Atlantic rower’s near-death experience never goes away

‘I think about it every single day. I do, from time to time, think I am lucky to be here’

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Exactly 10 years ago, Gearóid Towey was well known in rowing but not in the wider community. Within weeks he would become front page news.

Towey and Ciarán Lewis, competing in the Atlantic Rowing Race, capsized on January 8th, 2006. They clung to life on a life raft in stormy seas before being rescued by a Spanish supertanker.

Towey now lives in Sydney, Australia and is becoming known for his involvement with Crossing the Line Sports, a transnational non-profit organisation he has formed to help retired professional sports people who have problems adapting to what he calls “real life”.

‘Near-death’

The near-death experience on the Atlantic is something it took years for him to unpack. He will focus on the capsize on the anniversary, but the bigger experience is with him always. “The adventure itself was phenomenal. I think about it every single day. I do, from time to time, think I am very lucky to be here.

“I look back on the Atlantic stuff, and I think: exceptional thing to do, we were very happy out there, we did well, we got capsized by something that was completely outside our control, but I do have a lot of fond memories from it. But at the same time, I have a lot of memories of how we, you know, we shouldn’t be here.

“If you look at the odds, getting capsized in the middle of the ocean in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a Force Nine storm, the odds should be stacked against you.”

Clinging to the life raft and unsure of whether their Epirb beacon was being picked up, they knew they were in real peril. “We did accept in our own ways that we were possibly going to die. It is an interesting head space to be in, I think. A humbling one.”

For Towey, the courses they did to satisfy the organisers of the race were life savers. “It’s always in the back of your mind that you might have to get yourself out of trouble. I think preparation was definitely what saved us in the end.”

For years he didn’t talk to anyone in a professional capacity about the Atlantic experience. “I guess the nature of what I was doing at the time and the nature of who I was as a person was just to up sticks and keep going.”

Towey was an elite athlete for over a decade: in 1997 he won gold at the Nations Cup, the world under-23 championships, and as a senior athlete there were three Olympic Games (2000, 2004 and 2008) and World Championship medals in 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2006. He thinks often of what a wonderful group of rowers he was part of in those years. But he also knows that the life of a professional sportsperson is dangerously artificial. For many, retirement means crashing and burning.

There are harrowing stories on crossingthelinesport.com, and Towey describes the non-profit he has set up as “a support service for athletes who are in retirement”.

“Lots of people suffered in silence and lots of people didn’t make it out. Athletes by nature are extreme personalities, a lot of them, and there is not a culture of talking about things in the athletic world.”

His own childhood was not a problem area, but troubles can be masked by success. “Sport is a brilliant self-medicator. So if you’ve had problems in your childhood, sport is a place where you can get self-medication. You are validated in the world. You completely identify with being a sportsperson. Your problems from your childhood or whatever get completely swept under the carpet.

“But when the time comes for retirement, your problems just resurface, having been medicated but not dealt with. You are at the same time dealing with the question ‘who am I and what am I going to do with the rest of my life’,”

Helpline

Towey has worked with sports teams and franchises, but Crossing the Line is independent, so that coaches or managers who judge the performance of the athletes are not part of the process. There are plans for a 24-hour helpline, for athletes by athletes.

The catch

In talks, Towey uses the analogy of him as a young man being offered the certainty of a gold medal at the Olympics: the catch would be he would then have to spend the rest of his life in Mongolia. He would jump at it. But he would then take time to learn the language, read about the country, go there and check it out.

Many sports people end their careers and might as well be going to Mongolia. “Life is so different, but a lot of them haven’t done the preparation. They haven’t even thought about it.”

As with surviving a capsize, preparation is all.

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