Fighting the deep end of depression, Libby Trickett’s Olympian struggle
World champion and four-time Olympic champion Libby Trickett was the special guest at the Singapore Olympic Foundation-Peter Lim Scholarship Awards Ceremony
By Jasmine Tan
It was a chilly winter morning in Brisbane, Australia. The mercury reads a mere 15 degrees celsius outdoors. The sky was still dark but Libby Trickett was already awake. Lying in bed, she dreaded going for training.
That morning, the heaters at the pool were broken. Just thinking about getting in the freezing water brought her close to tears.
“Cold water is my kryptonite,” she said with a laugh. There was a pause before her tone changed. “But the thing that sets people apart is the willingness to go through the struggle.”
For the four-time Olympic champion, the struggle was not only the splash to the top, but also the mundanity of a life thereafter – dry, literally, distracted and depressed.
“A huge amount of my self-worth hinged on my performance in the pool. I felt an acute loss of identity as I did not know who I wanted to be or who I could be moving forward,” she said.
Today, the retired swimmer uses her own experiences to empower others to share their mental health issues with healthcare professionals and the people in their lives. She is Queensland’s mental health ambassador in northeast Australia and embarks on campaigns to champion the significance of mental health in the workplace.
Here in Singapore, she was a special guest of this year’s Singapore Olympic Foundation-Peter Lim scholarship awards ceremony, and shared her story with 18 young athletes at Satellite@Kallang at the National Youth Sports Institute.
Queen of Beijing
Her role today is a big change from her earlier life as a world-class competitive swimmer. To reach the top, her training regime was relentless and gruelling. A week was made up of 10 pool sessions, two gym sessions, two running sessions, four core workout sessions, topped off with pilates and yoga sessions.
This was how she prepared for the 2008 Beijing Olympics – 35 hours a week, for over a decade. She trained till she could lift more than most boys in her squad, doing dips strapped with 40kg of weights.
Her hard work paid off. She won four medals in the Chinese capital; two gold, one silver and bronze. She quit at the top. A year later, she retired, thinking that it would be finally time for her to rest. But it only led to feelings of emptiness.
From high to an all-time low
Life after retirement was a stark contrast. As her daily routine changed from intense training to perpetual inactivity, she suddenly found nothing to look forward to. Some days, she couldn’t even get out of bed in the mornings.
It affected the people around her. “I went through a six month separation with my husband. After losing both swimming and my long-term relationship, I realised that I needed to get help. That’s when I started to see a psychologist to address my self-worth issues and figure out how to move forward post retirement,” she added.
This recovery process brought her back to swimming, where she set a personal goal to get to the 2012 London Olympics. She succeeded and won a gold medal for the 100-metre freestyle relay.
“Swimming saved me mentally as I got back into my comfort zone of competing,” she said. But the sport could not keep rescuing her forever. She had to find another way to overcome her troubles.
Resolving not to overlook her mental health, she worked to strengthen herself both mentally and physically. Speaking about the obstacles faced during her swimming career – of which depression is an inextricable aspect – it seemed like the natural progression to become a mental health advocate.
So when Trickett retired from swimming for good the second time, she was more prepared. She knew she had to work towards finding her passions outside the sport.
The importance of mental health
Mental health is always overlooked by athletes because they are too busy focusing on their physical health. Trickett stressed the importance of both in overall athletic performance.
“Ultimately during competitions, every athlete is physically ready but it is that extra 1 per cent of mental strength that differentiates between those who perform their best and those who do not,” she said.
When she came out of retirement in 2010, she worked closely with a sports psychologist to improve her mental health. It allowed her to process her negative emotions and learned to be patient with herself.
In fact, athletes should never feel ashamed to seek help.
As the NYSI talk moderator, Trickett’s former coach Stephan Widmer; currently the Singapore Swimming Association’s (SSA) National Head Coach and Performance Director, added: “Seeing a sports psychologist does not mean something is wrong with someone, it just adds extra tools to one’s arsenal.”
Her work as a mental health advocate does not stop here. She is planning to pursue a degree in counselling so that she can continue to understand more about how to help others struggling with various mental health issues.
In her parting advice, Trickett, who reconciled with her husband and is currently pregnant with her third child, emphasised that being self-aware is the most crucial thing for an athlete.
“Be kind to yourself and don’t only align your self-worth with numbers.”
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