Wednesday 23 October 2019

'I was under the influence when I got the call' - Kenneth Egan on impact of 'idol' Darren Sutherland's death 10 years on

As he recalls the tragic death of his Olympic Games friend Darren Sutherland 10 years ago, Kenneth Egan talks turning sober and exercising to boost mental health

Ian Gaughran

When it comes to the highs and lows of a career, Dublin Councillor Kenneth Egan is a prime example of how to come out on the right side.

We all remember Kenny Egan, Ireland's Olympic Games poster boy from Beijing 2008, who came home a hero with the world at his feet and very nearly threw it all away.

Too much came too soon for Kenneth, and the now South Dublin county councillor gave drinking all his success away his best shot. But then he had his 'a-ha' moment — or series of moments. 

Kenneth's is now a story of  redemption, of taking life back, of leading by example and coming out on the right side.

Talking to Kenneth now, on the eve of the 10-year anniversary of his friend and fellow Olympic medal winner Darren Sutherland's death from suicide, he says it has crept up on him.

"September is always when Darren comes back to my mind. Because I was under the influence when I got the call about his death. I was on the beer, and I just couldn't believe it," Kenneth says.

"Back then, the state of mind I was in and — and I've got no shame in saying this — of the five of us who went to Beijing, it was going to be me. 

"It was me — I was carnage, total carnage. And I just couldn't fathom that someone with his determination and mindset would do that. 

"Because I idolised Darren. He was a future world champion. The way he trained, how he carried himself, how he watched his diet down to the milligram. Because he was so big for a middleweight. 

"I wasn't as disciplined as him. I didn't have his discipline. But what I did have, was I was talented. But I didn't have the 100pc discipline he had outside of the ring and outside of the training camps, you know? 

"It really is now a case of what could have been. We'll always think of that. He had super middleweight world champion written all over him. How he beat James DeGale, who went on to be world champion, easy, until the Olympic Games, when it was just that one time DeGale could beat him. 

"But what an athlete Darren was. Jesus! He went back to school as an adult to better himself and to be the best version of himself, so it was just stunning to be told when he had died."

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The Irish Olympic Team, including silver medallist Kenny Egan, left, bronze medallist Darren Sutherland, right, and bronze medallist Paddy Barnes, arrive at Dublin Airport, Dublin Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Kenneth, having come so very close to becoming a washed-up former Olympian, changed his emphasis, his focus and his mindset, headed back to school to study psychotherapy and now provides therapy.

Knowing now what he does, I wonder if he could have seen it coming with Sutherland before he died. Could he have helped?

"The amazing thing about the mind is that it is such a puzzle. It's a complicated puzzle that is so difficult to understand. Suicide, we still can't understand it because people conceal it so well," Kenneth added.

"Even the best experts can't tell what's going on inside someone's head and, for me, I shared a room with Darren not long before he came into High Performance and we were away in Eastern Europe somewhere. 

"It was the first time I had roomed with Darren and I was lying in bed at 4.30 in the morning and I hear a skipping rope going. I couldn't believe this but he was up with his skipping rope and then eating his porridge. 

"This was alien to me but that was the levels he went to with his weight and all, you see. He knew he had a weight limit to make so he knew he needed to be on the ball. 

"He was very serious about all aspects of his craft. Never cut any corners and never relaxed on himself. But that was probably the thing. 

"He was probably spending too much time in his own head worrying about what other people thought. Worried about expectations. 'I have to win this fight, I have to win this tournament, I never dare lose. That would be the end of my world' type of thing. 

"And I think his drive for greatness and for perfection overwhelmed him in the end. 

"Things hadn't being going great at the start of his pro career and he wasn't getting things that he wanted and was forced to fight with an eye injury and that would have caused havoc inside his mind. 

"For people like me or you, we'd probably have said 'right, I can't fight in this fight, I'll leave it'. But Darren put himself under so much pressure that he couldn't say no to people. Being afraid to let people down was a massive problem for him. 

"The thing is though, even with my therapist's hat on now, I wouldn't have seen the signs that led to his death. It's still very hard to get my head around because he was such a pure, driven athlete. 

"He told me, sure, that he was using the Olympic Games to win a medal, do well and put himself in the shop window to go pro and become world champion. That was his mindset." 

Ireland in 2019 is a different place and has come a long way in creating greater awareness around issues such as depression, and there is also greater awareness of available supports for those with mental health struggles in the decade since Sutherland's death.

