In Deep. An Outlier in Body, Mind and Spirit.
Anyone who’s heard Gavan Hennigan’s story would agree that he’s an outlier. A record-breaking professional athlete, he got on people’s radars for his incredible feats of athleticism, pushing his body and mind to the limit. But his outlier status goes beyond his career. It’s also based on where he came from.
Hennigan became an addict at age 16 when, like many teenagers, he had his first experiences with alcohol. Unlike his peers, however, he very quickly lapsed into binge-drinking and blackouts. By age 18, he was addicted to heroin, living in an apartment that he hadn’t even bothered to furnish, spending all of his money fuelling his addiction. At age 20 he overdosed. In interviews with The Irish Times and The 42, he attributed his past with alcohol and drugs both to a naturally “addictive personality”, as well as his struggles with low self-esteem at that age. “I was afraid to admit I was gay, I had huge abandonment issues around my Dad’s behaviour and it was only when I hit rock bottom that I could look up and try to deal with it.”.
At age 20 he went to rehab. Hennigan has described his time there as “kickstarting” his journey to where he is today. After a few months, he was released, now fully sober. However, his newfound sobriety launched him into possibly the darkest period of his life. Unable to use drugs and alcohol to cope with his self-hatred, he attempted to take his own life at age 21. On The Late Late Show, he stated: “I loved life. I wanted to do all of these amazing things, but I had no power, no self-esteem, no self-belief.”. With no job, no degree, no Leaving Certificate, he couldn’t fathom how to start a new life.
In the end, Hennigan turned to sport. At first, he tried surfing: “It tapped into something inside me and helped me to reconnect.” (The Irish Times). Besides surfing, he has a history with snowboarding and has had a career in deep-sea diving. From there, he went into more extreme sports. What is it about the mental and physical challenges of sport that appeal to him? “I like to test myself. I remember what I felt like when I was younger and this is the exact opposite… Even at the lowest points, I know I can make it through.”
It’s that strength and self-belief that have enabled him to do the impossible, and where he made his name. He’s secured the third-fastest time in history in the Yukon Arctic Ultra, an adventure race that required him to go for days on only a few hours of sleep, and in extreme cold. He’s also known for his recent performance in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, where he came third and broke the record for the fastest solo time in the race’s history.
But Hennigan’s influence goes beyond the world of extreme sports. His aforementioned row across the Atlantic was done in support of two charities: Cancer Care West and Jigsaw Galway. For the latter, he works as a ‘National Ambassador’. ‘Jigsaw’ is a charity devoted to young people’s mental health – a topic in which he has a personal stake. According to Hennigan: “I’m proud to become a National Ambassador for Jigsaw to help them let young people in every community up and down the country know that when they need support they have somewhere to turn to in Jigsaw.”
Hennigan’s story is certainly a captivating one. His development from the mentally-ill teenage addict to the record-breaking extreme athlete seems more like an inspirational movie plot than anything rooted in reality. And he’s using his story to show kids what he never saw – the light at the end of the tunnel. Hennigan has spoken about his difficulty with coming to terms with his sexuality when he had no gay role models to look up to, as well as his wider difficulties, believing in himself when he first got sober. If Hennigan had had someone like himself, a successful gay athlete who had overcome a rocky past with addiction; perhaps he could’ve faced his twenties with a little more confidence. With that in mind, what he’s giving to people by telling his story cannot be overestimated – that no matter who you are, where you come from, what you’ve seen, what you’ve done, it’s never too late to turn your life around. And now, partly thanks to Hennigan, there are more resources than ever.