Australian swimming legend Leisel Jones has opened up to the battle for mental health throughout her swimming career, including how a simple knock on her hotel room door saved her life.
The four-time Olympian had a stellar career that began at the Sydney Games at the tender age of just 15, winning a total of three golds and nine medals.
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But after reaching the pinnacle of her first, and what would later turn out to be, individual Olympic gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, Jones revealed on the LiSTNR podcast A life of greatness she went into a spiral.
Publicly, Jones had been a mainstay of the Australian swim team, a world record holder and many times a world champion.
But privately she fought against demons.
Nearing the end of her swimming career – she retired after the fateful 2012 London Olympics — Jones revealed she struggled to find who she was outside the pool.
“(My mental health struggle) was very much wrapped up in identity,” Jones said.
“My whole identity, my self-esteem, everything I believed in was wrapped up in swimming, and once I got the gold medal I so desperately wanted my entire career, I really wondered ‘well who am I without swimming?’
“I was ready to retire, I wanted to move on, but I couldn’t because I had nothing else. I had no life outside swimming. I hadn’t studied anything. I didn’t know what I liked to do every day.
“When I was asked a question, it was like, ‘Well, if you don’t swim, what are you going to do?’ When I didn’t have an answer, I thought, “I don’t know. For example, I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to anymore, I really don’t want to train anymore. I’ve achieved everything I wanted – what should I do now? ‘
“When I didn’t have an answer for what I liked to do, I just got stuck in this loop of good, I have to keep swimming because I have nothing else, what else am I supposed to do? I couldn’t even consider retiring because there was nothing. I couldn’t work because I had no work experience. I didn’t know what to do with myself every day of getting up and not exercising.”
Jones wanted to be the first Australian swimmer to compete in four Olympics, but said, “My heart wasn’t quite there that I just didn’t care that much”.
It started with her mental decline because she didn’t want to go to training and “started to unravel everything”.
“I thought carefully, there were no other options for me, there was no work or study or anything like that. That I just couldn’t see a way out,” she added.
Jones admitted that her thoughts became so dark that she considered committing suicide.
Although she has talked about her mental health battles in the past, most notably in her memoirs heightsJones revealed how she was saved at the lowest point of her life during a training camp in Spain in 2011.
It came when an unnamed coach knocked on her door.
“It’s one of those sliding door moments that you can’t believe the timing of how he arrived at that moment and knocked on my door,” Jones said. A life of greatness.
“He knew I was having a hard time, but probably not to the extent I really felt because I wasn’t showing anyone that side.
“And so for him to knock on the door when I was just at my lowest point and I was like, ‘I want to get out of here, away from it all and I need to make this go away now’.
“To knock on his door I just cried my eyes out and he just gave me the biggest hug and he said ‘we need to get you out of here’ and then the process started right away.
“It’s one of those things you love, I have no idea who sent you or I have no idea how you knew at that moment to knock on the door. But you did and that was a pivotal moment in my healing where you can locate the lowest point in my entire life at that moment. Those two seconds just before he knocked on the door was the lowest point of my entire life.
“It’s almost like he opened the door, like you just reach out your hand and then just grab that hand and then head up the stairs. It’s just so amazing to look back on that time and go, I can locate a two second frame in my life that was my lowest and his hand was the one that pulled me out.
Jones had qualified for both the 100m breaststroke and 4x100m medley relay, finishing 5th and second respectively to add a ninth Olympic medal.
But the Games, more remembered for Australia’s Stillnox scandal, also saw Jones fat-shaming in a newspaper article on the eve of the Games.
“It affected me a lot and that was a big part of my mental health journey,” Jones said.
“The year before that I had had a tremendous amount of mental health, was considering taking my life, I was just desperate at this point, just so low and I’ve never been that low or ever again and just need so much psychological help And I was on antidepressants, which made me gain weight.
“So to have someone comment on my personal appearance and things that have absolutely nothing to do with my performance at the time – sure, criticize my performance, no problem and if I didn’t live up to expectations – but I was at my fourth Olympics, I had this mental health trial the year before and was just trying to get through it.
“But nobody asked those questions and nobody even bothered to go back and say what was really going on.”
‘So brave’: Jones backs Chalmers position
Jones compared her treatment to Australian supervis Kyle Chalmers at the Australian Swimming Championships and Commonwealth Games.
Chalmers called on the media for the questioning and said he wanted to leave the Commonwealth Gamesspeaking openly about his mental health battles during the meet.
Jones, however, supported Chalmers’ position, saying he is “brave enough to stand up and say ‘please stop’.”
“To say this is distracting and hurtful, and to say ‘I’m not going to move on if you keep writing headlines like that’, I love that he said that because I would have given anything to have a voice like that back. then,” said Jones.
“This is the good side of social media. This is where Instagram is so great because it allows him to post and say ‘I don’t tolerate this and I don’t appreciate this and for my mental health you have to stop’.
“When I entered, it was all very filtered by the media. We only had small chances to talk to the press when it was after a game or after a dive that I didn’t have that opportunity and to be honest it’s too distracting. So I just had to get past it, suck it up, get on with the work, try to forget about it as much as possible and just squash it and say, ‘I’m not talking about this right now, I’ve got a job to do’. And when I got home, I just had to deal with it myself.”
“The great side of social media is that I could have made a huge statement and said, ‘This is disgraceful journalism. This is not what we tolerate. This is hurtful not only to women, but also to men, to girls, to guys…no matter who you influence, you can’t put headlines about looks because it has nothing to do with that.
“Whether I would have done that, I don’t know… but it would have been so nice to have that voice or platform to say how I really felt in that moment.
“Maybe I would have done something like Kyle to give a big warning, ‘You have to stop. Stop with the headlines, it’s enough.”
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