Travis Gerrits: How my bipolar diagnosis strengthened my Olympic drive

Travis Gerrits: How my bipolar diagnosis strengthened my Olympic drive


'I am more motivated to reach my true potential in freestyle aerial skiing,' says Canadian veteran

By Travis Gerrits for CBC Sports
September 13, 2017
 

I am a freestyle skier. An Olympian. A world silver medallist.

I have lived with bipolar disorder the majority of my life, without even knowing about it. My disorder takes form in both extreme states — mania and depression. I have, to say the least, experienced the highs and lows of mental illness. Despite this, I have still been able to grow as a person and experience life. I have a different sort of lens, perhaps, but I experience life none the less.

Travis Gerrits has come to terms with his bipolar diagnosis. (Photo courtesy Travis Gerrits) Travis Gerrits has come to terms with his bipolar diagnosis. (Photo courtesy Travis Gerrits)

In the past few years I have gradually accepted that my bipolar disorder is part of who I am in a way. Coming to terms with it and embracing my illness has definitely impacted my performance. I believe that my bipolarity even helps me perform, and that it does the same for others, great artists, athletes, and lesser-known people. I am learning to recognize what exactly triggers episodes, and more importantly, how to manage and control them so I do not spiral into a more extreme state. 

Freestyle aerial skiing creates structure in my life. I am always busy and on the go, constantly searching for excellence and perfection in everything that I do. This can be a great thing. It allows me to stay focused in the present moment, but it can also cause stress. In high volume, I believe stress to be a trigger in itself. With the help of the many professionals around me, I have learned to give my body and mind the breaks I need in order to achieve that peak performance on demand that we’re looking for.

 

Adrenaline plays a huge role in my life. I’m addicted to that feeling of weightlessness as I fly 50 feet off the kicker, especially during a competition. The “high” I get from the Olympic Games is unlike any other feeling I’ve had from other competitions. Having literally thousands of people watching my performance during those three seconds, in my opinion, I wouldn’t be able to handle certain factors like that and enjoy them as much as I do if I wasn’t bipolar.

 

All-time low

Sadly, the opposite is also true post-Olympic Games. With the high coming to an end and the attention switching from winter to summer sports, I experienced an all-time low. I ran off to Vietnam to get away from everything. Among the Vietnamese people, sport, and culture, I was looking to find myself again.

After seeking help for depressive symptoms once more, for the first time since I was just 14 years old, the anti-depressants caused me to flip into what we call a “mixed-state.” You feel manic yet utterly depressed at the same time. This is one of the most dangerous states to be in. You have energy and impulsivity, mixed with some seriously negative thoughts. The mix can render a life that seems impossible.

The phone call to my coach from the hospital bed in Quebec City was the most difficult thing to do. I told him that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the next few days of training due to my latest diagnosis. The embarrassment that I felt at the time was overwhelming. I am happy to say that nowadays, we have a better connection and open lines of communication, which I believe are keys in any athlete’s journey to success.

Three years later, and these feelings still come and go. My diagnosis was very difficult  to accept. I let it control me. It became who I was. And when you let something like that completely define who you are, you are bound to feel a lack of self-worth. Perhaps this is due to society’s perception of a person’s worth and the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues.

 

I personally tend to evaluate my own self-worth in terms of my accomplishments and failures in sport now. When I start doing well in competitions, I feel unstoppable and on top of the world. But again, the opposite is very true as well. Three quarters of the way through the 2016-17 World Cup season, I couldn’t have been more disappointed in myself. I used to be able to perform and land my tricks extremely well, but since my diagnosis and extensive list of medications, I felt “flat” on the hill, and unable to reach my full potential. Where was the athlete who once finished seventh at the Olympic Games?

 
 

Changing medication

For a while, I was constantly changing medication, doses, therapists and routines, to figure out what worked best for me. It was trial and error for the most part, which left me continually working toward becoming the best version of myself. I have found stability in my mood swings now, which is allowing me to train not necessarily harder than before, but smarter. That’s another key to success: listening to your body and your mind as well.

Gerrits' focus remains an Olympic medal in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images) Gerrits' focus remains an Olympic medal in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)

I aspire not just to reach the next Olympics, but to improve my result and make the super final and finish on the podium. Why? Am I just following the yellow brick road, hoping that at the end there will be a pot of gold? Then what? Will it magically transform my life, wealth, job security, or pride even? Nothing could take away from the personal achievement, that’s for sure.

I have discovered so much over the past four years. I am a stronger person because of it all. With clear goals now, I am more motivated and determined to reach my true potential in freestyle aerial skiing. Now that everything is out on the table, I am holding myself accountable and measuring my success by “small wins” each day that propel me to accomplish something great in skiing and in my life as a whole.

Opening up to those close to me and to the public is something that I am proud of. Hopefully the message is an inspiration to some, because at the end of the day, we are not what we do for a living, we are not what we own, and we are not just our diagnosis.

(Large photos by Getty Images and Travis Gerrits)

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