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How she got happy: world champ banishes depression

Former world champion Eve Macfarlane tells Sarah Cowley Ross how she's worked her way out of depression following an Olympic defeat. She's built a tiny home, created a book, and this week returned to rowing with her sights reset on Tokyo 2020. 

When you’re the reigning world champion going into an Olympic games, there’s an expectation placed on you - both internally and externally – to win a medal. Usually gold.

Rower Eve Macfarlane carried the weight of that expectation heading into the 2016 Rio games, alongside her crewmate Zoe Stevenson, as the world champions in the double scull.

But in the Olympic semi-final, they were off the pace - finishing fourth and missing the A final by an agonising five-hundredths of a second. There would be no medal.

The result was devastating. “It was a minuscule amount and that’s high performance sport. If it’s not there on the day, it’s not there. It was hugely disappointing,” 26-year-old Macfarlane says.

Returning home to New Zealand, Macfarlane admits there was a honeymoon period where she enjoyed the freedom to do whatever she liked away from the rigours of rowing training. She surfed, had time to focus on her art, and generally had a life.

But the enjoyment of doing the things she loved suddenly diminished, and she slumped into a dark hole. 

“It started to show when I wasn’t enjoying going out for a surf,” says Macfarlane, who also felt tired and unmotivated, cried a lot and didn’t want to socialise or even go outside.

“It was then that my family said: ‘Why don’t you go to the doctor and have a check-up?’ And it was then that I was diagnosed.”

The depression diagnosis took her by surprise. As an athlete, Macfarlane had always been told she had to be staunch, a hero and not show weakness.

“It took me about a year or so to slowly work my way out of this depression,” she says.

Being able to talk about how she was feeling with her supportive family and friends helped her to heal.

She also believes building a ‘tiny house’ with her partner and former New Zealand under-23 rower, Chris Morrison, really made her realise what was important in life.

“While we were building our tiny home, we lived in a 10 sqm shed. There was no running water, no electricity and pretty much just our bed, my cat and Chris. We just went right back to basics. It made me realise you actually don’t need much to be happy,” she says.

When Macfarlane and Morrison moved into their 16 sqm tiny house, it felt like a mansion to them. With a new lifestyle, Macfarlane found peace in Raglan, living simply and sharing her journey with other athletes and friends who also had gone through tough times.

Two years on from Rio, there is still a fire burning in Macfarlane for Olympic glory. “The percentage of the drive to get back into it just started to increase and increase as time went on,” she says.

Six months ago, she returned to training with a planned comeback into the national programme, starting with selection in the Rowing New Zealand summer squad.

On Monday, Macfarlane was back on the water in the Rowing New Zealand set-up for what she describes as a fresh start. “Everything is different now – different coaches, a few new faces and even the changing rooms are down the other end of the shed,” she says.

What’s also new is that Macfarlane has been selected in the sweeping squad, as opposed to sculling squad in which she won her world title and competed at two Olympics.

“I was quite lucky because during school, sweep was the discipline I was taught. So I guess now making the shift back to sweep now is like coming full circle,” she says. “It’s going to take time to get my technique right again, but I’m enjoying it.”

With a two-year break out of the boat, Macfarlane says she lost about 90 percent of her fitness. She rates herself at about 60-70 percent of her best physical conditioning right now.

The rower will live in Cambridge during the week, in a flat full of athletes, and then head out to Raglan and her tiny house for the weekend.

“I think it’s going to be a really nice balance between sport and everyday life,” she says.

Macfarlane is clear about what she needs to do in order to feel well within herself, and that centers around caring for the environment she lives in.

“When I make small environmental impact changes like, for example, keeping our rubbish down and living plastic-free, then overall my mental health seems to be in a better space,” she says.

Her love of the environment has stemmed from growing up on a Canterbury farm and always feeling a connection to the land and animals. She says it’s become more prominent living in Raglan, where she jokes  (kind-of) that walking down the street with a plastic bag is frowned upon.

Reflecting on her Rio campaign, Macfarlane has learned that fun needs to be part of the plan to make a crew for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and then push for the podium. She wants to enjoy the sport she fell in love with as a student at Rangiruru High School, that has challenged her both physically and mentally since.

She recognises that other athletes suffer from a similar fate when an all-consuming results-focused life in sport doesn’t work out how you want it to.

Through connecting with other athletes and other young New Zealanders who have suffered from depression, she teamed up with a former rower friend, Jonathan Nabbs, to launch an online platform called How we got happy, which will soon to be turned into a book.

The book will feature the stories of 20 young Kiwis who’ve built happy, healthy lives following depression. The aim is to share their open, positive stories and the tools they use to stay well. In sharing these personal stories, Macfarlane and Nabbs want to reduce the stigma associated with mental health.

As Nabbs, 28, says: “We need to get these peoples’ stories out there and show that conversations on mental health and wellness can be constructive, interesting and open.”

Money raised from the book will go directly to the Mental Health Foundation, which has endorsed the project. Increasing the awareness of depression in our young people, it says, is critical.

For now, though, Macfarlane is focused on having fun back in the boat, sweeping her way to success in Tokyo - while mindful to look after herself along the way. 

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