I was a national swimmer who battled anxiety and depression

By Roanne Ho and Hoe I Yune, May 23, 2019

At 26, Roanne Ho’s already a national record holder and Asian Games medallist. Just as it seems she’s destined to achieve even more in the swimming scene, Roanne announced her retirement.

This decision came as a surprise to many. After all, she loves swimming and excelled at it. But not many people know that behind the victories was a girl struggling with depression and crippled by anxiety.

This is her story.

* * * *

Hi there, my name is Roanne.

I was a national swimmer representing Singapore, up until I retired in February 2019.

Arriving at this decision was difficult. I was aware that I had more to give and could do better as a swimmer. Yet, a bigger part of me knew that my heart wasn’t in it anymore.

I started swimming competitively when I was eight. As an athlete, we’re taught to be strong — both physically and mentally. We are told that at the starting line, it doesn’t come down to who trained harder, but who wants it more.

I have always pushed myself mentally and physically. Within the swimming community, I’ve been dubbed the “comeback queen”. It started when I took three years off competitive swimming to focus on my university studies, before deciding to return to compete again. This is almost unheard of.

Most athletes juggle swimming and university or quit entirely, never looking back.

I was 20 and had just graduated from university. I had set my mind on entering the workforce but my dad suggested that I give swimming a second shot. It was 2013 — the 2015 SEA Games would be held in Singapore for the first time since 1993. I previously competed in the 2009 edition and snagged a Gold and Silver. But to achieve this on home soil? It’s a rare opportunity and a huge deal to any athlete. I couldn’t pass this on.

I went on to win the gold medal in the 50m breaststroke. This was a boost of confidence for me and a great way to initiate my comeback to the sporting scene.

On top of it all, coming in first place led to a scholarship offer from SportSG, the government sports agency under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

With everything seemingly going well, I forwent my initial plan to quit after the SEA Games and dived right back into professional swimming.

2016 Rio Olympics qualifying rounds 

Six months away from the qualifying rounds, I started dedicating about 25 to 30 hours a week to training. I also had to attend physiotherapy sessions and meetings with nutritionists regularly.

Perhaps it was the long hours. Perhaps it was the pressure to win. I’m not quite sure why exactly but it was around this time where I started to feel...off. I think when I first started to feel a little down, I’d push the feelings aside, assuming it was normal.

Then it reached the point when I would cry whenever I was alone in my room. And whenever I was driving to training, I secretly wished to be rammed by a truck, so that I could die. 

One day, my mother walked in on me sobbing. My parents were worried and they informed my coaches. My coaches handled it as well as they could have. I wasn’t the first athlete dealing with depression, so they knew to give me time and space before suggesting that I see a psychologist. I was reluctant.

I thought psychologists were for people who were mentally and emotionally weak. I felt that seeing one would’ve been an admission of weakness and I was afraid of being judged or be seen as someone who was seeking attention. As an athlete, I felt like I needed to be strong all the time since we are expected to achieve what most people can’t.

Most of all, I felt that given time, I would be able to get over this.

Shortly after, I was scheduled to attend a training camp with my teammates in the US. My parents objected to the trip. They wanted me to focus on my wellbeing but I argued that a change of environment would do me good. I’ve always been stubborn and want to prove people wrong when they tell me not to do something.

Throughout the training camp in the US, I battled a persistent cough. I thought that it was just a cough only to find out that it wasn’t quite as simple when I returned to Singapore after one month. The “cough” was because 80 per cent of my right lung had collapsed. The doctors said that there was no way I would be able to recover in time to compete in the Olympic qualifiers.

The news devastated me.

Recovering from injuries

All I could think about was how I wouldn’t be able to compete for the Olympics.

It barely registered when the doctors said I was at risk of cardiac arrest and that I was lucky to even be alive.

Apart from having to deal with the setback of missing the competition, the road to recovery was emotionally taxing. I wasn’t allowed to do any form of physical exercise that would split my stitches or overexert my lungs. All I could do was walk and it frustrated me. It also didn’t help that I went on to injure my shoulder and had to go for another round of surgery. It took me the rest of the year to recover.

Retiring after two surgical injuries sounded rational but I wasn’t ready to settle for rational. After all, I was the comeback queen. The SEA Games qualifiers was coming up and surely I could come back from these injuries and go on to do better, I thought.

Two months away from the games, my results were sub-par and the thought of quitting crossed my mind. The thing is, sports are clear-cut — you’re timed and ranked. It was demoralising to see my timing not improve. I didn’t want to fall short of what I was once able to achieve. I didn’t want to lose.

My mind was full of noise. Was I wasting my time? Should I pull out before it’s too late?

I really wanted to quit but decided it would’ve been too selfish to do so. While I know my parents and my coaches would have wanted me to do what I felt was best for myself, I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I felt like I had to go on.

Emotionally, I was a mess. When I got to the SEA Games in Malaysia, I cried in between heats and finals. At night, I’d use my blanket to mask my sobs because I didn’t want to disturb my roommate. 

Luckily, when I was in the pool, I managed to block it all out, focus, and went on to win a gold medal. Coming in first place boosted my self-esteem and I would feel as if I was on track again.

