Depression doesn’t make any concession to sport’s superstars, writes Nirmal Shekar

Those arms: you can reach for the stars with those arms. And Ian Thorpe did just that, time and time again.

And every time he eased his lithe frame out of his bathrobe and walked with affectless calm to the edge of a pool in competition, Australian women of a certain age swooned ostentatiously.

He was what every starry-eyed Australian kid wanted to be; he was awe-inspiring and implacable, overshadowed in his era only by the greatest swimmer of all time — Michael Phelps, 32 months his junior.

If the less emotional — or should one say more cynical — among us believed that Phelps was merely an evolutionary freak, then the ones who always look skyward for answers were certain that the gods were always smiling down on Thorpe as well.

That was the time when, of all the things that anybody, any age, any gender, might have felt about Thorpedo, the one and only thing you were sure about was this: nobody could have felt sorry for him.

‘What a poor little boy, what a pity!’ Surely, you never heard that said of Thorpe, a five-time Olympic gold medallist, when the sun was shining on him.

It has just been a few years, but it seems like aeons now. In the wee hours of Monday, in Sydney, Thorpey was found wandering, disoriented and cognitively diminished, near his parents’ house, and was later admitted to a rehabilitation clinic.

Anti-depressants and painkillers can do that to you, even if you happen to be 6ft 5in tall. You imbibe them because you don’t want to lose your way, but then you end up losing your way, and some more.

Depression can do that to you. In fact, it can do much more, leaving you on the very edge, staring at the bottomless hole and wondering if a final plunge would erase all the misery.

And depression doesn’t make any concession to sport’s superstars. They are just as vulnerable as the neighbourhood grocer or the pimply-faced, lonely kid who finds it tough to fit in.

On the other hand, if you tend to believe that top sportspersons, celebrity athletes with fancy cars and multi-million dollar bank accounts, are rather more prone to an attack by Winston Churchill’s Black Dog, then you are wrong again.

When a Thorpe or a Tyson or a Trescothick or a Flintoff talks about depression, the media listens, and so do we. But there might be tens of thousands of others in every sport in every country in the world suffering in the emotional wilderness into which the illness casts you.

Yet, the soul-shattering experiences of the Thorpes of the sporting world must be understood in their context because they throw light on a subject that is a taboo at the highest levels of sport.

“He [Thorpe] has mentioned in his autobiography that he suffers from depression and it is an awful thing to have. He has got to confront the problems and get better,’’ James Erskine, the Australian swimmer’s manager, has said.

Then again, even the greatest of sportsmen find in depression a mightier foe than any they might have confronted during their careers.

Black hole

And depression leaves such a huge hole in the soul that not all the love in the world — from family, from friends, from fans — can help fill it. Everything good that comes your way disappears into the void.

You might say that for top sportsmen — or perhaps high achievers in any area of human activity — it may take a superhuman effort to simply be normal and sound and well-adjusted once their glory days are behind them.

These guys are simply missing that adrenaline-surge of the heyday, missing, too, the adulation and the spotlight, you might argue. Perhaps this causes a neurochemical imbalance that carries them beyond the tipping point.

But this kind of reductionism will never shine the flashlight deep enough into the abyss. To believe that depression has a one-size-fits-all cure, and to lump all the sufferers together, would be outrageously naïve.

Thorpe has admitted to suicidal thoughts and alcohol abuse in his book, This is Me (2012). And Flintoff too talked about his alcohol dependency and crippling struggles in a BBC One documentary Freddie Flintoff: Hidden Side of Sport.

A combination of anti-depressant medication, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and family support (loving kindness) can help to a point. But ultimately, it is the sportsman himself who has to reach deep within and take on the demon residing in the darkness there.

And it is a lonely battle. There are no TV cameras and cheering spectators, and they don’t give out gold medals — nor do sponsors line up behind you with blank cheque leaves — for slaying this adversary.

But a victory in this game — one you never wanted to play — is more meaningful than any that Thorpe might have achieved in his entire career. For, finding a reason to get out of bed in the morning in good cheer — with all the hope that a meaningful life brings — is, in itself, a triumph that intrinsically surpasses any other for a person suffering from depression.

Touching the wall first in an Olympic pool is not a matter of life and death. But overcoming depression is.

Keywords: SwimmingIan Thorpe

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