Four Olympic gold medals. Five Commonwealth Games gold medals. Eight long course and seven short course world titles. Multiple world records. And then what?
Speaking at Brisbane Business Hub’s latest On The Couch With event, swimming legend Libby Trickett opened up on mental health, motherhood and making the transition from dominating the pool to owning her own business.
Hailed as Australia’s golden girl of the pool, Libby Trickett has one of the most recognisable smiles in the country. But she’s the first to admit that all that glitters isn’t gold – and it’s exactly that vulnerability and honesty that’s led her to start a business that’s focused on helping women live their best lives.
“Trying to find something new, and trying to redefine yourself and find a new identity outside of something that had been such a huge part of your life… it’s really tough,” she says. “And that’s not just for athletes transitioning out of sport – it’s career transitions, it’s parenthood transitions, it’s anything that changes your life significantly in some profound way. Those are the big moments when we need to take stock, understand how we’re feeling about it, and then try different options and see where that takes us.”
After she retired from swimming (for the second time) in 2013, Libby struggled to define herself outside the structure and discipline of professional sport, and away from the identity that she had forged for herself in the pool.
“My transition to life after swimming was challenging,” she says. “It was about trying to understand what I was passionate about, what I was interested in, at a very basic level. How did I want to spend my time? Who did I want to spend my time with, now that I was no longer around these people that had defined 10 years of my life? What did I want to work towards?”
Soon realising that the two most common professions for ex-athletes of her stature – coaching and commentary – weren’t of much interest to her, she explored her other options. She held a sales and marketing role for a technology company, and worked as a radio announcer for Triple M, before eventually deciding to pursue her work in mental health advocacy and start her own business.
“I had to step away from the perfectionist attitude that I had [in the pool], and start just allowing things to happen,” she says. “And the way I did that was really just through trying lots of things, and being willing to really suck at stuff to begin with. Because when you’re starting completely fresh with something new, you do tend to suck. I had to try not to beat myself up too much, and have patience with myself.”
At the same time that Libby was trying to define herself outside the pool, she was starting a family with her husband, Luke. Now a proud mum of three girls, Libby is open about her struggles with postnatal depression, and how those struggles eventually led her to find her real passion.
“Mental illness is a really difficult thing to navigate,” she says. “And sometimes you’re not aware of how hard you’re finding life, until you have a really rock bottom moment. For me, that came when my first daughter, Poppy, was eight months old.
“I was doing my very best to do all of the self-care things that I had learned about in retirement. I’d had months of chronic sleep deprivation, but I was actively trying to take care of my mental health, and exercise was foundational for that. So I was trying to get to the gym to take care of myself, while my daughter was going through quite a bad car phase. She did not like being in the car. And as soon as she got in the car, she started screaming.
“In that moment, it was like a switch flicked in my brain, and I just ended up screaming at her for about 25 minutes in this car ride to the gym. I just lost it. That’s the only way I can describe it. I was just screaming in a scary, animalistic way, and I do not remember that drive to the gym whatsoever.
“When I arrived at the gym, I realised how unsafe that was. Not only for myself and for my daughter, but also for all the other people on the road. So I made a phone call to my husband in that moment, because I realised that I wasn’t doing well. Someone of sound mind would not have behaved in that way. And straight after I spoke to my husband, I called my GP and made an appointment to start the process of getting the help I needed.”
As painful as this experience was, it eventually helped Libby find the purpose she had been looking for. She began studying for a Bachelor of Counselling; started a weekly podcast, All That Glitters, in which she talks to other retired athletes about how they’ve managed their transition from the bright lights of competition to the real world; and this year, she started her new business, Unlocking Her Potential.
“It took a lot of life experience, but I came to understand myself and understand that what made me feel good was being able to talk about mental health and normalise those conversations,” she says. “I think I’m able to articulate my experiences in a way that resonates with people, and hopefully makes them feel seen and heard when they’re going through difficult times.
“That led me to where I am now. I co-founded Unlocking Her Potential with Paula Hindle, an integrative women’s physiotherapist. It’s all about allowing women to find their power. It’s something that absolutely lights me up, because we’re both incredibly passionate about helping women to thrive in this world.
“We all carry burnout, we all carry a mental load, we all carry body image issues and shame and embarrassment and baggage and grief and trauma that we have experienced through different parts of our life. We want to share our resources that we draw on every single day to deal with that, to help us in our lives, whether that be yoga or meditation or journaling.
“Exercise is a big thing for us, and so is finding joy in every day. There are times in our life when we may not find joy, but for the most part, there are pockets of joy in every single day, and we’re really passionate about helping women to find that joy and to find the power within themselves to unlock their greatest potential.”
As a business owner, Libby believes it’s important for leaders and managers in the workplace to model positive mental health behaviours.
“I feel like the workplace is the final frontier for mental health conversations, because there’s still a lot of stigma attached to mental illness,” she says. “I think a lot of people worry about how they’ll be viewed in the workplace if they talk about mental illness – whether they’ll be bypassed for promotions or projects or other opportunities. So I think the only way we can do right by our employees is to model vulnerability, to articulate what we’re experiencing and what we’re feeling in a certain situation, and to be honest if we’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
“Are there things going on at home that might be impacting your performance? Let’s talk about that. Business is hard. Work is hard. Life is hard! So how can we help support each other in this environment to not only achieve what we want to as a company, but to actually thrive and enjoy it? We spend so much time at work, so let’s enjoy it. Let’s enjoy this journey and the opportunity to achieve things. And for me, the only way we can do that is if we have leaders who are brave enough to be vulnerable with their teams.”
By the time the Brisbane Olympics roll around in 2032, a full two decades will have passed since Libby last won Olympic gold in 2012. But as one of Brisbane’s most decorated Olympians, she’s keen to be involved – and to help the participants make their own healthy transitions to life after sport.
“I cried when the announcement was made that Brisbane will be hosting the 2032 Olympics,” she says. “What a privilege, what a joy it’s going to be to see the world’s greatest athletes in our backyard. I almost came out of retirement thinking about it! It’s incredibly inspiring and motivational.
“I can’t wait to see all the kids just take that and run with it. And I hope we’re able to help athletes not only achieve their greatest dreams on the world stage in Brisbane, but to transition to life after sport as well. That’s what I’m really passionate about now.
“It’s going to be pretty special, and I hope I’m part of it in some capacity, in some small way, even if it’s just as a fan. But either way, it’s going to be such a joy to watch.”
Join us at the Brisbane Business Hub for our next On The Couch With session with Nir Davidson, Managing Director of iFLY Australia, on Thursday 19 May. The former skydiving champion will reveal how he turned a small shipping container in Melbourne into three incredibly successful and diverse businesses with sheer persistence, belief and determination. Get your free ticket here.