Chris Mears: "Winning at the Olympics pretty much almost killed me"
Alice Gee | 1/10/2021
“Who was your favourite teacher?” Chris asks me, as we reminisce over common ground, the secondary school we both went to. As he’s chatting to me from the studio he produces from in Ealing, he tells me how he’s become a bit of a slave for the studio. Having found his groove since retiring from diving, he recently decided it was the right time to open up about the battle he was facing with his mental health behind his Gold medal.
“I think in these situations, you only can talk about this stuff when you feel that you’re strong enough. It shouldn’t be that way but it’s the truth. I’ll be honest when I was in the studio with the BBC and I spoke about some of my experiences, it was like 6 am and I didn’t know what was going on. The news had just come in about Simone Biles’s experience with mental health. I was just chatting with Dan Walker off the air and he asked me to tell him about my story. He mentioned that I seemed comfortable talking about my experiences with mental health with him and if I felt comfortable could I speak about them on air. I remember thinking I should just tell the story as heartfelt and as truthfully as possible. It’s been around three years since my retirement, five years since my actual performance, and getting the gold in Rio. It’s a bit mad that it’s taken pretty much five years for me to feel comfortable enough to say that winning the Olympics pretty much almost killed me. About three months after the games, I was suicidal. I was struggling with a lot of my relationships, my training, my whole regime, everything. To be honest, I was struggling with absolutely every aspect of life, I went from being the most positive person to someone hounding my dreams, I just wanted to crawl into a cave, I was really scared to do anything which I don’t think a lot of people expect. I think they expect that you’ve got everything together and that because you’re an Olympic champion you must be the happiest guy in the world. It couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
As he takes a moment, I felt the need to interject and to tell him that he doesn’t sound crazy or mad and that so many people can relate, with even more likely to from hearing about his story. Having worked his way to the top of his career I’m not surprised by the fear that surrounded speaking openly about how his profession was killing him silently.
“It wasn’t until the first lockdown when I acknowledged I’m not happy. So I started going to therapy and talked about everything progressively over a year. I mean, there was a lot of stuff from when I was three or four years old when my mum passed away. Just a lot of stuff that I realised I hadn’t any more room down there to keep squashing down. I still check in with my therapist once every couple of months or so, to keep in touch. There were just so many things that I think I was hiding from myself. Now that I’ve gone through the therapy process, I feel I have a much deeper and better understanding of myself. If I’m honest I still have moments where I find it weird because I realise I didn’t know myself.”
Speaking with Chris I recall what I call the cupboard of doom, when you try and push everything into the said cupboard to avoid looking at it before eventually, the door won’t stay shut so with everything falling out.“That’s completely accurate. I don’t have cats, but I always say it’s like when a cat goes into the garden, sees a bird, chases it, and when it gets it, it has no idea what to do with it. That’s kind of how it felt. For so long I’d been telling myself that I’d be happy once I got this medal. I had been saying that ever since I can remember.
“I guess in a way it pushed me to get to where I did. Obviously, I’m proud of winning the medal but I just didn’t know how to process it. No one tells you there’s no book on how to process being an Olympic champion. I felt like absolute sh*t if I’m honest which was hard as I watched Jack feel like he was on top of the world. I won’t lie it, I was jealous. I was like how are you like that and I’m like this.
“Although we got psychologists afterwards, it just wasn’t helping me. I guess part of it is I wasn’t being true in my sessions. I wasn’t saying how I felt. I’m relieved in some ways as I do feel mental health is beginning to be spoken about a bit more, not just in diving but sports in general. To me, the lesson is you can ask somebody twice how they feel, and that second time, they might give you a better answer than the first time.”
Something I think will resonate with many is when it comes to Chris’s story is how most of the time I don’t think you ever think about these things unless you get asked about them. After chasing the next best thing for contentless years I was asked by my mother ‘when will it ever be enough’ something I know speaking to Chris was a contending point in searching for happiness with a diving career.
“As a kid diving was so much fun and I loved school, but I didn’t do much in terms of like the work. The teachers liked to let me get away with everything. When it came to homework and stuff I was just lazy. Music on the other hand I’ve always been interested in, especially since I was 16 when I got ill physically and I was hospitalized. I had to take time off diving, so I went and bought a laptop and I got logic. I just wanted to learn. The thing is I’m a 100% kind of guy. I’m either 100% in or I’m 100% out. I remember before I retired, that in that period I was 60% in and it was crushing me because the whole time I was thinking this isn’t me, I can’t just be 60% in. Everyone was so shocked when I like retired. But I had already cued up music. I didn’t love diving anymore. I started selling a bunch of tracks for ridiculously low prices. Although I didn’t realise I was getting absolutely screwed at the time, I was just grateful to have some bread and butter work, that I was happy, doing what I loved. “
For many, they will only know of Chris as an Olympic champion, far from the trauma he went through when hospitalised suddenly in 2009. I was curious whether having his very serious health scare had any connection to how he felt about diving or if it even solidified his move into music, something he loves.
“I just had so many issues. I just hid it behind a bit of bravado. I was in a coma for, five days and I basically should have lost my life. After that, I think I almost had a midlife crisis at the age of 16. I still had a little bit of that rebellious kid in me so I began to focus on music instead of diving. I used to write all of these books and poems and send them to my mates. Sometimes they’d be super dark. There was something inside of me that wanted to like create. I feel so blessed to be doing this every day because in all honesty I almost felt like I’d been starved my entire life at that point. It’s been the thing, so I have to nurture it. With diving, I feel like it was mainly because of mental health that I wasn’t enjoying it, but with music I’ve realised I can’t fall out of love it.”
It’s something I don’t need to be told, seeing his passion and love for music in front of me. Having produced with some incredible names as one half of Bloodline, including collaborations with The Vamps, I found myself asking who he is passionate about wanting to work with in the future.
“I like rock music. When I was a kid, I used to listen to metal and rock, especially really obscure death rock. There’s a common theme with all my like childhood listening. I didn’t like anything that had any like raw emotion in it. I’d love to work with Bring Me The Horizon vocalist Ollie Sykes. Mine and my cousin’s project Bloodline has let us work with amazing people. I’d love to in the long run get to work with Miley Cyrus on a crazy dance track. That would be insane. But even more so I’m more interested in working with songwriters that are under the radar.”
Before we finish chatting I wanted to route back round to his openness with his mental health experiences and what he finds helpful that he thinks could help others.
“I think that what I would say is that I regret letting it fester. I think learning how to ask yourself in the morning, ‘how you feel?, is what helps me. The last four days have been super intense. I woke up absolutely exhausted. But I didn’t feel physically exhausted. I felt emotionally exhausted. So I woke up and I was like, how do I feel right now? I used to shut myself off from everybody, so I’ve learned that a daily check-in with yourself is important.
“I think when you’re deeply unhappy, and you’re hiding it, to check in with yourself daily, will help you at some point, you will be honest with yourself.”
It’s advice that will relate with more people than Chris can imagine as well as it being advice that will connect so many people in an industry still struggling to be open to discuss mental health. Chris along with other courageous names whether they realise it or not are helping to make a change that would have taken years to start, or even worse never would have happened. He will be, without a doubt a lifesaving voice for many.