To Aussie fans and spectators, 800m runner Catriona Bisset seemingly came out of nowhere when she broke Australia’s longest-standing women’s athletics record. What a lot of people don’t know is that her success is the result of her taking her mental health into her own hands – overcoming an eating disorder, anxiety and depression to become one of the country’s most exciting athletes.
Bisset ran a blistering time of 1:58.78 at the London Diamond League in July, breaking Charlene Rendina’s 43-year-old record by 0.22 of a second and securing herself a spot at her first Olympic Games, Tokyo 2020.
Just three months earlier, ears pricked up when the 25-year-old came into the 2019 National Athletics Championships with the fastest time of the season. She went on to win gold and secure herself a spot at the 2019 Doha World Athletics Championships.
Her rise to becoming Australia’s fastest 800m runner has been anything but linear battling with mental health, self-doubt and even the doubts of those around her.
“I grew up in Canberra and started with the West Creek Redbacks Little Athletics Club in the Under 7’s,” Bisset said.
“I was always a sporty kid. I did squad swimming, netball and I remember dominating in the Under 8’s multi-event – the 100m, 200m, shot put but what really got me into running was my dad,” she continued.
“He did a lot of distance running as a mature-aged athlete and on Saturday mornings I’d do runs with him.”
By the time she reached high school, Bisset’s potential became very apparent but her struggles with an eating disorder, depression and anxiety meant her training fell by the wayside just as she was starting to dominate the track.
“When I was around 12, I’d started doing quite well for my age. I was competing in the 400m and doing really well at nationals. I had some really great runs throughout my early teenage years but then I had a long period of mental health battles,” she shared.
“I developed an eating disorder and suffered from anxiety and depression, I was just such a super-shy and introverted kid and all those things contributed to me putting my athletics career on the backburner.”
“Being a professional athlete, requires you to be consistent over a long period of time and the nature of mental health is that it peaks and troughs which is completely impractical for something that needs such a consistent process.
“It really just changed my relationship with running and instead of it being something I really wanted to pursue, it became something that was too far out of my reach. I told myself I didn’t have the mind to be an athlete, I’m too volatile, too unstable. I look back now and it was so wrong and so horrible to think that way about myself.”
Bisset picked up running again casually when she was at university, although had no interest in elite competition. This was when she started running the 800m, a distance she would later break records for.
“During my first year of uni, I participated in the Uni Games and I did really badly! I hadn’t trained at all leading into it but thought to myself, ‘this could be fun, I used to like sports, let’s give this a go, maybe I’ll make a few friends!’,” she said.
“I started training with Sydney Uni Athletics Club and when I was around 22-23, had finished my undergraduate and started working, I started getting into a better routine and was training a bit more.”
The turning point for Bisset came at the NSW Athletics Championships in 2016.
“I remember at the NSW Champs, I competed and had a pretty average run, but it was still okay considering I hadn’t been training much,” Bisset explained.
“One of my training partners had a really good season, she’d run all these PB’s and when we were warming down together, I said to her, ‘I really want to commit, I just feel so stupid doing this, running but not doing it 100%.’
“I was really in this half-way limbo where I was doing it for fitness but wasn’t getting any enjoyment out of it, because I am quite competitive, and I would think back to how much I loved competing as a kid.
Bisset said that committing to running was more about getting out of a rut and creating healthy habits, rather than becoming Australia’s next track star.
“I just really wanted to build strong habits, because I was sick of myself. I would wake up on a Saturday morning and make excuses like I was too tired to go to training and I just couldn’t stand that about myself, it wasn’t right,” she shared.
“At the time I remember telling myself I just needed three months of really committed training and then I’ll start forming strong habits. I feel like I live my life by really intense values, honesty and conviction are so important to me and I just found it so disingenuous every time I would wake up and not go to training.
“My training partner told me I needed to sit down with our coach and tell him I was committed, so I did. When I told him, other people in my squad who knew how flaky I was, were also there and the coach said, ‘Oh, Catriona says she’s going to be committed now’ and my squad commented ‘Oh yeah, we’ll see if that happens.’
Bisset went on to show her coach, her squad and the entire nation that she was true to her word when she broke an almost 50-year-old record and qualified herself a spot at the World Championships and Tokyo 2020.
