I've only met you once, but you’ve inspired me more than any other athlete I've ever admired because you did so in the sport that I love, for the country I live in, and in the most amazing manner I cannot even put into words. You are truly a man I admire, and it showed when I met you, because I stumbled over my words and felt shaky just standing and shaking your hand. I have recently stepped back into the sport that I love and stepped foot on the wrestling mat. I do this not to compete, but to remind myself why I should never have stepped off the mat in the first place. It is a place where I forget what ails me, find so much pride in myself, and find purpose in constantly striving to do the best at whatever I love. Failure, in my mind, only happens if you give up and never start again. Wrestling is kind of a reflection of life, because our only true opponent is really, our own reflection.
From One Wrestler To Another
A Message To An Olympian
When I was young I went through very hard times within a very loving family. My mother became mentally ill with bipolar disorder and tried to kill herself, more than once actually. My dad, juggling taking care of a very sick woman who loved everyone else but just not herself it seemed, could only slightly rely on my older brother who could not be around as much for he was at the age where a new family of his own was blossoming. My father suffered the burden of being practically both parents to a child who just didn’t understand the madness, and a caregiver to a woman that could barely get out of bed at times. I was seven when the happiness in my household seemed to be smothered by sadness, when my mom’s mental health began to spiral out of control. By the time I was twelve I saved her from making the biggest mistake she ever purposely attempted. That was when I saved her from her third suicide attempt. When you’re faced with such adversity, you create questions that ultimately only you can truly answer. But it is through the guidance of the people that surround you and who you choose to keep in your life that help steer you to the right conclusions.
I was always smart, but troubled and it showed everywhere I went, especially at school. If I wasn’t drawing, or making beautiful colourings, I was always acting out in class, and very often I was confrontational. But then in 1996, when I was eleven, I met a man who would change my life. His name was Christopher Kelman, who I still like to call Mr. Kelman. He was my grade six teacher. As soon as he stepped foot into my class I was in awe, and I knew I wanted to be like this man when I became a man of my own. The way he carried himself with such confidence and passion was something I saw in my little statured self, yes little, even for an eleven year old. I just had trouble revealing such a quality. To this day he was the hardest teacher with the highest expectations I have ever had, and that is probably because his presence pushed me to work harder in school than I ever thought possible.
But that’s not the only thing Mr. Kelman brought into my life. Along with his knowledge, wisdom, and incredible humor in which even a child could relate, he introduced me to something I only thought was done with Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage inside of a boxing ring. In the fall of that school year he invited everyone in our class to come wrestle at a local high school. I eagerly accepted the offer, along with a handful of classmates, a few of which I’m still best friends with to this day. Though I was surprised to not see a ring, but instead wall-to-wall black and red wrestling mats, I immediately found the sport that I loved, and that I, within that round padded surface, was a natural.
From that point on I was a straight A student, and small wrestler that wanted to be the best, though I was never satisfied and I guess that’s why I never stopped pushing myself.
I wrestled my final year of elementary school and in my second tournament I achieved my first gold medal. That moment, to this day, was one of the happiest moments of my life. By my second year of wrestling I was awarded a bronze medal at the Ontario Championships, and by my third I was fourth in the country at my weight class.
Into high school I continued my education maintaining honours, and working to be the best I could be throughout the constant wrestling tournaments I took part in that always started with the seven wrestling practices a week I always looked forward to. Practicing and perfecting a sport that to me feels more like an art was one of my favorite things to do. Though, as high school continued the pressures of wrestling, education, and working to save up for my future tuition at a University were starting to take a toll on my own mind. It was also during this time that life at home was beginning to get even harder. My father, the rock of the family, the one who always held it together, had been downsized and let go from numerous companies in an industry that at that time was collapsing in Canada. He was out of work far more than he wasn’t, and I felt like we were going to loose everything, because at that time we were very close to just that.
In 2002, grade twelve, I was pushing myself to my limits in school, attending rigorous wrestling practices, and working part-time in the evenings and weekends at the nearby mall. My dad was applying to jobs but still not working. My mom was worrying and at a breaking point, but that was not unusual. All of a sudden, I started missing classes, sleeping, and procrastinating on almost all assignments. I felt so much pressure because I was convinced I had to go to university, and this was my shot to go. I was too smart not too, and too talented to pass up this opportunity that was clearly not free for the taking.
Slowly the anxiety built up, more, more, and more. Sadness seemed to be never-ending and hopelessness and despair followed suit. Thinking I was dying I had a panic attack. Feeling numb I had an out of body experience. And those occurred again, again, again, and again. But even then I had no idea I had a problem. My sadness turned into utter fear, where only a blanket and dark room could comfort me. But I was not a coward, I continued going to school and acting as if nothing was wrong with me.
But then it happened in class.
It happened in the halls.
It happened in front of teachers.
And in front of peers.
But the day it happened on the wrestling mat I broke down. I ran off the mat just as my teammates were circled around me and congratulating me for something I was far too out of to remember.
I cried. I balled my eyes out, and I ran feeling absolutely terrified. I was delusional. My perception of reality was altered. I had psychosis and, I did not know it.
