Going to Paris 2024 proves I am worthy - Olivier

Warning: This article contains discussions on mental health issues and references to suicide.

After overcoming personal and sporting setbacks, qualifying for the 2024 Olympics has given Esti Olivier a renewed sense of hope.

The South African canoeist endured a bout of depression after she missed out on a place at the Tokyo Games in heart-breaking fashion.

While dealing with that, and other challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic, health issues threatened the lives of family members.

But, after winning the women's K2 500m at the South African Championships in March, the 31-year-old feels "worthy and strong enough" to compete in Paris.

"It's been a long journey. It's been years," Olivier told Sportshour on the BBC World Service.

"I feel like when you go through trauma and always have to be in survival mode, you don't really process or understand what is going on with you.

"Only now can I say honestly say I am starting to rise above again."

Failing to reach the 2020 Olympics left Olivier in a state of deep depression and compounded problems which were caused by going into business with family during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Family business just didn't work," she explained.

"It is a tricky dynamic, and me and my brother did not gel on a professional level.

"That triggered a lot of things - deep-seated things that didn't have anything to do with my sport."

Olivier found herself crying every day, but eventually was able to confront her issues.

"I realised that this is not OK, I’m not OK. I can’t keep hiding from what is bothering me," she added.

“I started deep-diving into my life and into my childhood and into me as a person as to how I am going to survive this.

"It was starting to affect me, people around me, my marriage.

"I ultimately lost my joy. Everything was overwhelming. I ended up stepping back from family completely."

Family health worries

Olivier had previously experienced mental health struggles when she was 18, before she met her now husband Gerhard.

The support she received from him, both during that period and more recently, was crucial.

"When he met me I was actually quite suicidal," she said.

"For many years I never understood why he stuck around because I was this crazy chick and I was just dark and terrible to be around.

"This was similar, except for the fact that I had promised myself I would never allow myself to fall that deep again.

"That was why I was able to identify this was a bad spiral. He was there again and I am eternally grateful."

From the middle of 2022, Olivier was "doing really well", with her improvement showing in her competitive performances, but then medical issues in her family impacted her mental health.

On the final day of last August's World Canoe Championships in Germany, Olivier received the dreadful news that her mother had been diagnosed with cancer and had been taken to a hospital emergency room.

"I knew she was ill before we left [South Africa], but we didn't realise how sick," she said.

"Her colon had burst. They found she had stage four cancer."

Olivier travelled to Paris for another event but was unable to compete amid worries about her mother, and a follow-up operation to remove the cancer was unsuccessful.

“They ended up saying they can’t do anything," she said.

"We are still busy with that fight.”

Just three days later, Olivier learnt that her aunt was battling sarcoma cancer and required a leg amputation.

"I got back from Europe and had to go through that with her. All of that short-term stress triggered me again and was horrendous."

A boost from man's best friend

One thing which has offered Olivier a constant source of comfort has been her dog Sullivan, a three-and-a-half-year old Staffordshire bull terrier.

“It sounds terrible but I sometimes miss my dog more than my husband," she admitted.

"He has got crazy separation anxiety. Every time you leave the room and come back it is like he hasn't seen you for 10 years."

“When you’ve had a terrible day or session and come home, you get this unconditional, super-stoked to see you [response].

"At least someone is happy.”

A nerve-wracking qualification

Even the story of how Olivier booked a spot at Paris 2024 alongside her rowing partner Tiffany Koch is dramatic.

The pair faced a three-race shootout in the women’s K2 500m against Bridgitte Hartley and Michelle Burn at the South African Championships.

With the series tied 1-1, Olivier experienced cardiac problems and the pain left her unsure whether she would finish in a conscious state.

But knowing that Koch is a lifeguard offered reassurance.

“Before the final race I said to her 'If we cross the line and you don’t hear anything from me, just get me to the side',” Olivier said.

“Fifty metres before the finish I started blacking out. I ended up missing a stroke. Tiff missed one, I missed another and somehow we got across the line.

"We fell out of the boat and I passed out. Tiff had to pull me up and put me on a jet ski. I was completely wrecked.

"It was not exactly the celebration I expected."

If you are suffering distress or despair and need support, you could speak to a health professional or an organisation that offers support.

Details of help available in many countries can be found at Befrienders Worldwide: