As an elite athlete, Johnny Van Leeuwen never wanted to show weakness to his competitors.
For many years, the Dunedin cyclist never spoke of his battle with depression and anxiety.
But after winning the Lake Hawea Epic 100-mile mountain bike race in April this year, he decided to say something publicly and penned a Facebook post about his experience with depression and anxiety.
It was a big step for Van Leeuwen to “finally say something” and become a face of mental health awareness.
“I still think back four years ago, looking at Facebook, and someone would put a post up about depression or anxiety and I was too scared to even like it,” he said.
But the response to his post had been “overwhelming” as people reached out to him, including many other top athletes, sharing their own experiences and applauding him for sharing his.
One of the people to reach out was Terry Hannan, from the Oamaru Coffee Riders club.
He asked Van Leeuwen to come to Oamaru this week to take part in local events for Mental Health Awareness Week.
The theme of the week is “explore your way to wellbeing” and Van Leeuwen has done his part by riding the Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail from Mt Cook to Oamaru with his dog Hugo, visiting schools along the way to talk about mental health.
He started at Mt Cook on Monday and arrived in Oamaru yesterday afternoon.
“I’m bringing my best mate [Hugo] along for the journey and hopefully the kids can remember this crazy tall Dutch guy who’s trying to bring a message,” he said.
“Hopefully, in time, we can change the attitude of depression and anxiety and not have it be seen as a bad thing . . . or something you should be ashamed of.”
Van Leeuwen’s major bout of depression came about three years ago. Those close to him knew something was not right, especially after he did not complete the Pioneer mountain bike stage race.
“It was pretty public .. there were people who were concerned, and there were lots of people who called me weak and hopeless and everything else,” he said.
There was a big link between sport and depression. A lot of athletes battled with their inner critic and put a lot of pressure on themselves to win, he said.
“For me, that inner critic might tell me I’m hopeless, or I’m no good, or I’m not worthy, and that makes you feel depressed or down,” he said.
But exercise was also important for a healthy mind.
“When I’m on a bike and when I ride, it’s one of the only times I can shut that voice up and say ‘you know what, I’m in control here’.”
Van Leeuwen’s attitude to racing has changed considerably over the past few years. His goals are no longer about winning.
The most profound moment for him was a cycle race in America, he said.
As an international athlete, he had to start the race at the back of the pack – and he was used to starting in the front row, or at least the top 20.
Starting in 2000th position, he got chatting to other competitors.
“There was one guy, he was 68 and he’s tried now for 18 years and he hasn’t even made the cut-off of how long you have to complete the course.
“His whole goal was just to make the cut-off. He was getting older and said ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it’.
“For me, that was when I really realised there was something different in the world . . . experiences like that have really changed me.”
He has also teamed up with his wife, Haley, and they have raced around the world together over the past few years.
“We’ve placed well, within the top four and five in the world, and they’ve probably been the most awesome achievements of my life,” he said.
“No win has compared to doing things with other athletes who really care and have an awesome experience.
“I think out of the whole experience now of being through depression and coming out the other side of it, talking about it, I’ve met some of the most beautiful people of my entire life.
“I’ve learned empathy and I’ve learned that there are so many different things in this world than right and wrong, win a race, lose a race.”