We're all elite athletes, trying to jump life's hurdles

File photo: iStock

File photo: iStock

Sometimes we simply need another person to say to us, "I am here with you, I am listening, it will be okay."

The suicide of Wallaby great Dan Vickerman shocked us all. The near tragedies of so many other post-career elite athletes should provide a wake-up call to every Australian as well.

Why? Because each one of us, from carpenter to nurse to teacher to bus driver to chief executive, is an elite athlete in our own way, too.

(Ed: Stokes, are you back on the turps? – Only occasionally, Miss, honest.)

Insight on SBS last month and Four Corners on ABC on Monday night both highlighted myriad elite sportspeople doing the bravest and most socially responsible thing they could ever do: they admitted to being vulnerable.

The struggles were occasionally hidden during their sporting life but most came as a shock after successful athletic careers during which they were often paid very well and treated like heroes.

Then the real world.

Memorial: Dan Vickerman was remembered as a generous man with a mischievous sense of humour. Photo: Getty Images

Memorial: Dan Vickerman was remembered as a generous man with a mischievous sense of humour. Photo: Getty Images

AFL great Barry Hall wouldn't answer mates' calls. World champion hurdler Jana Pittman still can't cope with not having won an Olympic gold. Basketballer Lauren Jackson struggled with substance abuse then dark times. Swimmer Stephanie Rice plunged into despair.

Fellow swimmer Belinda Hocking, cricketer Nathan Bracken and Essendon footballer Courtenay Dempsey were ill-prepared for life away from the spotlight, the adrenaline, the team-based hug drug oxytocin and the uppers of serotonin and dopamine.

I've written about how the tragedy that befell young family man Vickerman mirrors that of people like me who have had suicidal thoughts. I bemoaned how Ian Thorpe was forced to live a lie about his sexuality and had to pay the price personally and publicly. We've seen Olympic gold medal swimmer Grant Hackett find real life tougher than the pool as well.

While an elite athlete is equipped to aim faster, higher, strong, his or her brain is just as complicated as yours or mine.

We all have expectations – set personally or, dangerously, by reference to others – for how life should turn out. We set personal goals, reach only some of them, feel crap when we fall short. Life can be very lonely when you feel like a failure.

How far you fall in your worst time depends partly on your goals – set them too high and you're set up for failure; too low and you won't fulfil your potential.

The extent of any fall is also linked to how addicted you are to reaching your dream. We're all addicted to something, be it work, chilling out, avoiding conflict, the thrill of the chase or harmful substances. This "relentless pursuit of reward and/or relief", as the experts call it, can be damaging.

Sports addicts, like businesspeople addicted to profit and career success, often disguise their addictions, control them and utilise them to create a lasting legacy. But the risk of post-success trauma remains.

How far we fall will also depend on our resilience. While some people cope easily, anyone can build resilience by experiencing the good and the bad, with the right support. You can also help others through by reassuring them that life cannot aways be all smiles, as I've pointed out before.

The logical extension of all this is to avoid measuring your worth in money, other people's adoration or unsustainable highs. Besides assessing your life by your own criteria, measure your life in love.

(Ed: Take the goddamn blue pill, Stokes! - Yes, Miss.)

Sometimes we simply need another person to say to us, "I am here with you, I am listening, it will be okay."

I will leave you with an important lesson from sport.

This week British Olympic gold medallist Anthony Joshua won the professional world championship heavyweight boxing title. People are calling Joshua "the new Frank Bruno". For those with long memories, Bruno was an Adonis-like creature from the East End of London who won the world heavyweight title. I recall seeing him practice in a gym above Barking Road.  Bruno's last fight was a loss to Mike Tyson in 1996.

Bruno is famous for something else as well. He was placed in a mental hospital in 2003 after an acrimonious divorce, terrible behaviour and a diagnosis of bipolar. The Sun newspaper's appalling headline in the first edition read: "Bonkers Bruno locked up."

In his 2006 autobiography Bruno had a blunt warning against complacency for everyone, not just sportspeople: "If you think this only happens to other people, it might be important to you."

A year ago the manager of young gun Joshua said the new Bruno could knock the old Bruno out in two rounds. The old Bruno, aged 54, threatened to go back in the ring before realising the risks. He reassured all Britons that he would not do so.

Bruno once said that leaving boxing "was like a bereavement", but that being sectioned was the best thing that ever happened to him.

"Up until that point I wouldn't surrender, I wouldn't give in," he said. "Now I don't feel ashamed to say, 'Yes, I needed help.'"

Such is life …

  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
  • Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36
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