Fish Out of Water
How winning Olympic gold sent Leisel Jones
into a life-threatening spiral.
ABC radio reports my 100-metre breaststroke win at Beijing 2008: “Leisel Jones has been the dominant women’s breaststroke swimmer in the world for most of the last eight years. But there’s been one thing missing from her trophy cabinet: an individual Olympic gold medal … Now that has changed. Leisel is lethal! She’s finally got that gold. Finally, Leisel has done it!”
The full set. That’s what I have now. The full box and dice. The kit and the caboodle. But most importantly, I finally have peace. I’ve done it. It’s finished. I’ve answered the question. I don’t have to go to another Olympics. I soak in every minute of the medal presentation. This is why, I tell myself as I stand on the podium. This is the reason for all the 4am starts, the hard kilometres in the pool, the weight vests, the chin-ups, all the bloody soups.
Other girls dream of their wedding day or of being a princess or something. But all I wanted was this: the green and the gold. Especially the gold! But just as a wedding day whizzes by fast, so does a medal ceremony. I want to bottle it so I can open it up and taste it any time I like. I sing our anthem and I swell with pride. I walk around the stadium, waving and thanking the fans. Then I spot Mum in the crowd; she’s run down to the front of the stands, she is hanging over the fence and she’s waving like a dag. And this is when I lose the plot. I am bawling – she is bawling – we are a silly, wet mess. Mum leans down and I touch her hand. It’s the only way I can say how much she means to me, how much she has done for me. Say thank you, thank you, thank you some more.
I have less than 48 hours to turn myself around for the 200-metre breaststroke heat. I rest, train, and rest some more. But when the Friday morning final rolls around, I feel off.
It shows in my race and I come second to the USA’s Rebecca Soni in a time of 2:22.05. I am numb when I finish. I exit the pool and do my poolside interview. Then I stagger away and collapse on the deck. Everything goes black and for a few moments I’m worried I will lose consciousness. But, although the room wobbles and swims in front of me as though this giant bubble really might float away, I manage to hang on.
“I’m fine. I’m fine,” I insist, as a crowd gathers. “I just dug so deep in that last 50 metres, I kinda forgot to breathe.” This is true, in part. But I’m not wobbly and faint and feeling sick to my core just because I am short of breath. If I ate a decent meal once in a while; if I didn’t have boyfriend dramas; if I was nicer to myself occasionally; then maybe I wouldn’t be laid out on the tiles for the world to see, hoping the TV cameras don’t get a shot of my swimming-tog wedgie.
I decide I’m not disappointed, just relieved. Relieved that this week is almost over. Almost over. First, of course, there’s the 4×100 medley relay and our chance to give our old foes, the USA, a good spanking.
I love the relay, it’s always so much fun. But today, as Emily Seebohm, Jessicah Schipper and I are in the marshalling area waiting for Libby Trickett to arrive, things start to go pear-shaped. Libby’s not here yet because she’s out in the race pool, swimming her heart out in the 50-metre freestyle final. This is Libby’s event, her big chance to shine, but instead of winning gold she fails to get a medal at all. This is very, very bad.
“Right,” I say to the girls. “Libby will be coming in here in a minute and she will be absolutely filthy.” I train with Libby. I know that when she arrives at the marshalling area she will not be skipping. “We’re going to actively change her attitude,” I tell them. “We’re going to sing, we’re going to dance, we’re going to be absolute idiots. We will turn her around and make her happy. You in?”
“Let’s do it,” says Seebohm.
The American team are deadly serious. In their hoodies and headphones, they are here to win. They don’t talk, don’t smile, don’t communicate at all among their team. We are the polar opposite. We are loud and proud and not afraid of bad singing.
When Libby arrives, she is just as I predicted. “Leave that shit at the door, Trickett,” I tell her. “And prepare to have fun!” She raises one eyebrow sceptically.
To Libby’s credit, she does a complete 180. Within minutes, she is singing and dancing and being as obnoxious and rude as the rest of us. It’s big of her. And dammit, we have fun. “Screw you, guys,” is the message our bad dancing sends to the US. “Screw you,” we say with our sprinklers, our moonwalking and our mashed potato. We’re Australian and we’re loud!
