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How Olympian Silken Laumann conquered her rage

Rower, who will take part in Sunday's Ride Don't Hide event, tells of her mental health transformation
Silken Laumann
Silken Laumann will lead off the 50-kilometre bike ride at 8 a.m. Sunday from Windsor Park as part of the Canadian Mental Health Association's seventh annual Ride Don't Hide event to put an end to the stigma around mental health and raise money for mental-health programs. Olympic cyclist Gillian Carleton will join the ride.

Olympic rower Silken Laumann says her mental health crisis — when the inexplicable rage she felt toward her two young children forced her to call a friend for help — was the beginning of a long road to an amazing life.

“It’s been hugely transformative,” said Laumann, of the myriad ways she has grown and benefited after seeking help for depression and anxiety that was partly rooted in her own childhood trauma.

“I can’t imagine where I would have been had I not done the work,” said Laumann, who with Olympic cyclist Gillian Carleton will take part in the Canadian Mental Health Association’s seventh annual Ride Don’t Hide community cycling event on Sunday to shatter the stigma around mental health.

Laumann went through a divorce while raising her young children, had a career, and maintained a public life while burying the childhood trauma she suffered while being raised by a mother with an undiagnosed mental illness.

“I had no experience with counselling, self-care, self-reflection,” Laumann said.

“I had no idea why I was feeling these moments of rage with my kids … and an inability to cope and I thought: ‘What’s wrong with me? I have this great life. What’s wrong with me and why would I feel this way toward these beautiful creatures.’ ”

The rage had no source, she said.

“So one night when my kids were acting out as four-year-olds and six-year-olds do, I had this overwhelming desire to stop their screaming. I couldn’t cope so I walked outside the hotel room … and I called a friend,” Laumann said.

“I had no idea what it was but she called a counsellor and the counsellor called me, and that was my first step and first acknowledgment to saying I need help.”

Sadly, mental health issues are often forced to a crisis point before someone will reach out for help, said Laumann, citing a lack of education and resources around mental health.

“I am so passionate about this because look how long it took me as a capable intelligent person with a good support network to finally say ‘I need help,’ ” she said.

“I remember the self-consciousness and fear I had of changing public opinion of who I was and being defined in a singular way was a real concern to me because I am so many things, as we all are.”

Laumann’s Olympic story is legendary. As reigning world champion, she fought back through five operations from a devastating rowing accident during training and within 10 weeks went on to win a bronze medal in the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona.

“I have a vibrant career not only as an athlete but as a speaker, a writer and a blogger. I raise children and I work with charities and just have this super vibrant life, and having struggled and still struggling at times with depression and high levels of anxiety, it’s been just part of the story — part of my life,” Laumann said.

She first revealed her struggle publicly in her book Unsinkable: A Memoir, in 2014.

She is now aware of just how many other high-performance athletes, politicians, actors, people of all walks, struggle with mental health.

Laumann said her journey to happiness took years of hard work that included regular counselling and a whole-body — mental, physical, spiritual — approach.

“It’s given me a freedom in my life that is so affirming because I know myself so well now and love myself more deeply and have greater compassion and emotional intelligence,” she said.

She has remarried and is a mother to four children, ages 18 to 22.

Laumann, Carleton and others will be out cycling on Sunday to put help put an end to the stigma and misinformation around mental illness, said Jocelyn de Montmorency, program manager for the Victoria office of the Canadian Mental Health Association B.C. division.

More than 500 people are expected to take part in this year’s Ride Don’t Hide. About 350 riders participated last year, raising just over $82,000 to support local mental health programs.

The annual fundraiser is held in seven provinces in about 30 communities. This year, the Victoria goal is $100,000.

Local teams will include Real Dandy in memory of former Oak Bay firefighter and department chaplain Ken Gill, who died by suicide in March at age 58 after a depressive episode. A “real dandy” was an expression of Gill’s.

Oak Bay optometrist Neil Paterson, also public about his life with depression, will head a team of more than 100 called Shaggy and the Rat Traps. Paterson wants a team of at least 100 to celebrate CMHA’s 100 years as a national charity.

Cyclists who have a mental illness or support those who do are invited to take part, riding routes of seven, 18, 28, 50 or 100 kilometres, all departing from Windsor Park in Oak Bay.

The 100-kilometre pack leaves at 6:30 a.m., the 50-km group at 8 a.m., and the rest at 9 a.m. There’s also a five-kilometre walk.

The ride was born from a solo 18-month around-the-world cycling trip by Vancouver teacher Michael Schratter, who has bipolar disorder. Starting in 2010, he crossed six continents, including 33 countries, and traveled just over 40,000 kilometres.

His endeavour, dubbed “ride don’t hide,” raised about $100,000 for CMHA B.C.

The ride has since raised more than $6 million for mental health programs and services in local communities.

After the ride there will be a short program, with entertainment, prizes and wraps from Red Barn.

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