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Australian champion race walker reveals struggle with mental illness

Email Champion race walker Dane Bird-Smith reveals his struggle with mental illness By Quentin Hull

Posted March 24, 2019 06:07:23

Dan Birth-Smith leaning forward staring into the distance. Photo: Dane Bird-Smith was a bronze medallist at the Rio Olympics and gold medallist at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. (ABC News: Quentin Hull) Map: Brisbane 4000

Champion race walker Dane Bird-Smith knew the feeling all too well.

His heart wasn't in the training session he had planned but it had to be done.

After all, the 2017 world championships were only two months away and he was the reigning Olympic bronze medallist in the 20-kilometre walk.

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He strapped on his shoes and off he went for yet another session pounding the pavement along the Brisbane River.

But something wasn't right.

He had sensed it in the build-up to Rio in 2016 and the jubilation of fulfilling his Olympic dream wasn't the panacea he had planned for.

As time passed the feelings got worse.

One night in 2017 those feelings almost broke him.

"I do a circuit out across Story Bridge and back, stopped halfway across the bridge, and just thought if that was going to be the point of … breaking point," Bird-Smith told the ABC.

"There was just this moment where I was standing on the side of the bridge. I stood there for maybe half-an-hour thinking … 'it would be all so much easier to end it there and push it all away'.

Dane Bird-Smith of Australia sponges himself with water during the Men's 20km Race Walk Photo: Dane Bird-Smith said something changed at the Commonwealth Games and he felt like he was back in the race again. (AAP: Tracey Nearmy)

"Here's an opportunity, here's the night where I decided 'I've had enough', and I was ready to give up. What I was thinking about was just not being around anymore. That was really, really, scary."

Among other factors, Bird-Smith said he struggled with thoughts that the demands of his athletic career had created a burden for his loved ones.

"Weirdly the only thing that actually brought me back down away from that moment was that maybe I should go and feed the dogs back home," he said.

"I was freaking out the whole way home. I knew at that point if I ever went back out to train without speaking to somebody about it I probably wouldn't be coming home."

Bird-Smith confided in his now-wife Katy and immediately sought professional help.

"She straight away got me to see a doctor the next day and we got help," he said.

Dane Bird-Smith in action on the track Photo: Dane Bird-Smith competes at the Queensland International Track Classic at Brisbane's Queensland Sport and Athletics Centre. (AAP: Darren England)

World-class performances continued

Despite his mental health battle Bird-Smith's athletic performances continued to be world class.

The now 26-year-old set a personal best in finishing fifth in the 20km walk at the London world championships only weeks after his episode on the Story Bridge and was named Athletics Australia's male athlete of the year in 2017.

"2017 was PB (personal best), after PB, after PB, but in reality, I was just not there for any of it and I just didn't care," he said.

"I'd fallen apart on the inside and lost my reason why I wanted to do athletics."

Despite his mental health problems, Bird-Smith returned to training after the world championships with the goal of competing at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

All the while he confided in Katy, his health professionals, and eventually just before the Gold Coast games, a small group of peers inside the Australian athletics team.

Bird-Smith is coached by his father, fellow Olympic race walker David Smith.

Bird-Smith admitted he did not mention his mental health battle with his parents until after the Commonwealth Games.

Dane Bird-Smith walks in Rio Photo: Dane Bird-Smith competed at the Rio Olympics. (Reuters: Ricardo Moraes)

Bird-Smith triumphed in a desperate finish to win the 20km gold medal at Currumbin to become Commonwealth champion.

"Leading into that Games I was still in a very isolated way, I hadn't yet spoken to Mum and Dad about anything," he said

"In the back of my head I wasn't quite there yet but that (Commonwealth Games race) was when everything changed. I stepped onto that line … as soon as that gun went something changed. I had that competitor back. I felt like I was in a race again and enjoying it."

Bird-Smith's revelation coincides with the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) announcing the formation of a Mental Health Referral Network.

The network will give AIS funded athletes access to a group of 27 endorsed mental health professionals across Australia.

"Speaking about it has been a good healing process for myself. I've broken through another bit of stigma — this male facade of keeping yourself strong all the time," he said.

The Commonwealth champion was recently selected for this year's world championships in Doha and has his sights firmly set on the Tokyo Olympics.

"I'm so ready to soak up the experience of an Olympic Games again and to actually be there and actually enjoy the entire experience," he said.

Dane Bird-Smith of Australia is thrown in the ocean by his friends Photo: Bird-Smith was thrown in the ocean by his friends after winning the men's 20km race walk at the XXI Commonwealth Games in 2018. (AAP: Tracey Nearmy)

Topics: mental-health, health, sport, suicide, brisbane-4000, qld, australia

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