The USA get off to a flying start with 100-metre backstroke gold medallist Natalie Coughlin, and we are back in fourth place at the end of the first leg. But I am having none of that and I swim my heart out, swim my guts out, and bring us up to pole position. By the time Jessicah Schipper finishes the butterfly leg we have a three-metre advantage over the Americans, before Libby brings it home in her usual style. We win the race in world-record time. Aussie-girl style. All six of Australia’s gold medals in the pool at Beijing are won by its women.
As soon as I finish racing, I check out of the Olympic village. I’ll be back for the closing ceremony. I’m in a rush to see my fiancé, Marty, to spend some time with him and sort things out. Three nights ago, the night before the biggest race of my life, he’d accused me on the phone of sleeping around. So he and I move into Mum’s shoebox serviced apartment. When finally we are alone, the real fights start. Never have 50 square metres felt so tight. We are constantly at one another’s throats: arguing, bickering, driving each other mad.
The rest of the Aussie contingent are back in the village and I’m keen to see them, to hang out with them. Especially my relay team girls. I want to party! Let my hair down! Gold schmold: the best part about the Olympics is the partying. Put 10,000 fit, ripped, mostly 20-somethings together – 20-somethings who are on a high, who are having perhaps the greatest experience of their lives and who have been working their arses off for the past four years to be here; who have been denied alcohol and fast food and going out and doing all the things that 20-somethings do – put these people together in a village for two weeks and see what happens. And did I mention everything’s free? But I stay home to hang out with my fiancé.
I lie in bed at night wondering what’s wrong with me. You’ve done it,I tell myself. You’ve won the gold! Achieved your dream! This is the part where you’re ecstatic. You should be over the moon! It doesn’t feel at all like I expected.
Because even as a gold medallist, you still have to get up in the morning. You still have to eat your Weet-Bix and brush your teeth. Life goes on. It was stupid to think all that would change. Yet somehow, I now realise, I thought things would be different. That life might be smoother, more perfect. I thought my friends would like me more, my fiancé would love me more. And most stupid of all? I thought I might even like myself.
After Beijing, a bunch of my teammates go on holidays together. Some go to Bali, others to Thailand. Me? I pack my bags, say my goodbyes, and then head home to Melbourne to break up with my fiancé.
In 2011, I head to a high-performance sports centre in Sierra Nevada, Spain, with my squad. Sierra Nevada is ridiculously beautiful. A spectacular freak of a mountain range, its snow-heavy peaks popping up at the southernmost tip of Spain, right where the country is slipping on its togs and plunging into the Mediterranean Sea.
We are here to do altitude training. It’s 15 to 20 per cent harder to swim at altitude, and this place sure does offer height. Much of the mountain range is 3000 metres or more above sea level. We step out of the airport and straight into the sensation that we’re breathing through straws. Gasping for air.
It’s going to be impossible to do the same sets here that we do at home: it’s just too hard. Walking – even sleeping – will be a workout, we’re told. And as a result our coaches expect we’ll all shed weight. Up to a kilo a day, even. I look up at the glowering sky, heavy with clouds and grey as my mood. The weather forecast is foul, we’ve been warned. I shiver and hurry onto the bus.
I’m still shivering later that day when we sit down for lunch. I can’t get warm in this place. Everything I touch is cold and dead. It’s like my fingers are numb right through. And I can’t remember anyone’s name, either. I can’t shake the sensation that my brain is numb.
I am foggy, cloudy; I am not myself at all. And worse, I am teary and fearful and I don’t know why. When the woman at reception hands me my room key and tells me to enjoy my stay, I am overwhelmed by the sense that this place is not going to end well for me. Why? I think, as the elevator pulls me even further into the thin, thin air. What’s your problem? Get a grip. I give myself a shake and tell myself to get on with the job.
Yet when I walk down the corridor and into my room, I am full of blank dread. It is a bare room, with twin beds, a TV and a single desk that runs along one wall. There is a large window that looks out on an empty running track and the mountains in the distance.
I dump my bag on my bed and begin to unpack. It’s cold in here; it’s like a cheap motel room. I’m rooming with Ellen Gandy [a former British butterfly swimmer who now swims for Australia], but there’s no sign of her yet. I try to remember if I saw her at the airport. Try to remember any details from my morning. Landing, going through customs, the bus ride to the sports centre. Even the flight – all 26 hours of it – is just a blur.
