Ian Thorpe opens up about mental illness, body Image and overcoming perfectionism


Ian Thorpe grew up in front of our eyes as one of Australia’s all-time best athletes, competing (and by competing, I actually mean smashing it) at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Today, Ian is a patron for ReachOut, a seriously awesome charity helping young people learn about and manage their mental health – and realise it’s OK to reach out.

The idea?

Prevent suicide in young people. Break down stigma. Get (young) people talking about mental health.

One of the ways Reach Out raise funds is by running an event call Laps for Life.

And Laps for Life is deliciously simple.

  1. Commit to swim laps during March.

  2. Raise funds for the amazing work that ReachOut.com does…

  3. …while boosting your own mental health in the pool. How sweet is that?

You can find out more about Laps For Life here.

Now for the interview!

But first, I want to say that while I excepted Ian to be lovely…

I didn’t expect him to be so open and so authentic when talking about his own struggles with depression, mental health and body image.

So here we go.

Here’s my interview with the lovely, legendary and divine Ian Thorpe.  

 Ian Thorpe: Patron for Reach Out and Laps for Life Ian Thorpe: Patron for Reach Out and Laps for Life

Lyndi: Finding motivation to exercise is something that many people find hard. How do you stay or get motivated?  

Ian: “I think half of doing something is actually getting started.

“You know, people go “Aw, it’s raining, it’s freezing outside.”

“If you actually get out of bed and start walking to the kitchen to prepare breakfast, have a coffee, or you have a shower, whatever your routine is – if you just get out of bed – you’re not going to get back into bed.  

“You’ve actually started! And then you’re 50% of the way there. And so then you end up going and doing it, and you feel better…

“So I think motivation is as simple as just start”. 

“For me, I have a trainer in the gym. I have that trainer because I get more out of my time. But I also feel as though I’m letting someone down if I don’t go to training”.  

Lyndi: What kind of strategies do you use to help you manage depression and help you feel good?

Ian: “I make sure in my diet I have some fish with some really good oils, omega-3s and omega-6s. I particularly like ocean trout, but salmon’s the obvious one there for people. Something like cashews is good for energy levels, and also I’ve found that it improves my mood”.

“I think if you cook, you actually have an advantage of knowing exactly what you are having! For me, it’s about having a great variety in the food that I eat”.

“One of the simple things people can do – and this is what we’re told when we go into the [Olympic] food hall where it’s overwhelming with how much food there is.

“There are 10,000 athletes that need to be fed, and you can eat anything. We’re told that if we have as many different natural colours on our plate as possible, you’ve probably had a nutritious meal”.


Lyndi: Do you ever do things, apart from exercise, like meditation, counseling or any other hobbies that you help you feel better?  

Ian: “I see a psych. At the moment, I just go quarterly. Previously, I’d go every week or every two weeks. If I was going through a tough time, I’d put in an appointment and get in there and do it.”

“If I’m going through a rough patch, I walk in more frequently.”

“I consider the process [of going to a psychologist] as ‘outsourcing your problems’. If I can go and chat to someone for half an hour, and feel better after walking out of it, why not? I know I feel better.”

“But there are other things that you can do… I have a dog. Well, actually, she’s still a puppy. But if you take your dog for a walk, you pet your dog, instantly the anxiety goes down.”

“If I’m anxious before a speech or I’m with a lot of people, I do an activity where I’m just present in the situation. I touch something, I smell something, and I hear something. That just puts me in the moment and gets me out of my head. `


Lyndi: I love that. It’s a really practical, simple thing that people can do!  

Ian: “Yeah, If I have a stubborn thought in my mind that’s in my headspace… that’s ongoing, I either write it down, what the problem is. I actually write – not type it – and usually I can let go of something that way.

“You can write a letter to yourself… and you mail it. You get it back in a week, and you go, “What was I thinking?” That’s usually my response to it. Because you’re not in that same mindset at the time. 


Lyndi: I think in some ways it’s harder than ever to love our bodies. How do you deal with your body image?

Ian: “I had to come to the reality that I am never gonna look like what I did when I was swimming. I’ve had an Olympian’s body for half my life. And for the other half – well, maybe not half of it yet! – but for the rest of it, it’s not.”

“Having to re-frame what a healthy body image for me is very hard.” 

“I’m not prepared to do 30 hours or 40 hours of exercise a week just to look the way I did when I was swimming. You know, I’m at the gym four times a week and walk the dog every day. The reality for me now is very, very different.

“And having to get my head around that takes a little while. But that’s the same for all of us, as we get older. Your body shape changes. It’s not as easy to stay in the shape that you were in when you were in your teens or your twenties. And it’s important to realise that that’s okay as well.”

“The body I used to have is not attainable. I’ve come to that reality.”  

Lyndi: Spot on. Your body is not meant to be the same as when you’re 18, or when you’re 30, or when you’re 50. Your body is allowed to change!

Lyndi: What do you do on days when you wake up and struggle with your body image?

Ian: “My thing is, if you feel that way, get on with something. Just do something that you know will either improving your wellbeing or mental health.

“So for me it would be walk the dog, or make sure I’ve got my sessions in at the gym. I have some goals in my fitness program of where I’d like to be. But I don’t expect to be able to achieve them in couple of weeks”.  

Lyndi: So it sounds like you’ve got a long-term plan because real change doesn’t happen overnight. And also, you’re not expecting perfection from yourself….? 

Ian: “Yeah, perfection is hard when I’m in the gym. I have a trait that’s not all that healthy, but it means that I pursue things as well as I can. But it’s also accepting how well you did in that particular situation each day.

“For me, I don’t aspire to ‘perfect’.


Lyndi: So what advice would you give to someone who’s looking after or cares for someone with mental illness?  

Ian: “I think a message that always helps is “Hey, I’m here if you need me. And if you want to talk about something, I’m here, but I’m going to give you your space and let you go on if you want me to.”

Or you can simply ask “Is there anything I can do to help at the moment?” 

“In doing so, you just open that door just a little bit, so that someone knows that they’ve got your support”.

Are you struggling with mental health issues? It’s OK to reach out. You can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Need help being kind to yourself?

My book The Nude Nutritionist is packed with strategies for letting go of perfectionism and showing yourself the love you deserve. Click here to find out more.