Richard Holmes: “What you can’t see is often more important than what you are able to”

At 17, Richard Holmes had everything he had wanted: a successful career as a mountain biker; a life in beautiful Whistler, British Columbia; sponsors wanting to endorse him. Despite the accolades, he had one other thing that was tearing at his confidence and progressively worsening in the process: a stutter.

“My speech was definitely the worst that it had ever been,” says Holmes, now 25. In a sport that requires networking with sponsors, the Waterloo, Ontario native found himself shying away from the spotlight.

“You want to advertise yourself as much as you can, and I would give people a name I thought was easier to say. I think about that now, and I think it’s absolutely hilarious: that I would rather this person not remember who I am, even though I’m trying to do this as a career, than for them to hear me stutter.”

For Holmes, the events epitomized the social anxiety he had felt around speaking for years, ever since he had first met others outside of his immediate circle of family and close friends.

“When we [would go] around introducing ourselves at a [dinner] table, [I would] spontaneously go to the washroom so I wouldn’t have to introduce myself,” he says. “I always associated those social situations with people I don’t know with this constant feeling of trying to avoid — avoidance and hiding.”

Determined to stop the cycle of embarrassment and hiding, Holmes left his promising career in British Columbia to undergo intensive speech therapy at the Speech and Stuttering Institute in Toronto, approaching it with the same intensity he had used in training as a cyclist.

“I would go out of my way to put myself in challenging situations,” he says. “So even things like approaching random people on the street, there was a point where I would go up and do that: approach different people and ask them about something random. I almost made it into a sport, where I was seeing how much I could challenge [myself in] this new way of communicating.”

Holmes took acting classes, enrolled in Toastmasters, and started competing as a public speaker. In 2012, he was invited to share his story at TEDxUW — a talk that has amassed over 20,000 views.

“One of the most rewarding things about [therapy was] learning how much of communication is not [about] fluency,” says Holmes. “When you’re a person who stutters, you really think that’s what’s holding you back, but I think just working on general communication skills was great.”

Now a Master’s student in speech language pathology at the University of Toronto, Holmes has seen his story come full circle — helping others experiencing the same struggles he sought help with not too long ago. He credits his stutter for giving him perspective on life:

“Nothing is going to be easy, ever. You’re going to have to put up with frustrations, and struggles, and things are going to be hard. [But] if you do it for the reason that’s meaningful to you, that’s what makes those things worth it.”