At his lowest, Adam van Koeverden uses conversation to cope
Former Olympic kayak champion Adam van Koeverden has had a lot of time to reflect since the Rio Games. (Photo courtesy Balint Vekassy)Former Olympic kayak champion Adam van Koeverden has had a lot of time to reflect since the Rio Games. (Photo courtesy Balint Vekassy)

This is the second of a series where high-performance athletes discuss their battles with mental illness, an affliction that affects millions of Canadians.

Since the Olympics, the most frequent question I get asked is, “what are you going to do now?”

Considering I just quit my sport after 18 years on the national kayak team, I can understand the sincere curiosity about what's next for me, but until recently that question caused me some anxiety.

It’s a little unfortunate that we often define people by their occupations rather than what they love or what they love to do. I’d like to think that I’ve got more to talk about than kayaking and the Olympics. I think language is really important, and many people don’t like the word “quit.” but I do.

Here’s why.

People are forced to retire. There is a retirement age, there is forced retirement. “Retirement” is often defined as “completely withdrawing.” It’s something that happens to you. But I chose to quit, it was an act of commission. I didn’t need to stop kayaking because I’m too old, not fast enough or washed up. So I decided that I hate the word retire and the idea of slowing down and I use my own word instead. I’m happy with that.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect since Rio. I adopted a dog in September so I go for three to five walks or jogs every day. I’ve dedicated time for yoga, meditation and personal reflection. I’ve also been almost magnetically attracted to other people in transition, which has led to some great conversations on the topic.

One of the best bits of advice I received was from an artist I met in Central America. She basically said, “why bother getting so worked up about defining what you want to DO, when you can simply carry on BEING who you are and who you want to be, and let the doing take care of itself.”

Adam van Koeverden and his pursuit of happiness.

Questions in my head

When I was stressed out about racing, I worked with my sport psychologist to identify the answers to the little questions in my head that caused some anxiety.

Q: “Am I totally ready?”

A: “Yes, check your training diary.”

Q: “Racing is really physically hard; do you want to put yourself through so much pain?”

A: “Yes, you love it. You’ve never regretted a race or a hard training session in your life.” 

These and all the answers to the stressful little questions that would pop into my head came from one place: conversation. My sport psych, my teammates, my coach, my friends and my family were always prepared to have a chat when I was feeling overwhelmed or under prepared.

I could always rely on my training to get me across the finish line, but it was often the kindness of those people in my life that got me to the start line.

Conversations help van Koeverden get out of his funk. (Photo courtesy Balint Vekassy)Conversations help van Koeverden get out of his funk. (Photo courtesy Balint Vekassy)

Like most people, I’ve had plenty of ups and downs in my life. Some were related to my sport but many weren’t. Oftentimes when I’m at my lowest, I have no explanation at all.

When someone asks “what’s wrong?” and there is literally nothing to complain about except for some irrational sadness, it’s tough to imagine a solution. 

Whenever I find myself in a dark place without a foreseeable route out, I remind myself about what has helped me in the past.

They are:


Sometimes the best way to feel better is to ask someone else how they’re doing. It’s often the easiest way to open up, since most people ask once they’re finished answering your question. I’m the type of person who answers that question honestly. If I am feeling like a bag of crap and you ask me how I’m doing… careful, we might need to sit down. I hope you’ve got a minute.


It’s the people in our lives that matter most. Everyone has the capacity to listen and lend a hand. Being that person for someone in need often builds a bridge that goes both ways. Kindness tends to reciprocate itself.


Language is important to me. When I have a great chat with someone or uncover a nugget of wisdom, I write it down. I probably have 20 little notebooks in my house, and flipping through them often reminds me of a conversation that helped get me out of a funk.


I’m not patient, but I’m learning to be. Just before the holidays a great friend said to me “your races were pretty short, two to four minutes. Life isn’t a sprint, it’s long, and unlike a race, getting to the finish line isn’t the point, enjoying the journey is.”

So, I drink my coffee a little more slowly now. Important discoveries take time to uncover, and no matter how bad things might seem, time tends to fix it.

Throughout my paddling career, I can honestly say that I learned more about myself and my competition when I lost than when I won. Not suggesting winning wasn’t more fun, it was by a mile. But I choose to approach tough times in the same way, as a chance to learn something.

Sometimes it feels like I’m in a skinny little boat all by myself in the middle of an ocean. But then I remind myself, I know how to paddle, and there are people who want to help. We are all in this together.

(Large photos courtesy The Canadian Press and The Associated Press)

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