Defend Truth


The Olympic dream and dealing with depression as an elite athlete


Lee-Ann Persse is a South African rower who competed at the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics.

If you’ve ever done any sort of watersport – surfing, rowing, anything – you’ll be familiar with the feeling of losing your balance. Sometimes, you see it coming, sometimes it comes as a surprise. Sometimes, you manage to stop it just in time. It’s a bit like life, isn’t it?

Being a professional athlete is interesting. People often use the word “sacrifice” to describe the hours and hours that go into our training.

Sacrifice is a bit of a weird word, though.

In our rowing team, we said we don’t sacrifice anything, this is a choice of ours, so we don’t see it as a sacrifice.

Sure, there were a lot of things we missed out on. But when you are fully focused on the Olympic dream, you barely even realise that not going on holiday with your family or spending time with friends is something strange.

Then one day, when you step back, you realise, wow… there’s a lot of stuff I haven’t been paying attention to.

Sometimes those who love you even try to protect you from distractions. The whole family buys into your dream, your desire. Stuff can pile up. But as athletes, we keep going because we have this desire burning so brightly that we just have to push through to reach our dream.

It’s possible to make it through unscathed, but it’s important that we approach our careers and our retirement holistically.

I remember when I completely lost my balance the first time. A doctor asked: “Do you think you might be a little bit depressed?”

As an Olympian, as an athlete, my response was: “That’s incorrect.

I’m definitely not depressed, I am an athlete, what do I have to be depressed about? This can’t be true.”

Depression is different for everyone, but recognising it, ensuring that those who have a duty of care to athletes to help us recognise it and encourage others to recognise it and speak about it, is important.

Between the London and Rio Olympics, I went through quite a long stage of depression. I went on antidepressants until one day I decided to stop taking them. Top tip: don’t do that, ever. My doctor was furious.

But I wanted to get to all the piles of stuff that I’d been ignoring for so long. So, my doctors and I came up with a plan to get weaned off the medication. I wanted to deal with parts of my life I had been ignoring, head on and I didn’t want my emotions or feelings to be clouded in any way.

But there was nothing to help me through it. I had good friends and support from doctors and psychologists, of course, but often it was just me and all my stuff.

I was lucky in that it never got so bad that I felt like it would be fine if I didn’t wake up tomorrow. But the hardest thing is that you don’t really know that it’s happening to you when it is happening to you. Until somebody mentions it. Even then, athletes are stubborn.

Even on days where I was so completely exhausted that I didn’t know what to do with myself, I’d push through those sessions. And you know, the training gets on top of you and the mental side gets on top of you and the emotions get on top of you and that’s all hard.

But that goal is burning so brightly in the back of your head that you can’t let the hardness of the training or preparing for it get you. So you block it all out and you keep blocking it out and you just keep saying it’s not that hard. This is what I have to do. This is what it takes.

I am in a better space now. And I am grateful for all the amazing people in my life who helped me get here. But there might be a lot of other athletes who aren’t. A lot of other people who aren’t.

Some athletes might fear losing their place in the team if they speak out about struggling or not coping. Just like they might fear losing their place in the team if they don’t train hard enough.

But we need to change. I want to educate our federations and coaches and support staff to talk about this. I want athletes to be comfortable with saying they are not okay and when they are not coping.

Even if that just means talking about it more.

And instead of thinking, what do I have to be depressed about, we need to realise that you don’t need a reason to be depressed.

This is the reason why everything about mental health in professional sport needs to change. DM

This article was first published by ExtraTimeMedia in association with the GirlsOnlyProject.


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