When it comes to highs and lows, Travis Gerrits is something of an expert. One of the top freestyle skiers in Canada, he is also part of a rising tide in sports: athletes using their platform to raise awareness about mental health. For Gerrits, the issue took on greater significance after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the fall of 2014.
“At the start, I was like, ‘what does that mean? What does this involve now? Where do [I] go from here?’ It’s been a lot of learning and understanding what I have, and research, and therapy, and medication — you name it,” he says.
Skiing has long been a part of Gerrits’ life. As a young competitor getting into the sport after first taking up gymnastics — nailing his first backflip on skis at the ripe age of 10 — he sharpened his skills in his family’s backyard, launching off makeshift jumps on their two-acre property just outside of Milton, Ontario. Not long after, he caught the attention of famed Canadian Nicolas Fontaine after a competition at Quebec’s Mont Orford.
“I was pretty much starstruck,” says Gerrits. “I see this guy, and then two years later, he’s competing at the Salt Lake Games in 2002.”
“I started planning my years and how many tricks I’d have to do this year to get to where I’d need to be at the Games in 2010 or 2014, because I knew it was going to be a bit of a push to get to Vancouver.” – Travis Gerrits
Then just 11, Gerrits began training in earnest, intent on one day representing Canada at the Winter Olympics. In 2010, as a fresh-faced teenager, he got a further taste of the Olympic magic, forerunning at the Vancouver Games — an opportunity to jump in front of the crowd and judges at the aerials event, without officially taking part in the competition.
By the time the 2014 Winter Olympics had arrived, so, too, had Gerrits. After finishing second at the 2013 World Championships in Norway, the aerials skier had pre-qualified for Team Canada, and medal potential was now being discussed. As the pressure mounted in the build-up to the Games, Gerrits’ mental health took a dive.
“It was probably the most stressful time of my life,” he says. “I was all alone. I had no other teammates with me that were competing in aerials […] so I felt like I had the weight of a lot of expectation from myself and the country to do well at these Games.”
Two days into the Games, Gerrits broke down. After weeks of speculation about a podium finish, he ended up finishing 7th.
“The highs and lows of an Olympic journey are pretty crazy. I had the biggest high of my life at the Olympic Games, but also one of the lowest lows that I’ve ever experienced.” – Travis Gerrits
“At the time, I was devastated. I didn’t leave my room at the Olympic Village for two days, when normally, everybody else is going out and celebrating,” he says.
In the following months, his depression worsened. A hospital stay in the fall of 2014 led to a clearer picture. Gerrits was diagnosed with Type 1 Bipolar. It was a secret he kept for nearly four years.
“I was ashamed to tell people. I couldn’t even phone my coach to tell him that I wouldn’t be showing up to training the next day,” says Gerrits.
The freestyle skier credits a combination of therapy, mindfulness, family support, and the right medication for his improvement. In 2017, he decided to make his story public, using his platform to advocate for further eliminating stigma.
“It takes a lot of courage for someone who is sick with mental illness to go get help on their own. It’s a very difficult struggle, because the last thing you want to do is find help and talk about your problems when you’re feeling that way,” says Gerrits.
“Now, I try to live my life where bipolar disorder does not define my life as a human being, or what I’m capable of doing in sport or otherwise. You can’t let it define you.”
Photo credit: Tyler Gerrits.