I even told reporters that I would be back even stronger. I ended 2017 on a strong note — I broke two national records seven times in the span of three weeks. Everything was looking good and it seemed as if I was getting back into my groove.

But my emotions were like a pendulum, oscillating between extreme elation and extreme misery. Each time I won a medal, it gave me a jab of hope. When I wasn’t winning medals, I felt the slump come on again.

What I previously told reporters — about two surgeries being not a problem and how I could be so much better without injuries — came back to haunt me. I thought to myself: everyone was going to expect me to perform better and I’ll have no excuse not to.

I couldn’t sleep for months. Without sleeping pills, I caught about 45 minutes to 2.5 hours of shut eye. 3 hours tops.

I was finally convinced to see a psychologist.

The first few sessions were weird because it was strange talking about your struggles and insecurities with a stranger. I was also paranoid that perhaps I had a deep-rooted issue that made me feel and think this way. My psychologist suggested that I might have anxiety on top of depression but I laughed it off.

I was resistant to labels because of the stigma attached to them. I kept telling myself that if I was capable of “normal” emotions and sleep patterns before, I was definitely capable of it again. At this point in time, I stopped visiting the psychologist as I felt that I could cope by myself. I tried to pick myself up and keep going. I would remind myself that I was sent to swimming competitions on taxpayer’s money and I must not abuse the privilege by completely throwing in the towel.

It felt like a sense of duty to keep going. I felt a sense of duty to win.

My coach and I

My coach and I

I’m normally quite laid back but I do get competitive when it’s something I’m good at or when I know that it’s possible for me to achieve something. Since I was a child, I’ve been told that I had a natural talent for swimming. So the results came quite easily but because I would usually win, I felt like there was that expectation on me to never lose. I didn’t want my “image” to be tainted.

My dad bringing me into 
the pool for the first time

My dad bringing me into 
the pool for the first time

Still, try as I might, I couldn’t always control the tears. One day, I cried from warm-up all the way till the end of practice. My coaches asked me what was wrong. All I could say was "I don't know. I just don't want to be here".

My coaches persuaded me to see my psychologist again. I swallowed my pride and scheduled regular sessions for a few months. Talking through my thought process with someone that I trust really helped. It made me realise how irrational my thoughts were and it taught me coping mechanisms that enables me to pull the brakes before my mind takes me to a place of complete despair.

Even though the depression and anxiety were still there, I started to sleep better.

I was competing in Jakarta when I came down with the worst bout of food poisoning that I’ve experienced in my entire life. I persevered and made it through to the finals. I felt thankful. In the reporting room before the finals, I told myself not to expect too much. All I had to do was give it my best and no one would be able to fault me for it — even if I come in last.

That was when it all hit me.

I had been basing my self-worth against external benchmarks. Not hitting my goals made me feel like a complete failure. I realised how silly I was.

So what if I became the best? Would that completely absolve me of my personal issues? Why hold myself to medal counts and timings on a scoreboard?

I’m so much more than that.

Winning medals or beating records won’t help me conquer my inner demons because it is in human nature to always want more. I should not be tying my self-worth to these.

Instantly, I felt better.

I emerged in second place, far better than what I had expected. I didn’t go under 31s (which had been my personal goal for the longest time) but I no longer cared.

In hindsight, I felt silly for putting myself through all that mental torture just for the medal. I’m not saying that it doesn’t mean much to me anymore but I have come to realise that the mental and emotional agony I put myself through for the sake of a piece of metal wasn’t worth it.

That night, I barely slept, but for different reasons. I started to think about my journey — how much I had to go through and how much I put myself through. All that pressure was never from anyone else but me.

I started to wonder why we tend to be so hard on ourselves. Is it because we know that we CAN be or that we ARE better? I started to wonder how I would have reacted if my friend told me she was in the same situation that I was in. Would I think of her as a failure? I wouldn't. Far from it, in fact.

So why did I think of myself that way? Why did I attach my self-worth to my achievements?

I am more than a grade.
I am more than a statistic.
I am more than a timing on a scoreboard.
I am more than a title or a medal.

I am enough. My strongest opponent is myself and I have no need to prove anything to anybody.

I shared my thoughts and reflections on social media. I thought perhaps only a handful of people would be able to relate to my journey but my post was shared almost 700 times on Facebook.

That’s when I realised that I wasn’t alone. I received a lot of private messages, thanking me for sharing and telling me that they were glad that they weren't alone.

"That's right", I thought to myself. You are not alone, I am not alone, none of us are alone. Just because we feel so, it doesn't mean that we are.

I am not saying that I am free from depression or anxiety. I still have my bad days. But now, I know that as long as I try my hardest, to the best of my ability, no one can fault that. And I hope that you know this too, if you are struggling.

Writer’s note: 
Roanne’s a Dayrean but wishes to keep her account private.

She’s currently on a six-month traineeship to become a business analyst at a management consultancy company. She recently participated as a coach on Johnson & Johnson’s Human Performance Institute programme and has been giving talks in schools to help fight the stigma attached to depression and anxiety.

Photos provided by Roanne Ho.

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