With two Olympic Championships, countless World Cup victories, and limitless admiration from Poland and beyond, Justyna Kowalczyck has led a remarkable life, but even the most remarkable people can suffer from mental illness regardless of the number of podiums they’ve achieved.
The multiple Tour de Ski victor revealed to Polish news organization, Sport.pl, on June 4th that she has been battling severe depression for over a year. The acclaimed skier also suffered a mental breakdown in May of 2013 as a result of a miscarriage at the time.
Throughout the past year she has dealt with constant nausea, fainting spells, fevers over 104 degrees, anxiety, and many sleepless nights. Despite many attempts to quell the effects of her depression, including the use of medication, Kowalczyk has yet to find relief.
The news came as a shock to many of Kowalczyk’s fans as it had appeared that the 31-year-old exhibited a successful season, especially after garnering her second Olympic victory.
The lack of the ski community’s knowledge involving her condition was not due ignorance or lack of interest. Kowalczyk worked to keep her depression and miscarriage a secret during the 2013/2014 season due to concerns of the stigma surrounding depression and the fact that it was an Olympic year.
“During all this bad time [I was] trying to keep up appearances. Because I was told that [it was] the right thing to do. I pretended to be normal,” said Kowalczyk in her interview with Sport.pl.
However, this spring Kowalczyk decided that she was done hiding her illness, as she was “tired of pretending and lies.” Her motivation behind the public announcement came both from a personal desire to stop burying the truth, but also to help eliminate the negative connotation surrounding mental illness.
“This is also one of the reasons why I decided to tell my story. Because public perception is that depression was a shame… Athlete does not [have] the right to such weakness… Many people see in me a strong girl. They tell me sometimes that [I am] the strongest girl in Poland. If the strongest benefits from the help of specialists, it can and someone else breaks through the shame and benefit either dump the mask and to cleanse,” she said.
Although she contemplated retirement, Kowalczyk has decided to continue skiing in the 2014/2015 season because she believes that training will help fight her depression. The skier hopes that the constant exercise will support her mental health.
“It’s not for a great love of the sport that I’m returning… I’m returning to fight for myself.”