This is the first time I’ve tried altitude training. We’ve been told it will affect every physiological system in our bodies: cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, the works. “Even your mental state will be affected,” we’re advised. “Training will be hard and that can screw with your head.” That must be why I’m feeling so horrid, I think. I ignore the fact I’ve been feeling like this long before our plane touched down at Malaga.
The idea behind our camp is that we train up here for a couple of weeks, and then when we return home, when we come down from on high, we will swim like gods. We will restore Australian swimming glory. It’s been a quiet couple of years in the Aussie swimming camp, after the golden era of Sydney and Beijing, and the powers-that-be at Swimming Australia are prepared to do anything to stop the rot. But altitude training is not just for swimmers. There are runners, footballers, basketballers, even gymnasts here, too. Cadel Evans, the Aussie cyclist, is staying in a hotel nearby while he trains for the upcoming Tour de France.
One day our team goes on an excursion to a nearby coastal town. We are rocketing down the side of the mountain in our van, heading for the flat below, when we see Cadel Evans riding on the road ahead. “Maaate!” Freestyle champion Michael Klim has wrenched open the door of the van and is yelling out to Cadel as we rattle down the mountain. “Mate, how are ya?”
Apparently Michael and Cadel go way back. Cadel sidles up alongside and reaches out his hand. He grabs on to Michael’s arm and the two of them cruise happily along, chatting away, shooting the breeze like they’re not hurtling down one of the steepest mountains in Spain at 80 kilometres per hour. Cadel is flying along, really picking up speed, and just yakking away, telling Michael what he had for breakfast. Crazy cyclist. I’d like to chat with Cadel properly while we’re here in Sierra Nevada. Maybe there’ll be time to chat to him when he’s not pelting down a mountain.
From day one, training is a slog. it’s slow and tiring and terribly frustrating. My lungs burn, my muscles ache, my body won’t do what I want it to. Everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves and I try – god, I try so hard – to be happy. Because no one wants to hang around with someone who’s dragging their feet.
One of my friends takes a photo of me in the lunchroom when I’m pretending to wear a banana for a smile. We laugh and muck around, but behind my fake smile I am desperate, hollow. I am using what little energy I have to try to be pepped up and positive and fun and myself. My old self. Wherever she is.
Just get over it! I say to myself as I plough up and down the pool. It’s not forever; you’ll be home soon. You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself and make the most of this. But that’s not it, either. I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m not feeling anything at all. I am cold and exhausted and empty and grey. I’m disappearing into the landscape. I am drifting away.
I Skype Lisa, my sports psychologist, when it is early morning for me, and late evening in Melbourne for her. As always, she is patient and kind. She wants to know how I am feeling, how I am coping. I tell her as much as I dare to let out.
“We are going for a hike in the mountains tomorrow,” I say. “Jeremy [our gym coach] has got us walking 20 kilometres to some mountain.”
“Do one thing for me.” Lisa says. “Try to take in your surroundings. I want you to notice everything, all the details, then report back to me what you saw. I want to know how it smelt, how it sounded, what the air felt like on your skin. Everything.”
The next morning we assemble for our hike. “Pack your ski goggles?” Jeremy asks us on the way out of camp, by way of a pep talk. Apparently there will be plenty of snow and ice.
“I’ve got mine!” Tay Zimmer, a backstroker from Warrnambool, shouts and twirls her swimming goggles around her finger in the air. That gets a laugh from just about everyone. Everyone except me. “Forget the goggles,” I mutter. “You need a bloody snorkel.”
The air today is thinner than I could ever have imagined. We trek for four hours and being outdoors is good, but I’d still rather be at home on my own. It’s all I can think about: getting home. Some of my friends have been playing soccer in between training sessions during the past few days, and they can’t understand why I don’t join in. Usually I would. Usually, I’d be the first person out there, organising teams, assigning dumb nicknames, revving people up, stirring the pot. But now I can barely remember how.
“Everything was blue,” I tell Lisa on Skype that evening. “Blue and crisp and clean and fresh. I could smell pine and hear the sound of rocks and ice crunching under my shoes.”
