Daniel Kowalski headshot 559 x 340

Daniel Kowalski OAM

Olympian
I am proud and honoured to be able to speak openly and honestly about mental illness and my journey.

Ambassador profile

Daniel Kowalski OAM

Daniel Kowalski is an Australian freestyle swimmer who won four Olympic medals at two Games: one gold, one silver and two bronze.

At the 1996 Atlanta Games, he became the first man in 92 years to win medals in each of the 200m, 400m and 1500m freestyle races at a single Games.

He was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2000 for services to sport, while also serving as an Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

He also chose beyondblue as his charity while performing on singing show It Takes Two with Kate Ceberano in 2007.

Daniel is the General Manager of the Australian Swimmers’ Association, the representative body and point of contact for national level swimmers in Australia.  

Daniel lived with the feeling that winning a silver medal, and not gold, at the 1996 Olympics meant that he was a failure.

“For years, I rode what felt like the most intense emotional roller coaster. I developed anxiety, became withdrawn and lived in a city I hated, without any support, and I didn’t let people get close enough or trust anyone. I felt I couldn’t show any sign of weakness.

“Despite all that I was going through, my intense love and passion for the sport made me stay on top of things in the pool.”

He qualified for four events at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and won three medals, including a gold as part of the world record breaking 800m freestyle relay team, but came in fourth place in the 1500m.

“It went on like this for years. I felt lost and alone but I wouldn’t do anything about it. I could pull it together when needed, but it was all a façade,” he said.

“I really wanted to qualify for the Sydney Olympics to help restore my love of my achievements at the 1996 Olympics. I knew my only shot to qualify was in the relay and doing that was a very special achievement.

“After a chance run in with a former mentor and somewhat of a reality check I eventually got some professional help, however, I never dealt with the real issues as I purposely drove the conversation towards sport.

“It was in 2006 when I finally admitted to myself and uttered the words ‘I’m Gay’, that I thought these feelings and emotions would subside. I decided to tell my family at the easiest, most convenient time: Christmas.

“I told my sister first on Christmas Eve, my heart pounding, sweaty hands and her response was ‘finally’. I didn’t know how to react!

“Telling my parents was so much harder than telling my sister. As soon as I finished uttering the words, my Dad stood up and hugged me and said ‘I love you even more’. My mum was just as supportive.

“The love and support my friends showed me blew me away, I couldn’t have been more wrong about the fear I had in telling them. If anything, I felt partially let down and disappointed that I had to keep something so important from them. It was a huge learning experience for me."

In 2007, despite his friends and family being so supportive, he was still struggling mentally. Daniel thought if he moved overseas then everything would be better, but it turned out it wasn’t.  

“Here I was in this completely foreign town, doing a job I wasn’t sure was for me and living in a small apartment where I knew nobody outside of work,” he said.

“As I started thinking more about suicide, I recognised that I needed help. The outcome was regular visits to the psychologist and staying with a work colleague.

“I made the decision to return to Australia and moved back in with my parents, trying to deal with everything and not understanding why I was still feeling this way.

“I worked with a couple of medical practitioners, talking about how I felt and what I was experiencing. In my mind, until I had fully dealt with my sexuality and could live proudly and honestly, I would continue to feel this way.

“I decided to come out publically, by way of an editorial piece I wrote in 2010. I wanted full editorial control as I felt I had a responsibility to use my experience in a positive way. As was the case when I told my family and friends, the support was positively overwhelming.

“The whole process was a real relief and I felt this sense of freedom I had never felt.

“I kept working with my health professionals and in due course I realised that my depression was a part of who I was.

“I actually felt relieved, as this was an illness that was controllable and manageable and I learned, over more time, to embrace all of who I was and manage everything.

“Today, I’m still medicated and have never been happier or more in control. I am proud and honoured to be able to speak openly and honestly about mental illness and my journey.

“I use my networks and friends offers of support, still see a medical practitioner from time to time and am aware of my key indicators such as becoming withdrawn and not communicating. In this day and age, where there are so many ways to communicate, it is a tell-tale sign for me.

“Exercise is probably the best outlet for me, along with spending time with loved ones. I love my family time, time with my nieces and nephews is a highlight, as is going to the gym or the occasional swim.

“I became a beyondblue Ambassador because mental illness is something I am passionate about. Whilst the stigma attached to it is slowly diminishing, the perception around it is still enough for people to silently live in pain.”

“Through my experience, I have realised that despite what you have or what you achieve, it doesn’t mean you are immune to the perils of mental illness. Alternatively, you don’t have to let it run or consume your life.”  

PIC: Sam Ruttyn, The Sunday Telegraph