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Aussies Adrift

Mar 10, 2014  - Casey Barrett

They’re the two greatest freestylers of their generation, possibly the two greatest in history. They own sixteen Olympic medals between them, eight of them gold. They did it all as athletes, and they always came across as two of the nicest, smartest guys in the sport.

Now, in retirement, it appears the wheels have come off.

Earlier this month, Ian Thorpe was found drunk and disoriented on the streets of Sydney early one Monday morning. He was admitted to rehab soon after. While his managers have denied that Thorpe is suffering from alcoholism and depression, he has admitted to both demons in the past.

Earlier this week, Grant Hackett was also spotted in the wee hours one morning without his wits about him. After losing his four-year-old son Jagger in the Crown Casino hotel in Melbourne, Hackett was seen wandering the hotel lobby almost naked, shoeless, wearing only a singlet. Fortunately, his boy was subsequently found on the 20th floor of the hotel, 14 levels above the apartment where Hackett and his children were staying. Days later, Hackett was bound for Los Angeles, where he too checked into rehab. His managers also played down a problem, but reports are that a dependence to the sleeping pill Stilnox (aka Ambien) is to blame.

What’s going on with these guys? When did their glory-filled lives begin to crack? Why can’t these icons keep it together?

Let’s take a look at Thorpe first. Always the most eloquent of champions, Thorpe published an autobiography last year that laid bare his struggles with depression, and the “artificial ways” he sought to manage his reeling feelings. He hung up his goggles young, in 2006, when he was 24. But he actually stepped away sooner than that, when he was just 21, after the 2004 Athens Olympics. By that point he was already his country’s most decorated Olympian, and he’d been the best freestyler on earth since he was 15 years old. A comeback in the lead-up to London didn’t take.

He grew up fast, and he grew up tortured. His sexuality was questioned since his earliest interviews. When he affirmed his heterosexuality, on camera and in writing, many refused to believe him. Not that it was anyone’s business either way. Perhaps he was struggling to figure it out himself, as many teenagers do. Only he had to face these inner questions while his country’s media analyzed his every move, questioning every fashion choice.

Faced with these circumstances, coupled with the yawning abyss of retirement, perhaps it’s not so surprising that Thorpe sought solace in bottles and pills.

What happened with Hackett? Well, a bad marriage for one. In May 2012, Hackett faced the public indignity of an imploding marriage splashed across the tabloids. There was a fight with his then wife Candace Alley at their home. It was a bad one, featuring punched in walls, smashed pictures, and an overturned grand piano. A grim scene; alcohol played its usual role.

Then there were the sleeping pills. We know it as Ambien stateside; in Australia it’s called Stilnox. It knocks you right out, wakes you up hangover free. The perfect drug for the sleepless stress of international competitions. Reports from Australia confirm that use of Stilnox is rampant among athletes. After an Olympic final, a podium, a drug-test, with more events to come early the next morning, these sleeping aids can be invaluable. A current member of the US National Team confirmed that they’re just as prevalent among swimmers on Team USA. While the American team doctor can no longer supply them to athletes, it’s well known that many swimmers come packing prescriptions of their own.

Though a good night’s rest surely enhances performance (just take a look at those Holiday Inn Express commercials!), these drugs are perfectly legal, and make total sense during a high stress competition.

They can also be abused. Ambien can make sure you get a good night’s rest, no question, but it can also give you quite a fine high if you can keep your eyes open. Swimmers aren’t the most teetotaling lot. There’s a certain inherent attraction to the extremes among many in our tribe. Is it so surprising that substance abuse sometimes springs up and fills the gap left by retirement?

Struggles with identity, marital wreckage, the slippery slope of pill popping, these are standard ailments in rehab. They’re three of the top ranked issues that land you there. This is why rehab centers exist, not just to get you ‘clean’, but to help you discover what led to the abuse in the first place.

As athletes, Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett were abnormal in every way. In the pool, they were supermen, specimens that shattered our sense of the possible. On land, in retirement, they’re all too human. Fighting the good fight against the ugly madness of life…