Ian Thorpe – how a mentor could show him the way out of depression’s darkest waters

16 April 2024, Tuesday

blog on BizNews about Australian Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe going into rehab for depression recently,  raised the question: can depression ever be beaten? Human brand specialist, brand wellness consultant, educator and author Robert Opie argues that just like Everest, depression can never be truly “beaten”. The mentally healthy trick, he says, is to conquer – to work with the mountain, not against it. A good mentor could help to lead the way with a good game plan. MS

By Robert Opie

The very nature of a world champion’s job increases the risk of imbalance, or an unbalanced perspective on life that leads to a state of “dis-ease”. Depression is just one symptom.

Thorpe made one glaring mistake common to great sporting champions:  he surrounded himself with coaches, but few or no mentors. Mentors are those who have gone before, who have their charge’s best interests at heart. They can guide champions and ensure that their “game plans” are “made of the right stuff ”, as they move from good to great to greater.

Most important of all, mentors are often best placed to restore balance and paint the bigger picture of life – that life is indeed bigger than sport.

But just what is the medically labelled condition called depression?  The World Health Organization defines depression as “a common mental disorder, characterised by sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt, low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, feelings of tiredness, and poor concentration” – quite a mouthful for anyone to swallow.

In reality, depression is just a medical label for “a state of long-term imbalance”, most often unwittingly created through lack of awareness, and a game plan crammed with  “the wrong stuff”.

It happens at various times, most commonly mid-way through life; for sporting geniuses, it can come earlier, especially when they have to retire from active participation in their beloved sport. They feel loss, pain, a sense of futility, depression.

Learn to ‘play it right’

The antidote is a reality check on life and refining one’s game plan.That may be easier said than done, when your job has been to be a world champion. But in the words of US country music songwriter Don Schlitz in The Gambler: “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.”

So, what’s the solution for Thorpe? Firstly, to find a mentor who can guide him through the highs and lows of being a world champion once and now an ex; and help him recognise that true clinical depression, like Everest, can’t be beaten. True champions know that while you may feel like you’ve conquered the mountain, you have to work with, not against, it. That requires a high-level game plan made of the right stuff, and understanding that depression is a universal message, a wake-up call  for more balance, purpose and authenticity in life.

In Thorpe’s case, the imbalance is likely to have been driven primarily by relentless and unrealistic goal setting and expectations, creating a state of “dis-ease”, that is imbalance.

A mentor could point out to Thorpe the advantages that at the age of 32, the long hours of obsessive dedication in the pool that were the first half of his game plan are over; that the second half now begins, and it is calling for more balance.

That requires three things:

  • Authenticity – the power of purpose. The Greeks said: Know oneself; Be oneself; Love oneself!
  • Simplicity  – the power of focus on what is truly important in life.
  • Synchronicity – the power of balance,  being in sync with self and the universe, that  requires realistic and aligned goal setting.

Thorpe only needs to tweak a few strategies and perceptions about life. He has a great story to tell and live.  The great champions are all great entertainers, educators and inspirers. He can learn to work with his depression to gain a more balanced perspective that will help him to bounce back to an inspired life of ease.  He needs to become mindful and realistic, and understand that like the rest of us, he lives in a two-sided, well-balanced universe. Every time we create imbalance, the universe eventually guides us back to a state of balance.

Sport teaches us this very point about balance: winning and losing ,  success and failure are but two sides of the same coin.

Ian Thorpe can  pat himself on the back for an extraordinary first half,  and realize that a carefully planned second half made of the right stuff  , will bring further success, and just importantly further significance.



After all, as Rudyward Kipling said: “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds of distance ran, yours is the earth and everything that’s in it.