That night I went home, and my dad sat me down on the sofa. He knew something was wrong, for he had seen this occur within our household far too often, just not with his son. One who was becoming a man and finding it impossible to cope. When he sat me down he began to ask me questions. He began asking me if I felt a certain way, if I had certain thoughts? This and that, and this, and that…
I replied yes to every one of his questions.
He then told me I had every symptom of depression.
So we did the only thing we could. We went to seek help. We went as a family, as a team, and for myself, as an individual. A psychiatrist diagnosed me with the same illness my mother suffers from. An illness that I resented and looked down upon because of how abandoned I felt when my mother attempted suicide. It seemed to be nothing more than a weakness, a character flaw, that the carrier themselves turns into a sickness. But when I found out I shared the same illness, perspective changed, even in a perceptively altered psychotic state.
I was committed to a psychiatric ward. I was seventeen. That was the worst and most difficult period of my life. At my lowest, at one point in the shower, I thought of leaving that place. I thought of killing myself. I cried, and cried. I balled my eyes out. I thought of my dad, I thought of my best friend, and I thought of how devastated and defeated they would be. But, then, I thought of Mr. Kelman. I thought of how disappointed he would be in me, because he always believed in me. He always reminded me that I was brilliant. He was convinced of my abilities. And that’s when I asked myself why? Why did he believe in me? Why did he believe I would do great things?
I was released from the ward around Christmas and by about that point my depression had almost fully lifted. The medication and therapy was working and the happiness that was spreading because of holiday season definitely felt contagious. A couple weeks into January I faced my fears and went back to school. I thought people would judge me. I thought I would be known as the guy that went crazy and got locked up. I thought people were going to treat me differently. But they didn’t. They were so happy to see me. And if I didn’t want to talk about what happened and where I disappeared to, they didn’t pry, and that happened more often than not because the shame of having a mental illness was still very prevalent because of the very common stigma that still to this day much of society has. Within a week of being back at school I felt happy. I was alive, and to be honest, I was grateful. I was back to believing in myself, so much so, that I went to the change room after school, put on my t-shirt, gym shorts, knee-pads, and wrestling boots, and walked into the gymnasium and onto the mat to practice the sport that I love. At that moment, I loved life, and I loved who I was. I felt strong.
At the end of the season I took place in the most important regional qualifying tournament in which my team competed and I ranked fourth. I ranked higher the year before, and didn’t qualify for the Ontario Championships, but the fact that I even competed is something that to this day I am so proud of. But most importantly, I learned something from all of that.
Wrestling was something I would never stop doing.
Wrestling was a home that I could always come back to.
Wrestling gave me the confidence to step out in front of an audience.
Wrestling gave me a drive to always want to improve.
Wrestling taught me to never buckle.
Wrestling gave me courage.
Wrestling will never allow me to be defeated by fear.
Wrestling taught me to respect my opponent and to help him if he is hurt.
Wrestling taught me that sometimes my opponent is myself.
Wrestling taught me that failure is when you give up.
Wrestling taught me that success is when you keep going.
Wrestling is something that I love.
Wrestling has helped me battle my mental illness.
And you are the wrestler that I admire most.
As of today I have come to accept that I will always have this illness. I have battled numerous bouts of mania, been hospitalized a handful of other occasions, had substance abuse problems, and even had to post-pone my studies at Humber College due to a longstanding depression. But, today, I am better, and I will not quit! I will not give up on myself, and I will not give up on my life. I will not disappoint those who believe in me and I will always follow my doctor’s orders while always remembering the guidance gained from my nurses, and more importantly, my friends. I will always be loyal and appreciate the love and care my family has for me, and use that care as a reminder as to also feel that way when I look at myself. I will recognize my triggers and avoid them at all costs. I will also recognize who I am, and what I love to do. I am a wrestler. But also, I am an artist, one who is gifted in creativity. I guess that’s where Mr. Kelman’s faith in my abilities really stems from in the first place. I will use that gift to create a life in which I am happy and, in which I am proud.
Ultimately I will look at my reflection and treat it as if it is a wrestling opponent. When people ask me what wrestling is, I like to say it is an art where you control your opponent. Having a mental illness I have no choice but to control myself. That should be easy. I’ve trained for that since I was eleven.
You’re probably wondering why I’m writing you all of this.
I am writing you, because you lived through adversity, overcame, and in the end inspired millions. In my case, you brought me joy, over and over, through a television screen. Those memories have been re-watched over and over, now, on a computer screen. You gave me happiness that lasts far more than a moment. You danced around that flag and knelt down to kiss it. You made me so proud to be a wrestler and so proud to live in a country united with every other country on this planet. That moment, that image, is what wrestling is all about. In that moment you controlled the outcome, you controlled your opponent, you created a celebration, and I believe that joy that you felt created nothing but peace within yourself, in an event that is meant to create peace throughout the entire world.
So I just wanted to write you,
And thank you… for what you have helped bring out of me.
It is, in my eyes, something that is contagious and has actually helped me answer some of the most difficult questions I have ever had to face.
Thank you more than anything.
Blake Robert Horsley