I like to joke that I’ve lived my running career in the wrong order.
I was a great runner as a schoolgirl before disappearing for a decade, almost as if I'd retired. I then came back to break the Australian record and compete at the Tokyo Olympics. Like I say – the wrong order.
But it’s the in between that I want to share with you. Because I didn't just go from nowhere to somewhere. That middle part – the messiness, the pain, the loneliness– it’s important.Growing up in Canberra, I was an active kid and showed a lot of promise for my age in many sports. But running was always my favourite. Little Athletics was something I bonded over with my parents. I remember jogging with dad, and mum teaching me the proper technique for throwing a shot-put. She was a shot-put champion (apparently) in her high school.
My love of athletics became strained during adolescence when, like many young people, I felt pressure to be as thin as possible. There’s a dangerous and pervasive misconception in athletics that being thin will equate to faster times. And given that running competition uniforms are lycra crop-tops and shorts, there was no hiding my growing and changing body.
Thought I certainly didn’t know at the time, I began to develop anxiety, depression and an eating disorder.
On the surface I was a high-achieving and social kid, so it was easy to pretend that everything was fine. Besides, I didn’t know how to ask for help.
I told no one.Running started to become more stress than fun, so I took a step back. It wasn’t a safe place for me anymore.
I also began skipping social events and spent a lot of time alone. After school I studied by myself in the library or locked away in my room. My parents thought I was just shy. But it wasn’t that I didn’t want to go out. It was because I experienced intense anxiety in social situations.
On finishing school, I decided to move to Sydney to study architecture and attend one of the residential colleges. To live, eat, sleep and party with hundreds of other young students. An environment which, in hindsight, should have presented many red flags to someone with the unhealthy coping mechanisms I used.
My emotions and behaviour became tumultuous. One week I would be getting high distinctions, other weeks I would be so consumed with anxiety that I couldn’t complete my work and would skip class. I struggled to put things in perspective and had emotional reactions far more extreme than the causes warranted.
I first experienced a panic attack during this time.
It struck suddenly while I was alone in my college room on an otherwise ordinary day. My heart began racing and I started to hyperventilate. I thought I was having a heart attack and was about to die. That panic attack would be the first of many in the years to follow.
At 18 years of age, I started preparing to take my own life.
I just wanted the pain to stop and I didn't know how much longer I could survive these feelings on my own.
In the midst of fear, profound sadness and exhaustion, I asked my dad to help me get professional support. It was the turning point. The trigger that kick-started a long-term process of education that would teach me to be self-aware. To embrace vulnerability.
We went to my local GP and was given a mental health plan and a referral to see a psychologist.The first psychologist I saw turned out to not be a great fit for me. I know now that this is quite common. But the simple act of accessing care was enough to get me started on my journey to getting my life back.
Eventually I did find professionals I connected with. I also opened up to my friends and family over the next few months and years. Despite my fears, these vulnerable moments actually strengthened these relationships.
Competitive racing was the furthest thing from my mind when I joined a casual running group. It was social. It was relaxed. And for the first time since those early little athletics days in Canberra, it was fun.
I fell in love with the sport again. I could enter it as an adult, as someone who was free from a lot of the pressures of my youth.
I’ve been seeing psychologists for the past decade now. And I’m constantly learning about how to be friends with the different parts of myself – anxiety, depression and suicidality included.
I’m proud to say I’m an Olympian. But I’d also say I’ve earned a Bachelor of Talking About My Feelings, and I’m halfway through a Masters of Being Scared is OK.
And I’m proud of that too.
Video transcript here
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