Kieran Perkins’ Olympic gold is the stuff of legends, but for the other Aussie that day, Daniel Kowalski, it started his spiral into depression.
Kieran Perkins’ Olympic gold is the stuff of legends, but for the other Aussie that day, Daniel Kowalski, it started his spiral into depression.

Phone call that forced Olympian to come out

For Australians, Kieran Perkins' gold medal from lane eight in the 1500m at Atlanta in 1996 is the stuff of legends.

It's the race that a hero was born.

Already an Olympic champion, Perkins' victory was one for the underdogs as he broke the 15-minute mark. The man with the easy smile stunned everyone.

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But for the other Aussie that night, Daniel Kowalski, it was the day that started his spiral into depression.

In the lead up to the Tokyo Games, Kowalski has spoken candidly to Yahoo Sport Australia for a new series.

"Going into the last day and the 1500m final - the one event that I really wanted to win - I was in lane four and Kieren Perkins was in lane eight and I was absolutely petrified," Kowalski told Yahoo Sport Australia.

"I didn't want to be there. I wanted to be that nine-year-old kid in my lounge room watching because that's when it was fun and innocent and I had dreams. I was beyond scared.

"To come away with a silver medal was a massive failure and massive disappointment."

For most, winning a medal would have been enough.

In fact, he broke history by becoming the first man in almost a century to win medals in the 200, 400 and 1500m freestyle events at the same Games.

But it wasn't enough for Kowalski.

Daniel Kowalski after winning freestyle 4 x 200m relay race at the World Swimming Championships in Perth 13 Jan 1998.
Daniel Kowalski after winning freestyle 4 x 200m relay race at the World Swimming Championships in Perth 13 Jan 1998.

The middle and long-distance swimmer dreamt of taking home gold, yet left with memories of heartbreak.

He would suffer from depression and bulimia in the period immediately after the 1996 Games.

"It led to such a dark period for a while after I got home from the Games because you shouldn't be disappointed or feel like you failed because you won three individual medals at the Olympics," Kowalski said.

"The period after the 1996 Olympics was a really difficult time because I knew my opportunity had passed.

"I didn't have anything else going on in my life. I was just a swimmer and that was my one identity.

"I left Melbourne and moved to the AIS in Canberra which is really when a lot of the demons started to kick in.

"I started to develop a lot of issues with my body image and how I viewed myself. I became extremely bulimic, would binge eat and purge and there were a lot of dark times where I felt it would be a lot easier to not be around.

"I thought long and hard about 'how do I end my life'. I never confided in anyone about how I was feeling, what my actions were.

"I was very good at putting on a front and a facade that everything was going great and I think that's one of the scary things about mental health is that people can disguise it. I did a very good job of it."

A gold medal eventually came.

He was part of Australia's team that won the 4x200m relay in Sydney.

Ian Thorpe and Daniel Kowalski on pool deck at the 2015 Australian Swimming Championships at Homebush Aquatic Center.
Ian Thorpe and Daniel Kowalski on pool deck at the 2015 Australian Swimming Championships at Homebush Aquatic Center.

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Yet, later in life he would have to deal with the trauma of having his sexual preference used against him.

Kowalski revealed that he told his family and friends that he was gay in 2005, but chose not to share that information with the public.

But five years later, the Olympic great felt the need to go public as various media publications threatened to break the news

"I started receiving calls from a number of publications saying that they were going to 'out' me," Kowalski said.

"I really felt as though a part of me was being taken away and robbed from me, so I decided to take matters into my own hands and chose to come out publicly and did it on my own terms."

Kowalski isn't the only famous Olympic swimmer who didn't feel comfortable in sharing his sexual preference with the public.

His former teammate Ian Thorpe is another who took years before he announced he was gay.

It's a conversation that has thankfully changed, but unfortunately still has a stigma attached to it.

But Kowalski has one of his most important roles to place ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Games where he is the Olympian Services Manager for the Australia Olympic Committee which helps athletes make the difficult transition to everyday life after retirement.

His message to fellow Olympians: "I would tell myself that people aren't going to love me any more if I win a gold medal at the Olympics. People are going to love me probably more if I'm true to myself and accept who I am as a gay man.

"They're the things I beat myself up about the most - I failed at the Olympics and it's embarrassing to be a gay man."

 

Originally published as Phone call that forced Olympian to come out


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