Kenneth believes we still have a way to go in minding our own mental health, and the mental health of others. He says it starts with stronger interactions with family, friends and colleagues — the daily relationships which frame our lives.

"When you go into work, for example," Kenneth continues, "we can't be all jumping around saying how great we are. When you go into work and ask someone how they are, mean it. 

"Are you asking 'how are you?' or are you just asking 'how are ya?', with no eye contact, nothing. So imagine there is someone that's really struggling and needs to speak to someone.

"I encourage that, whoever you're talking to and whoever you ask how they are, look into their eyes and wait for their response.

"Eye contact is powerful, if you're sitting there and looking into someone's eyes, you're really listening to them. 

Kenneth says we have lost the ability to really listen to others.

"All we see is snippets. People on their phones, on their social media accounts, picking up the snippets, the juicy bits. It's scary, it's so fast, the world we're living in."

It is just 10 years ago since his own success catapulted him into super-stardom, in Dublin at least, but he counts himself lucky to not have been involved in the social media culture on top of his own demons.

"People are more concerned about having thousands of followers on their Instagram when they might not even have a core of three people that they can actually sit and have a conversation with.

"My stepdaughter Kelis is 18 and she's great, a brilliant kid. But you see what Instagram can do. They had their debs just last week and you can see the pressure that's placed onto these kids just to even get the right photo.

"Take another one, take another one, take another one. It's just crazy. It's all about that image. What you portray of yourself and what people see and think of you.

"And all it takes is one negative comment and bang, it's all over. She could end up sitting in her bedroom after the debs is all over and she could see something like that.

"Thankfully it didn't happen but it could have and it does, to so many people and that's when you need friends who you can pick up the phone to and say 'look, I'm not feeling the best, any chance we could grab a cup of tea and a chat?'"

Following his retirement from boxing, Kenneth hadn't exactly left himself with many options, and it's a lesson he preaches to the young men and women in High Performance today.

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Kenny Egan pictured at the official launch of the new Anytime Fitness Gym in Clondalkin. Photographer: Photocall Ireland

Adult education seems to have saved the Olympian. With an alcohol problem, he sought his own help and is now nine years sober.

He doesn't claim to not think about having the odd few pints here and there, but he knows where it would take him and far he has come to get his life, and his relationships back on track because of his sobriety.

"Education is key," he says. "I went back to do my degree at the age of 31 and I absolutely dreaded it. And it was hard. But if I had just stood still and wallowed in my own self pity I wouldn't be where I am now.

"Nine years sober since August. Imagine if I had kept drinking and never bothered pursuing anything else. I'd be still in my mam's, in a bedroom there, gone mad. Or, do you know what? I'd probably be dead.

"All those years of representing my country, back on the open top bus with the medal and all. And I can see myself in the local pub now, still drinking, 10 years later.

"I can visualise it and I've said this before, a lovely big picture of me and my medal, sitting at the end of the bar and nudging a young fella saying 'see that fella there, that's me. Any chance you could buy me a pint?'

"That's where I was going, but it was one of my 'aha' moments and I said to myself 'Jesus Christ, Kenneth, what are you doing?'

"The shame of that, the embarrassment of it. I'd be 40 without a pot to piss in, scabbing pints off a 20-year-old."

Thankfully, it's not the case and Egan, with his expertise in exercise and through his weekly boxing classes, gets to see first-hand the benefits that training can give.

Speaking as Anytime Fitness launched its Clondalkin gym, opening 24/7, Kenneth outlines why he's a firm believer in using exercise to aid mental health.

And with Anytime Fitness offering that flexibility to customers, he sees the facility as one that will thrive for Dubliners.

"I think it's a great concept because we're too long and too stuck in what's the right thing to do.

"People think they have to go to the gym directly after work. They have to get an hour in there and then go home to have their dinner and then relax.

"People who work different hours or people who just can't sleep, who are struggling. This provides them with that outlet.

"I think it's a great idea and it gives people the opportunity be flexible in their lives.

"It's in a great location and it has plenty of safe parking and it gives people that chance to blow off some steam if they need to too.

"If they're having a fight with their wife, or with their boyfriend, they can go down to the gym for an hour.

"It helps release those endorphins, gives you that rush and then when you're in the shower you think 'it was worth it'."

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