Taking off the mask

Taking off the mask

'I have found new meaning and purpose from my darkest hours in sport'

By Nadia Popov for CBC Sports
September 12, 2018

In January of 2017, I let the world in on one of my most deeply held secrets.

On the rugby field, I’m known for my physical strength, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to live up to my reputation as a powerful force. Off the field I was struggling, consumed by darkness and a dangerous lack of self-love. At the time, I felt that admitting to my mental health suffering would be a sign of weakness. That’s why it took me two years to ask for help, and why I spent the Olympic year hiding my depression diagnosis from those around me.

Rugby player Nadia Popov was worried that admitting her mental health changes could impact her future with Canada's national team. (Submitted by Rugby Canada) Rugby player Nadia Popov was worried that admitting her mental health changes could impact her future with Canada's national team. (Submitted by Rugby Canada)

I was wearing a mask, and it was exhausting. When I opened up, my life changed for the better. To be honest, when I decided to share my mental illness experiences, I thought it would close some doors. I was adjusting to life after centralization — the full-time training environment for the Canadian women’s 7s rugby team. I had returned to school to finish my undergraduate degree, and wasn’t entirely sure whether my national rugby career was over or not.

While I knew it was important to talk about mental health, I didn’t know if the sports world was ready to see me the way I’d come to see myself: as a dedicated athlete, who happened to live with mental illness, but refused to let it stand in her way. Overcoming my mental health challenges made me a stronger and more resilient person, not to mention a markedly better athlete. But I also knew that I was taking a risk, and that stigma could very well impact my chances at being selected to compete for Canada in the future.


Falling short of my Olympic dream was tough, and I admit that I needed space to heal from that heartbreak. But I didn’t feel ready to hang up my rugby boots just yet, and I was considering making the switch back to 15s rugby. In Canada, our 7s and 15s teams operate on different training models.


'Coming together'

As an Olympic sport, 7s players are contracted to train full time, whereas our 15s athletes train independently across Canada, coming together a few times a year for camps and international test matches. Most 15s players juggle careers or school with their training commitments, meaning I could continue pursuing my academic goals and ensure I was setting myself up for a career after rugby.

The year after the Olympics, I returned to Queen’s University, dusted off my textbooks, and focused on getting into medical school. I also spent time discovering who I was outside of sport, and finding meaning in life as an elite athlete. Sharing my story of depression became a stepping stone to turning my darkest moments into something that could help others.

I wanted to go beyond just talking about mental health, and I looked for ways to help change the way we see mental health in everyday life. This summer, I was fortunate enough to earn a research internship at one of the best children’s rehabilitation hospitals in the country. I worked on an incredible research team that is investigating strategies to promote mental health and well-being in parents of kids with disabilities. When I’m in Kingston, Ont., for school, I volunteer with the adult mental health programs at our local hospital. I’ve learned more from these experiences than I ever could have in a classroom or from textbooks.


Becoming involved in the field of mental health is both deeply rewarding and personally challenging. It’s difficult to come face to face with just how little support there is for people struggling with mental illness. We have a long way to go in realizing a world where physical and mental health achieves equal consideration. The same challenges we face in eliminating the stigma of mental health in sport exist in all facets of society. It’s made me realize just how connected we all are. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate.


'Healthy and happy'

Even when things get tough, I am grateful for the life experiences in sport that have led me here. The skills I learned to take care of my mental health in sport have also kept me healthy and happy through the outset of an emotionally taxing career. Playing for my university team while furthering my education gave me the environment I needed to fall in love with rugby again. I wouldn’t still be playing if it weren’t for my incredible teammates and coaches at Queen’s University who showed me how to find joy in sport once more.

Popov's struggles have made her stronger. (Getty Images) Popov's struggles have made her stronger. (Getty Images)

Taking these steps to build a fulfilling life has benefitted my performance on the rugby field enormously. Less than a year after my first Player’s Own Voice article came out, I got the call I thought might never come. After a snowy university national championships, I was selected to compete for the Canadian 15s team in a three-game series against England. I found my passion for rugby again, and got another opportunity to play for my country. Wearing the Maple Leaf over my chest is an honour I will always be grateful for, and I cherish every moment on the rugby field with such inspiring, powerful, trailblazing women.

Getting back into the Canada jersey has reignited my passion for competing at the highest level of our sport. Contributing to mental health research and volunteering with people in my community who rely on under-funded mental health services makes me feel like my darkest moments were all worth it. All of these doors opened to me when I made the decision to speak out and share my truth. I’m a better person and athlete because of it.


I am not an Olympian. I do not own an Olympic bronze medal like my former 7s teammates. But I have found new meaning and purpose from my darkest hours in sport. Experiencing mental health challenges has made me stronger, more resilient, and more determined than ever to make sure no one feels alone in their struggles the way I once did. These experiences made me who I am. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

(Large photos submitted by Nadia Popov)

The Nadia Popov edition

Q: The best book you've ever read? 
A: The Poisonwood Bible.

Q: Must-listen Podcast? 
A: Sincerely, X (and Player's Own Voice the podcast obviously!)

Q: Best advice you ever received? 
A: Whatever path you choose is the right one, because you're on it.

Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called? 
A: Life has other plans.

Q: What word or phrase do you over use? 
A: Super cool.

Q: What is a skill you wish you had? 
A: Napping! I can't fall asleep unless it's going to be a full night's sleep.

Q: What's something no one would guess about you? 
A: I am obsessed with scented candles.

Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the six people you'd invite? 
A: Michelle Obama, Ben Howard, Clara Hughes, Tegan and Sara, my roommate Ryan Dawson.

Q: What makes you cry, every time? 
A: Saying goodbye at the airport.

Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish? 
A: Getting into medical school.

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