World champion rower Gearoid Towey on the challenges facing elite athletes when they retire. By Richard Cooke.


Staying strong: Gearoid Towey, 39, rower

If you’d told me in 2008 when I finished the Olympics and retired that I’d be working in this area [athletes’ mental health] I would never have believed you. First of all I didn’t realise it was such a big issue. And I retired probably the best way you can retire; I mean I retired at the Olympics. I didn’t get a medal but we were still there. I wanted to retire, really wanted to retire, didn’t want to row again, I had loads of outside interests, I had a degree, I was well educated, all that kind of stuff, so if you looked at it on paper it was like the kind of fairytale retirement.

It took a year, because I went to drama school, but when I finished there, I had this, like, identity crisis. I wasn’t expecting it because I didn’t realise how much my identity was tied into being a sportsperson. You’re used to being in this high-pressure environment, it’s very hard to replicate that.

I went online looking for something like a beyondblue for athletes, and I was fully expecting to find something. I was shocked at how little was out there online, even in 2008; there was hardly anything. I went to talk to older athletes who’d been through it, and it was, “Geez, you know, did you go through this?” And they were like, “Yeah, it’s really hard.”

And then the more I talked to people the more I realised that it’s normal. But at the time it was really on my mind, you know. So that’s when I got the idea for the site [Crossing the Line]. Because I was thinking if athletes who are going through this low patch have a place to go where they can read stories from other athletes who have been through it, it just normalises it for them.

Rowing across the Atlantic was something that piqued my interest when I was a kid. I read a book about these two guys who rowed across the Atlantic from New York to Ireland. I never thought it was crazy or anything. And then this race started, Atlantic Rowing Race, in ’97, and I was, “Okay, well, I’m definitely going to do that.” But of course, I was on my own path with the Olympic squad. Then the interest grew and grew and then I just saw a gap [in 2006] and I said, “Okay, now is the year to do it”, and it was like very rushed. Literally I decided in September to do it and the thing was starting in November.

It was just me and one other person. We were doing two hours on and two hours off the whole way across the ocean. The only time we stopped was when we had a storm; we went through three tropical storms. You’re talking seven-, eight-metre waves.

The first was terrifying – but it’s amazing what you get used to. We had to crawl in the boat because we were getting smashed around too much. But your body adapted; it was incredible. After a week I actually felt good out there: rowing, eating, sleeping, navigating, that was it. Life was very uncomplicated. And we felt really free.

“We’re going to get there.” I remember saying that to the other guy. “Like, I feel really… Okay, I feel like shit but actually really strong, you know.” And he said the same. And then we got hit by tropical storm Zeta. We were in that for days. And then finally we just got smashed by a wall of water. 

I thought that was it and we were dead. But we managed to come up to the surface. And then the boat was smashed. We had everything in place, a life raft that we’d been kind of cursing the whole way across because it weighed 30 kilos, and we were sitting on it. And eventually we just got that out, inflated it and then we jumped in – it was just mad. Then night fell. We were very lucky – we capsized at 4pm, and it got dark at 5pm. If we’d capsized at night it would have been… 

The last boat we’d seen was four days previous. Then we heard this noise, looked down, and this supertanker was there. It was a bit of a life-changing thing. I decided then to be a bit easier on myself, and appreciate the finer things in life a little bit more. And I think, to be honest, it was like a bit of a nail in the coffin of my rowing career.

I went back the year after and we did really well. We won the World Cup and got a bronze in the World Championships that year. And then the following year I was just exhausted and I couldn’t train, I couldn’t do anything. I was just fucked, you know, because the whole experience took it out of me. It was probably a curse, to be honest. It would have been nice to have that experience maybe five years later. 

The truth of the matter is that a lot of that is I was self-medicating every day through sport. Because I was getting four to five hours a day of dopamine, and it’s like a drug, and so when you finish and you stop exercising the drug is gone so then you’re going to come down off it and you’re going to go through this low patch because you’re not medicating and then, of course, you’ve never been down there before, so when you’re down there you’re like, “What the hell is going on?”

There’s something about it that’s hard to explain, something very animalistic. Like you’ve got to put yourself into this animal kind of a space to play high-level sport, and I think I tackled a greater animal in the ocean, you know; a different type of animal. I found it harder to put myself there, for sure.


1 . This week’s highlights…

Horseracing: George Main Stakes

Saturday, 3.15pm (AEST); Royal Randwick, Sydney

Tennis: Davis Cup – Australia v Slovakia

Saturday, 1pm (AEST); Sunday, 11am (AEST), Sydney Olympic Park Tennis Centre

Rio Paralympic Games until September 19

AFL: Semi-final: Sydney Swans v Adelaide Crows

Saturday, 7.25pm (AEST), Sydney Cricket Ground

NRL: Semi-final: Canberra Raiders v Penrith Panthers 

Saturday, 7.45pm (AEST), GIO Stadium, Canberra

Motorsport: Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix

Sunday, 10pm (AEST), Marina Bay Street Circuit, Singapore

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 17, 2016 as "Staying strong".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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