Saturday, 24 September 2011
Geoff Huegill Opens Up About Drug Use And Partying While Retired
Below is an extract from Geoff Huegill's new book Be Your Best. It shines a light on the oft-overlooked struggle that elite athletes face when they go from being one of the best in the world in their chosen sport, to being just another person trying to make a living.
"I made the final in Athens on talent alone, and people were justifiably upset with me. I just didn't know where to go at the time. I carried a fear of failure that prevented me from giving my all. It had been too hard to refocus after Sydney, and I was only going through the motions in the lead-up to Athens.
Competitive swimming was still in my blood, but I was clearly losing motivation and was completely unable to make the transition to a productive life outside the pool.
Pretty soon after Athens everything seemed to fall apart, and that next year, 2005, would be a total waste of time.
If I was going to stay in swimming and move from Queensland, the only two coaches I wanted to work with were Grant Stoelwinder and Jim Fowlie, but neither of them was available . . . this added to my uncertainty, but I decided to come down to Sydney anyway.
In Sydney, there was a lot of partying going on and swimming wasn’t my main priority. I’d train for two or three weeks, often with the guys at Sydney University, then I’d have a month off. I couldn’t go on like that. The writing was on the wall and I finally called it quits . . . I was 26.
I was still doing some sponsorship activities, but I almost started to see myself becoming a glorified promotional model. There wasn’t much substance to some of the publicity gigs I was asked to do . . . just a logo, a photographer and a smile. As long as my name was still being mentioned there was the possibility of an income, but with every new Games there’s a new crop of star athletes.
I was living pretty fast and needed the income, but at the same time I couldn’t help thinking there’s got to be a better way than just turning up and smiling for the camera. I always tried to be professional, but I felt some of this work completely lacked soul.
It didn’t take long for me to hit rock bottom.
By 2005, my party life had given me a drinking problem, financial worries, and I was experiencing depression. I also started having suicidal thoughts.
If I wasn’t catching up on a lifetime of sleep in 2005, I was either drunk or off my face, partying away what little money I had left. I had no direction or goal in life. I was ruining the reputation I had worked for in the pool and was letting down my friends and the few remaining sponsors I had.
I started to resent swimming: it had taken over my life, demanded all these sacrifices and left me with nothing. I hated myself and there were times when I thought I should just take the easy way out.
I thought I might be able to improve things by travelling overseas, so I formed a plan: I would compete in the Commonwealth Games trials in March 2006, and if I didn’t qualify I’d go overseas in April.
I left Australia and travelled up through Asia, spending some time with Mum’s family in Thailand. I eventually made my way over to Europe . . . travelling as a member of a swimming team had been highly regimented. Unlike touring as a representative footballer or cricketer, there’s a total ban on alcohol and you rarely tasted the local food or saw the sights.
I wanted to go back to some of these places and enjoy what they really had to offer, including the food, which is one of the joys of travel.
I love how food brings people together and I sure had a knack for over-indulging. I was already becoming overweight and starting to get comments from punters in the street as well as from the media when they spotted me.
At 188cm and approaching 130kg, I wasn’t hard to spot. I was eating and drinking to mask my depression, but it was just a joke to some people . . . I travelled widely and had a good time, at least for as long as the money lasted.
I enjoyed being away, but I can’t say it made me feel more at home in the world. When I came home after less than a year in early 2007, I still wasn’t in a good place. I remained trapped because I was so ineffective in my life outside the pool.
The usual cycles kicked in again . . . plenty of alcohol and party drugs. I was arriving home from clubbing at 4am, the hour I used to be getting up and training.
I now had debt collectors to deal with. I’d eat out for most lunches and dinners, and was grazing constantly throughout the day. My weight was a burden. I’d returned home 45kg heavier than my 90kg swimming weight, with a waist measurement of 111cm.
I’d beat myself up because I wasn’t achieving anything, then I’d write myself off to try to block those depressive thoughts, then I’d have to deal with the consequences of writing myself off spending money I didn’t have, behaving badly, letting people down and burning bridges with friends. I was in a downward spiral and powerless to do anything about it.
When it comes to putting on the swimmers and goggles and racing someone from one end of the pool to the other, I’m your man . . . I’ve been one of the best in the world.
How could I be so good in one area of my life and yet be in shambles in the rest? I struggled with relationships, self-image, and trying to produce an income. I struggled to put a simple structure together to let me function in the real world, and I spent a lot of time beating myself up, trying to comfort myself in unhealthy ways.
The years of serious swimming had hardwired me to a complete system, structured to provide immediate feedback to my every action and performance. Virtually everything I did was evaluated.
My good performances were rewarded and praised. When I fell short, I was met with encouragement and suggestions for improvement . . . everything was calibrated and catered for, like living in a bubble.
But that’s not true of life in the real world, which is full of uncertainty and promises nothing. I was struggling with the transition. I was lost. I also began experiencing grief I’d suppressed about my dad. My training regime had always enabled me to set grief aside, but now I had nothing to hold it at bay. I had no idea how to manage myself at 12, and I wasn’t much better in my mid-20s. I discovered a lot of painful memories, and now I was getting to experience them as vividly as if they had happened yesterday.
I was also blaming everyone else for the poor choices I had made and for all the painful circumstances that were beyond anyone’s control. I thought the world owed me something, including a living, in return for all the sacrifices I’d made. I even blamed the world for my dad dying, leaving me to grow up in a family that wasn’t my own. I carried a huge chip on my shoulder. It may not have been the model of a traditional family, but I had their support, my coach, the squad and the wider community. Self-pity blinded me to that."