06 May 2020
Lifeline saved Erik Horrie. In its own, less dramatic, way, sport rescued him, too.
Horrie’s is a remarkable story. Domestic violence and abuse left him a ward of the state at the age of seven. He became a paraplegic after a motor vehicle accident 14 years later, just before his first child was born. Almost lost his life, and his family. Won back the latter, as well as two Paralympic rowing silver medals and five world championships.
Found out which prize really mattered.
Horrie was one of the original AIS Lifeline Community Custodians in 2019, and has returned as one of 21 athletes to sign on for year two. For Horrie, the national charity providing Australians with 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services is uniquely close to a heart that almost stopped beating in 2015.
“Lifeline helped me out when I was in sort of the darkest moments in my life a few years back and they recognised that and were able to ring the ambulance and the ambulance came and picked me up and admitted me into hospital,’’ recalls Horrie, who sees now that his behaviour had driven away his wife Michelle and cost him access to his three young children.
“I had become an athlete in a tunnel and was just focusing on that gold medal, and it actually cost me everything. So I guess since working with Lifeline and stuff like that, it's made me realise that chasing that gold medal for me is important, but the family will always be there and I've got to make sure that I look after both sides.
“And I want to show people that I might be an athlete and I might be winning gold medals, getting world records, but I'm no different. One of the biggest things is we’re put on a pedestal as an athlete; especially if you're winning gold medals and representing your country, you're supposed to be something special.
“But I go through the same ups and downs as any normal person, and I think the Lifeline Community Custodians program is something that gets out there and really shows a community that athletes are no different. We have our good times. We have our bad times. The biggest part is that we try to hide the bad times a lot more.’’
Horrie’s message: pretend no longer. Speak up. Suffering in silence is not strength. Asking for help is normal. It’s also the most courageous choice.
“There's so many different people that can help and that's one great thing about Australian sport, with the AIS, is that the mental health aspect is actually a very large factor now throughout all sports,’’ says Horrie.
“It's not just about how much weight you can lift or how fast you can go. The mental side is a big factor in that gold medal, as well.’’
Horrie is helping to raise $5 million through the Lifeline National Emergency Appeal, with calls to the organisation up by 25-30% as a result of both the coronavirus pandemic and the summer bushfires.
His post-sporting ambition is to work with the troubled younger members of society. Horrie has studied youth work and learnt from experience that, when assistance meets determination, terrible circumstances can be overcome. “You don't have to become a number.’’
Indeed, the 40-year-old theorises that his stubbornness, determination and, well, “mongrel”, are products of a challenging childhood spent in foster care and Boys Homes. The thought of being told he can’t do something is what drives him through pain, and Horrie wonders if he would be the athlete he is without it.
What he is certain about is the role his ever-supportive wife Michelle has played in his success, and it will be a family decision if - assuming he qualifies for the postponed Tokyo Olympics and, perhaps, still fails to clinch that elusive gold medal - there is any prospect of a fourth Games in 2024.
Regardless, sport has already been a saviour, Horrie able to remember every moment of his car accident and vouch for the fact that time really can stand still. He also vividly recalls the moment doctors delivered the news that a young father who did not know anyone with a disability would never walk again.
“It all got taken away with just a couple of words and I was just went into a dark hole, and it took a while to get out of that dark hole as far as not knowing what my life was going to be,’’ he says. “I think sport was the biggest part that most probably pulled me out of that area - seeing other people in my situation.’’
A lifeline grasped. Others being offered. Always. Still.
Erik is also featured in Lifeline’s Holding on to Hope podcast series.
To listen to his story, visit www.lifeline.org.au/podcast or search ‘Holding on to Hope’ wherever you get your podcasts.