Freestyle aerialist Travis Gerrits is used to being described as brave — it comes with the territory when your arsenal includes quadruple twisting triple back flips — but Gerrits just did the bravest thing he has ever done and it had nothing to do with being upside down on skis.
Gerrits finally revealed the secret he's been trying to hide for the past four years: he suffers from bipolar 1 disorder.
"It's been a weight on my shoulders since I was diagnosed," he said. "Just opening up to the public was an eight-month process. I didn't know how I should do it, with just a text-written message or through the media. I finally decided to have my brother Tyler make a video for my social feeds. I trust him; that was important to me. I just didn't know how people would react. Mostly, I kept it a secret for so long because I was concerned about losing corporate sponsors or not being able to sign new ones."
Stigma of mental illness
His fears depict just how real the stigma is when it comes to mental illness. Those fears were legitimized when he read one of his expiring sponsorship contracts. The contract gave the company the right to terminate support in the event he was diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
Whereas that sponsorship expired, his other sponsors surprised him with their support. Not only did they pledge their backing, they enlightened him as to why they support him in the first place.
"We are proud to have Travis as a Team Visa athlete and admire the courage it took him to speak openly and honestly about his illness," said Brenda Woods, head of marketing at Visa Canada. "Travis has Visa's continued support and we look forward to watching what he will do at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games."
Despite his fears, having a mental illness shouldn't affect Gerrits' ability to sign new sponsors. If anything, it might open the door for different opportunities and partnerships.
"Brands want to associate with people who are real, relatable and ultimately reflect the clients they serve," said Andrew Greenlaw, senior director of sponsorship at CIBC. "Travis is amongst the most impressive athletes – and more importantly, people — I have ever met. I am proud to call him a friend, and I truly believe his openness will only enhance his performance on the mountain and his brand appeal off it."
Plenty of support
"I didn't speak about it to become the face of mental health," Gerrits said, "but if my voice can be heard and helps even one person then my job here is done."
Based on the outpour of support, his story is connecting with Canadians. As Gerrits tearfully recounted the day he had to call his coach to tell him he wouldn't be at training because he was hospitalized after his first manic episode, I couldn't help but admire his strength and how hard it really is takes to talk about mental health.
"I just needed to be authentic," he said. "It's so easy to use social media to depict my life as perfect but that's so far from the truth."
Physically fit, determined, articulate and bipolar. It's an unconventional athlete brand but one worthy of support.