Catriona Bisset recently broke through the two-minute barrier in the 800-metre run, and is now breaking her silence about a battle with mental illness that nearly derailed her promising athletics career.
Once a junior running star, Bisset gave up competition for years as she suffered through an eating disorder, anxiety and depression in her late teens and early 20s.
Now, as the first Australian woman in a decade to break the two-minute barrier in the 800m event, Bisset is bound for the World Championships in Doha.
“I feel like I’m a completely different person, I don’t think I would recognise myself,” she laughs.
While her improvement has appeared sudden, the 25-year-old’s success has been hard-earned on and off the track.
She qualified for her first national titles when she was just 12, but soon her mental health took a toll on her ability to train and compete.
In her late teens, it took her away from competitive running.
“That’s when I started my mental health journey,” she explains.
“Those sorts of experiences, they affect every part of your life and they can make a lot of things more difficult.”
Bisset continued running recreationally during her four years away from competitive sport, but it was far from her main concern.
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“I started really getting some help on that and starting that process and figuring out what was going on with me.”
She sought assistance from friends and psychologists and moved from Sydney to Melbourne for a fresh outlook.
“[It was about] making sure I could do those little things and then each of those built on themselves, and you get to a point where you can do more
“You then get to a point where you can look back and you can see this huge improvement.”
That gradual and careful improvement paved the way for a return to elite-level running.
It’s been an unexpected blessing, alleviating some of her personal demons through her return to physical exercise and the associated routine.
“A lot of it is about just this relationship with my body and how it’s really let me learn to love myself and my body through the sport.
“[It’s about] learning how to ask for help and getting really good at it and being able to collect people around me that can help me.”
One of those people is her coach, Peter Fortune, who trained Cathy Freeman to gold at the Sydney Olympics.
Turning personal battles into strengths
He believes Bisset’s honesty about her mental health journey has defined her improvement.
“I think the more she’s running and the better she’s running, I think the better [she feels]. I’m really happy she embraces that and talks about it.
“I think she will be excellent [for] … a lot of young athletes that maybe haven’t had that type of role model.”
For Bisset, 2019 has been a breakthrough season in more ways than one.
She not only claimed the national title in Sydney last month, but also cracked the two-minute barrier a week later.
She’s certain her second lap around the track, figuratively speaking, has been a success because of her time away from competition.
“I think it’s one of the points of difference of me as an athlete, having had that time to really understand myself.”
With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in her sights, she hopes to inspire any young athletes to seek help when they need it.
“If I can share some part of my journey and do my part in normalising these experiences, and destigmatising mental health challenges then that’s something that’s really important to me.”