“It’s hard to explain how I felt after I broke the national 800m record. I think in the back of my mind I thought it might happen because I’d been tracking really well but you never really expect it to come true.
“People make fun of me because when I cross the finish line after a win, I just go into shock. I have the most pathetic race celebration because my face is just completely expressionless, I kind of just walk around like a zombie,” Bisset said.
“In some ways, the last few months since I won the National Title has felt like I’ve been living in this parallel universe, where everything is going to plan which is something I’ve never had before.
“It’s really funny, people I knew back when I wasn’t committed now come up and congratulate me and say things like ‘I had no idea you were any good.’ I mean, it was a compliment in a way but also slightly offensive,” she laughed.
“But from then on, it kind of snowballed and it’s only been the last couple of months that I’ve decided I want to be a professional athlete and make running my career. Before then, I was just treating it as a serious hobby and had never thought of it as more than that.”
Looking back, Bisset says that although having to deal with mental health problems is incredibly difficult, it has also been a blessing in disguise.
“The whole reason I talk so openly about my mental health problems in relation to my running, is because they are so intertwined and have had such a dialogue throughout my life.
“In the long run, it protected me in a way, from that really horrible stage transitioning from a junior to a senior athlete. So many athletes struggle with that and me giving it up to focus on my mental health meant that my body had time to grow into its adult form without being flogged at training,” she explained.
“Mental health challenges make life very hard, but also very rich at the same time, for example I was talking to an Olympic hurdler who gave me some advice. He told me that before a race, he would get so worked up with anxiety and it felt horrible at the time but he would race really well.
“Once he lost that, he noticed his running starting to decline, so it’s very interesting because the anxiety can be amazing and beneficial or it can become too much and turn into panic, it’s always about toeing that line.
Bisset’s advice to those facing their own struggles is to be open to others and patient with yourself throughout a process that so many people face.
“I’ve had so much time to be introspective and to talk to psychologists which has made me really good at talking about my feelings and that’s something I’m very proud of.
“Finding a really strong support network and being super vulnerable with those people is so important and so healing,”
“Whether it be a psychologist, doctor, coach, family or friend – being honest and vulnerable and talking to them about what’s going on has been so instrumental in my own journey.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help because people really respond to vulnerability, people just want to help and that is something that has really stood out to me throughout my experience and if you put yourself in that position to receive that help and that love, amazing things can happen.
“Another one is being kind and patient with yourself. It’s so easy to get into these spirals of self-comparison, I struggle with it so much but everyone is on a different path, just because another person overcame their troubles in a different way, doesn’t make them any better or worse than you.
“We are all unique and we need to redefine what recovery looks like, without having all of these unrealistic expectations of what it should be. For some people, recovery is the ability to leave the house, cook for yourself, have a shower and that is enough.
“It doesn’t have to be this miraculous transformation, it’s a really long, slow process and though they may seem small, all those little changes add up and are so significant.”
Bisset is reluctant to see herself as a mental health role model but knows her position can help make changes or encourage those who may not have asked for help.
“I’ve been able to grow and understand myself so much through seeing psychologists and I am grateful to be in a position where I can help other people. I know who to talk to, but most people don’t so when there is a crisis, they don’t know what to do or where to turn and that’s why it’s so important to talk about these things.
“But it is also really tough, even for me, and the reason I am so open is because if I can be publicly vulnerable, that may help someone else to be privately vulnerable and seek the help they need.
As for what’s next for Bisset, she is just taking it as it comes, as an ordinary human who found herself in an extraordinary position.
“I think it’s a really positive message to send to everyone and anyone watching the Olympics, that we, the athletes are just normal human beings who have found themselves in this position. But it’s like every career, you have to keep questioning it every step of the way and making sure you get enjoyment out of it and I think some athletes are terrified of doing that,” she said.
“I mean, right now I love what I am doing but maybe next week I won’t and that’s ok. I think as people we get into these cycles where we keep doing things because we think we have to and not questioning why or what we’re trying to achieve.
“The best part of being human is the ability to choose and do what we enjoy. We shouldn’t be afraid to change, evolve and live to our truths.”
Originally published for olympics.com.au