From Diagnosis to Determination: Alix Popham’s Fight for Change in Rugby and Beyond

Welsh rugby legend Alix Popham is embarking on a remarkable journey in the coming months, all in the name of raising awareness and support for the Head for Change charity, having been diagnosed with probable CTE and early onset dementia in 2020.

Head for Change, a pioneering charitable foundation, focuses on promoting positive change for brain health in sports and providing support for former players affected by neurodegenerative diseases.

With a busy schedule ahead, Popham is gearing up for a series of physical challenges that will push his limits while championing the cause.

One of his notable endeavours includes the Big Rugby Swim, where he will swim across the English Channel alongside teams of ex-professional Rugby Union and Rugby League players. Popham will also be participating in the gruelling Tenby Ironman and undertaking a cycling journey to France ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

Can you tell us a bit about what’s coming up for you?

First off is the long weekend in Tenby, and the Ironman. We’re then cycling from London to Lyon with Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and a few ex Welsh international rugby players and finally there’s The Big Rugby Swim. So, it’s going to be a busy few months.

Tell us a bit more about the Big Rugby Swim…

The Big Rugby Swim is a charity event organized by Head For Change, aimed at raising funds for dementia. It involves a relay swim across the English Channel in October 2023.

22 miles is the distance, but the swimming distance is dependent on the tides. If you miss a tide, you could end up doing a double S across, which would mean doing close to 60 miles in swimming.

Hopefully that doesn’t happen to us, we’re targeted around the 40-mile mark, and we’ll be doing an hour on, four hours off.

Speaking to other people who’ve done the challenge, the four hours on the boat is supposed to be horrendous because the boat is only travelling at one and a half to two miles an hour.

You can feel the swell of the sea and the majority of people on that boat get sea sickness. So, being in the water is sometimes the best place to be.

Who’s doing it alongside you?

In the Union team there is myself, Matthew Dwyer and Ifan Phillips, the ex-Ospreys hooker who lost his leg in a motorbike accident a few months ago, Ian Gough, Carl Heyman and Kieran Low the Scottish back row who played for London Irish Saracens.

And then, from the rugby league team, Denis Betts, a former Wigan legend, Kev Brown, Mick Cassidy, Jason Critchley, Francis Maloney, Mickii Edwards and Cliff Eccles and It’s a Decent group!

How has training been going?

I don’t really enjoy swimming in the pool. I find it like running around a track; it gets quite boring. So, I’ve got my limit of about 45 minutes in the pool, and after that, I’m not enjoying it!

Now it’s getting warmer, I’ve been going across Clevedon or Jackson’s Bay and just getting in the sea and every time I do a long swim, I’m increasing the distance and time in the water. Every time I just add five minutes to it, so it’s not a huge jump.

What are the motivations behind taking on these challenges?

It was just after my diagnosis, over three years ago now, we soon realised there wasn’t much information out there on this issue. We still love the sport, but we want it to carry on in a much safer way than it currently is.

It is crucial to be part of the solution of positive brain health in sport and being honest with what’s going on. Hopefully these challenges really help to get those key messages we are trying to get across at Head for Change.

The funds raised this year, will help us launch the education part of Head for Change, and we can also hopefully provide more care and support for players and their families.

What else do you hope will come from completing these challenges?

The more awareness and exposure we get as a foundation the better for us and it is why we’re doing it. If we help one person, we’ve done a good job. But I know we’re helping a lot more than that.

We are delighted that Sky will be doing a four-part documentary before we do the challenge and they’ll be filming during.

Our target is to raise half a million pounds. We want to get the message out there, getting people to go to our website to help educate themselves.

We’re hoping this will help to put together an education programme that support getting these important messages into grassroots clubs and schools to help the next generation of players coming through.

Has this process had a lasting impression on you?

We had two options when I had my diagnosis. It was a crossroads; turn left and sit on the couch and feel sorry for yourself, or turn right and try and make a difference, be a part of the solution.

That’s what gets me up in the morning and gets me motivated to train and push on with these challenges, so yeah, it’s had a huge impact on myself and my family.

What message would you like to send out to fellow rugby players supporters and maybe those in people in positions of influence?

We still love rugby. The majority of what we want to change in the game is off the pitch. It’s important to control the controllables.

It is so important to share this message, especially in the grassroots or amateur level, everybody can keep an eye on a person on a pitch, so hopefully we begin to see the changes that are needed in the coming years.

Twitter: @head4change

Instagram: @headforchange/

Facebook: @HeadForChange/

Linkedin: @headforchangecharity

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