A Year Like No Other is an SBS News collaboration with the University of Technology Sydney. It features stories written by journalism students.
This time last year, Australian rock climber Tiffany Melius was preparing for her biggest chapter yet.
“I was feeling excited, feeling positive,” the 36-year-old says.
Tiffany, who is based in Canada, had recently placed third at the Australian National Championships, meaning she was in the running to become the first and only woman representing Oceania in Sport Climbing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“I had had my post-peak break and was just getting into my last big training push before Olympic qualifiers,” she says.
But three months later, the world was plunged into a global pandemic.
The road to Tokyo
Tiffany’s Olympic journey had started three years earlier, several months after the International Olympic Committee announced that Sport Climbing would be held as an event for the first time in 2020.
Having retired after winning the Australian bouldering championships and planning to start a family with her partner, the Olympics announcement flew under Tiffany’s radar.
But in early 2017, she realised she had been “incredibly miserable” in the months following her Australian title win.
“I had conversations with ex-Olympic and ex-elite athletes … [about] how they had moved into retirement, and I was trying to move myself in that direction,” she says.
“What I didn’t realise at the time was that I had a tiny little piece of unconsciousness inside me that actually wanted to do the Olympics and I hadn’t seen how far I could go. That piece was the bit that was making me miserable.”
Tiffany decided to go for it, relying on donors and sponsorships to fund her training in her adopted home of Vancouver.
But in January 2020, Canada reported its first case of COVID-19 and outbreaks soon began happening around the world.
Unable to fly to Australia for the Olympic qualifiers, and her gym closed in Vancouver, Tiffany was at her peak condition with nowhere to compete and no certainty about when she could.
“I was a runaway train. I didn’t really know what else to do so I just kept going, when in fact I probably should have pulled back, and taken a breath, and maybe taken a break.
“It was maybe a month after everything went into lockdown – I totally crashed.”
In March, it was announced the Olympics would be postponed until July 2021.
The extra spare time and isolation from loved ones during lockdown had pushed Tiffany to realise how much she had sacrificed over the last three years pursuing her Olympic dream.
“Honestly, the biggest sacrifice was around my health. I’ve had some really big mental health struggles … all I can guess is that it’s from the level of training that I was doing.”
Motherhood was another sacrifice, and personal relationships suffered due to a packed training schedule, she says. With her mum in Australia, the only way to stay connected was by speaking on the phone while training.
“I’d speak to her on my three-minute rests. One of the things I felt, in the end, was that I don’t want to make that sacrifice anymore.”
It took a lovely warm day, which she spent wedding dress shopping with her sister and sharing dinner with her best friend, for Tiffany to make the decision that had been coming for months.
“At the end of the day I realised, I want more days like this,” she said.
While she still loved the sport, the uncertainty of travel and even competing again led to the question: “Is it still what I want to be doing with my time?”
“And the answer that came up for me was no.”
Training for another year – and more – was too much.
In October she announced she would be cutting her Olympic dream short.
“As much as I know that it’s the right decision … it’s still sad,” she says.
“It’s been my identity for the last three years and it’s been [behind] every decision that I make. Every waking moment is ‘what’s going to serve my goal of making it to the Olympics?’ And letting go of that is not simple, even if it’s right.”
It’s been my identity for the last three years.
– Tiffany Melius
Several other Australian athletes have since withdrawn from Tokyo 2021 despite having already been selected to compete.
Tiffany is now focusing on full-time work as executive director of a community mental health organisation and is looking towards motherhood at some point.
While she’s content with her decision, she says she feels “unmoored”.
“It’s a deep understanding that I’ve made the right decision, and layered on top of that is the sadness that I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do, I didn’t even get to finish trying.”
Tiffany hasn’t shaken her athlete’s mindset; she still goes to the climbing gym and calls it “training”.
“I go in and I’m like, ‘so what do I do today? What’s my purpose?’ But it doesn’t matter; ‘Tiffany, you can do whatever you want!’”
Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au. Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
Ella Smith is from Sydney. She studied for the third year of her journalism and political science degree in 2020 and looks forward to completing it in 2021, with hopes to travel overseas.
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