“That’s good,” she says. “That’s all really good.”
“Oh, and there was this family of goats. A dad, a mum and two baby goats. Just standing there on a rock watching us as we headed out of camp.” Suddenly these goats are important, they are crucial, they are so vivid in my mind. I describe them to Lisa and she listens quietly.
“This thing, this awareness thing, this is so that I forget about my problems and just live in the moment, isn’t it?” I say eventually.
“Sort of,” Lisa agrees. “Not exactly that you’ll forget your problems but, yes, it might help you to focus on where you are right now. I don’t want you to feel like we’re trying to suppress your worries or your anxieties. We’ve swept so much under the rug again while you’ve been away because we just haven’t had time to talk about everything yet. But we’ll recap on those things when you’re back home in Melbourne.”
It’s true I haven’t been dealing with my emotions. Not in Sierra Nevada. Not ever, really. I just keep stuffing everything down and hoping it won’t all explode in my face. Just because I now know I’m suppressing things doesn’t mean I can stop doing it.
“Just look on the bright side,” Lisa says, signing off. “There’s a lot of material here for when you write your book one day.” Finally, I laugh.
Each morning, before we hit the water, we have to stand on the scales and see how much weight has slipped off us in the night thanks to the wonders of altitude training. But my weight is not budging. If anything, it’s going up. I’m eating less, training harder and somehow I’m putting on weight, while others around me are dropping up to a kilo overnight. What’s wrong with me? I want to scream.
If I can’t go home, then all I want to do is sit in my room and be alone. I spend hours in there. Whenever I’m not in the pool, I’m in my room. Sitting, staring; wishing I was somewhere else. Wishing I was someone else. Wishing this whole thing would end. The room is as bare and as stale as when we first moved into it. Aside from some of Ellen’s clothes and a few books that are lying around, there’s no real sign that anyone is living in here. My stuff is still inside my bag, ready for a quick getaway. Ready for an exit of any kind. And even though the room is so unremarkable, I feel like I am moulding into it. Like it’s alive, like it’s yawning and stretching and swallowing me whole. It’s an animal, a monster.
I phone Mum in tears and tell her I need to come home. “You’ll be right,” she says. “Just stick it out.” If only she knew what was going through my head. If only I could tell her somehow.
I try listening to music, watching movies; all the things that usually make me happy. I watch Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is a show I normally love, but now even this can’t make me laugh. Nothing will break me out of it. I want to shake the feeling. I want to shed my skin. Pull out my black soul so I can feel light again. I’m not well. I am spiralling. I am mentally, physically and emotionally done. I hate my life. I hate myself. I just want to quit. But who am I if I’m not a swimmer?
And so one hollow, grey Tuesday afternoon in Spain, while the snow outside is beginning to whirl and dance, I sit down on the bathroom floor with sleeping tablets and plan how I will steal a paring knife from the hotel kitchen to try to kill myself. I will start with my legs, with the big veins in my thighs. Then I will slash at my arms, at my pale white wrists. I shake as I think about it. I imagine the knife and how I will run its blade gently over my skin, scrape it across the smooth skin of my wrist – then go further, do what I need to do.
I am bawling my eyes out now. It’s coming from my guts. Then I get a text on my phone. My heart lurches. I click it open and stare in disbelief. It’s from our team sports scientist. “Having a coffee downstairs with Cadel Evans, if you want to join us.” F…ing what? Are you serious? I want to kill myself right now, I’m planning to cut my legs and arms open, and she’s telling me Cadel Evans is downstairs! You think I give a shit? I hit delete and slump to the floor.
I sit in there for a couple of hours. On my own, on the floor. Sobbing and trembling and trying to let go. I can do this, I can. I can fix everything. On my own, by myself. I will do it my way. But then suddenly I am not alone. Someone is knocking. I peel myself off the floor and stagger to the front door.
“Leisel? Leisel! What’s going on in here?” I open the door and find myself falling. The carpet feels warm and alive after the cold tiles of the bathroom. I don’t speak, can’t speak, I just sit on the floor bawling, and my coach waits beside me for as long as it takes. In the end, he speaks first and all he says is: “Leisel, we need to get you some air.”