flow, being in zone, mindfullness and grounding which not many other things do.

Even more importantly during my runs I process my thoughts and day and allow myself time for reflection and ideas. It is portably the only 'me' time that I get during the day, but it is an excellent time for reflection. Most importantly ideas for conferences, talks, and this interview just comes to mind during a run or cycle. I'm not sure whether it is the blood flow to my brain or the fact that I am alone to just 'be', with my thoughts; whatever it might be, I owe most of my thoughts which have led to projects, to sports. 


4. Dottore you work as a Child Psychiatrist on the island. Besides that, you head the the Maltese Association of Psychiatrists and you came up with a thorough report where in a nutshell it was recommended that the Mental health sector needs double the current workforce of psychiatrists. In your place, others would have felt grateful that they are one of a kind in an entire country since they can be viewed as omnipotent and unique. You did the opposite. You raised awareness of the alarming situation and even recommended the way forward to highest authorities by suggesting an increase in the number of Child Psychiatrists to 9 and doubling the amount of adult psychiatrists to 50 from the present 25. 

Dottore, your answers are not just answered colloquially but through an expert's eye. This for me shows that your profession is well ingrained and that is taken to heart. You are proactive. You are even the mastermind behind the 10k road race which this year reached its second edition. Again, this race was meant to raise awareness for Mental Wellbeing. Do you agree that you are willingly not just there to contribute a day of work but to improve this situation once and for all for the present and future patients?

The main driving force for returning to Malta was to improve the standards of mental health services for children and adolescents. In the last few years working in the UK I had set up an innovations service which aimed to work with hard to reach young people with multiple complex mental disorders. Although this service was a success, it did not bring me as much joy, since I felt I was effecting change but in a country which was foreign to me. I wished I could to do this same in Malta. So after this service was set up, my drive to return to Malta increased, and here I am today, striving to make a difference. I am a strong believer in Ghandi's quote "be the change you want to see". The race for mental wellbeing was set up through a NGO, the Association for child and adolescent mental health, which I am a part of. It was seen as an opportunity to bring together and promote the importance of an equilibrium between physical and mental health, needed in every individual.

5. Dottore your family is still very young and numerous too. You are a father of 4 children, your wife does not disdain to do some sporadic race too so needless to say your wife is highly understanding and fully supportive to your cause. You like Sports, and am sure that Sports provides great therapy for you and motivation to keep doing much of the same. As of lately, you embarked even on Triathlon which apart from excelling in three different sports events, is time consuming too. What can you say about the support of your wife in shouldering much of the family needs to enable you to fulfil your working career and your passion for Sports? 

Wow I think she is extremely supportive and patient, maybe also a little happy to have me out of the house :). I think had I not had her support, all these hours of training would not have been possible. Debbie has been supportive of my training since the early days when we started dating each other. Initially she wasn't really into sports. In fact, I remember her in sixth form opting to sit down and chat with her friends during sports lessons. Initially I had tried to convince her to take up a sport but she felt this was not for her and had other hobbies. It was only in due time that she desired to one day participate in and run the 'Great North Run'. So she started a 5km training program she found online and since then has ran quite a few half marathons and other races. This year she has decided to take it up and started training with Team Fabio and is enjoying quite a few personal best times. She has definitely taught me what it means to have someone supportive behind me, and it makes doing sports more fun, since I firmly believe that happiness is real when shared. I have clear images of the times when she would come to support me in a crosscountry race in the freezing cold and wind pushing a pushchair which would inadvertently get stuck in the mud. I do believe that the best way of teaching someone is through example, not by telling them what is best for them. Debbie has taken up running and in the future I hope my children may consider it as well. Initially it may have been hard for me not to see them take up running and prefer other things such as dance and drama, but I do believe that it is their way of individualism and self-discovery. At the end of the day, all I would like is for them to be happy and to also have their own school to leisure balance. 

6. Dottore, you are yet another testimony and proof that academics and sports go together. You embraced them till this very day and are eager for more. It was possible decades ago, let alone today. Both of us, lived in an era where Sports was almost considered by many as a taboo, time waster, not a bread winner and deterrent to studying. You proved the opposite. Nowadays, things are by far different. Sports is highly sought across the board by many and yet today we have still a high percentage of parents who think that to cope with today's academics there is no time for training. The same people, however, see no wrong in allowing their children playing around with high technology and going out for weekends, consuming more hours in this so-called entertainment rather than investing in training. What kind of advice do you give to the parents, prospective athletes, educators and normal people vis-à-vis the dual career path? Do you think that just studying can be detrimental to students? Should at least recreative Sports be considered as therapy for many to ease every day's burdens and stress?

Most certainly there is a lot of evidence that any form sports is an integral part of one's wellbeing. Sport provides a child opportunities for self-discovery, adventure, social interaction, discipline, dedication, having a goal and purpose in life. Sports is considered a positive coping strategy for all, a way of venting out that excess energy after a day of sitting in class or kicking a ball after an argument with a friend and venting out that pent up anger. My piece of advice would be the more stress a child has with their studies, the longer the time they should spend practicing sports should be. I try to point out to parents when they bring their child to see me that it is a mistake to stop participation in sports due to having to study for exams and recommend taking it up again. Teenagers would argue that they need to study all day, and I challenge this by telling them that they would be more efficient if they studied intensely without any interruptions of a mobile or a computer and do have time to go training rather than to sit all day at their desk and pretend to be studying.

Sports is one means of meeting up with people and making meaningful friends with those like-minded. Through sports I got to meet people from every background of life, and what is most important is that on the road / track no matter who your parents are, how rich or successful you are, everyone is the same,  whether you are a CEO of a company, a professor, a lawyer, doctor, politician, ex-convict, ex-drug user, person brought up in residential care or and has suffered abuse, on that running track in your running shoes we are all the same facing the same battle. It has thought me to appreciate everyone for who they are, not to judge anyone and respect that that everyone is fighting a hard battle at the end of the day. We all run for a different reason but the running helps our mental state, brings stability and the balance of things in life. Sports brings out the best in people. Sports has thought me to depend on myself, no matter who you are and what your background is, when that gun fires at the start of a race, from the start to get to the that finish line you are all alone and you need to draw on your inner resilience and self-belief to make it to the end, not matter how hard, quitting is not an option, no matter how hard the day may seem, tomorrow the sun will rise again and it will be a better day, and I can make it through. 

If you are still reading at this point, my 2 pence of advice is - I cannot and nobody can find the motivation for why you should run, but if you reflect upon yourself and your life, you will probably find your own reason. Everyone has some form of stress and sports is one good positive coping strategy. There are many coping strategies for stress in life such as music, time with friends, then there are negative ones such as alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and sports is an alternative. Therefore no matter how busy you are, if you choose to prioritise sports then you will find the means. No one can ever be too busy. 

Sports doesn't discriminate, everyone can train and everyone can feel better with sports. Everyone can set goals and achieve them through sports, and these achievements no matter how small, will make us feel better about ourselves.

Dottore it was an extreme pleasure for me to highlight your duties and abilities. Persons like you can only trigger motivation to others and instill to those prospective athletes the proper way forward. You showed us that you achieved so much but you kept challenging yourself to new pastures both in your work career and that of sports. Thanks for sharing your brilliant views and your unmatchable experience.

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