Steve Larkin / AAP News
A year ago, Elijah Winnington was spiralling into depression. The Australian swimmer was hottest of favourites to win the 400m freestyle gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. He finished seventh.
“I did feel like a failure,” Winnington told AAP.
“I was quite quickly spiralling towards depression for a few months post-Tokyo.
“It was a dream of mine. And if you snatch that away in an instant, you can imagine how that feels.”
Winnington, at the behest of his coach Dean Boxall, saw a psychologist before contemplating a return to the pool.
“You don’t want to come back damaged and then never be able to recover again,” Winnington said.
“You just have to look at those that maybe didn’t perform the way they wanted to at the Olympics and it’s a pretty high statistic that none of them really come back to anything great.
“It was incredibly hard because swimming is really what we live and breath as athletes.
“Everything in our life revolve s around it. So it’s very hard to then be able to detach your emotions from the performance side of things.”
Over months with the psychologist, nothing changed.
“It wasn’t quite working for me,” Winnington said.
Boxall changed tack, linking the swimmer who had collected 26 national age championship gold medals with a mindfulness coach, Glen Fisher.
The move saved Winnington as a swimmer and possibly as a person. The 22-year-old found joy again, in and out of the pool.
“We really went through a lot of processes … we call it noticing distractions,” he said of his sessions with Fisher.
“And these little distractions, whether they’re disappointments or whether they’re just negative thoughts or negative energy – we use the phrase that where your energy flows, your body will go.
“If you’re focusing on positive things and just enjoying it, your energy flows that way, that is where your body follows.
“I am definitely a work in progress and I have still got a long long way to go. My perfor mance coach (Fisher) likes to say to me that I am still just passing the beginner phase.”
Winnington went back to swimming and last month returned to international competition at the world championships in Budapest, where won the 400m freestyle gold medal.
“The biggest shift that I have made is being able to just find joy in the little experiences,” he said.
“I just went to world championships actually just trying to use it as a practice run to try and see how my body coped with just enjoying it.
“If you watched me walk out in the 400 freestyle, I’m looking around at this crazy big stadium … and I have just got this massive smile on my face because I was just enjoying that moment.
“I didn’t even really care about what was going to happen in the race and that is really where my performances flowed from.”
Winnington on Friday at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games will race the 400m freestyle.
Just like in Tokyo, he will again carry gold medal expectations.
“It’s probably going to be one of the biggest challenges I will have to face at the Commonwealth Games,” he said.
“It is very easy to say I will be relaxed and trying to enjoy the experience but that thought is always going to be in the back of your head.
“But that thought is just one of those distractions. And I now believe in my ability that I can overcome that sort of thing.”