Emmanouil Karalis competes in the pole vault at the Indoor Meeting Karlsruhe (© Dan Vernon)
Let me take you back to the worst moment of my life. It was in July last year, a month before the European Championships in Munich. I was standing on the pole vault runway, at training, and that’s when I felt it. A panic attack. My first.
It felt like my heart stopped, like I was about to die. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t run. There were tears, and thankfully I was wearing sunglasses so no one noticed.
It was horrible.
I’m still unpacking and understanding the period of depression and anxiety that followed that moment, but the roots of it went back to the indoor season. I started the year great, with personal bests, but a hamstring injury ruled me out of the World Indoor Championships and, after that, I couldn’t train for almost a month. That led me to a dark place spiritually, emotionally, because I couldn’t do what I love on a high level.
The noise around me made it all the worse.
In Greece, sports are a really big part of life and, sometimes, the journalists write good stuff, sometimes they write bad stuff. I faced a lot of negative coverage during that time and because there was a wave of bad energy around, it led to me losing my confidence, to not loving what I do.
At first I didn’t know I had depression. I wasn’t able to identify the feeling. I was trying to be strong, to pretend it wasn’t there.
It’s just something that happened. Move on. Work hard. Be a winner. Jump high.
I felt that pressure to be a super athlete, always winning, being strong, not showing emotion. But when things unravelled last August at the European Championships, I told myself I really wanted the season to end. My mom knew it – she always knows when something is wrong – and I told her when I was competing: I do not love what I do now; I need a break.
I didn’t qualify for the European final, and that actually made me happy. It was a weird feeling. Cathartic.
I stopped watching athletics, stopped going to the stadium, and stopped cooperating with my coach. I didn’t know if I would start again. I knew I needed a reset.
I took a big break, going for a vacation, alone, to Italy, trying to feel like a normal person. I switched off my phone, deleted all social media apps, and enjoyed the peace of the mountains in Tuscany.
I became a monk, basically.
I grew my beard, my hair, and when I came back home I looked, and felt, like a different person. I started visiting a psychiatrist, talking honestly with myself and with those in my close circle. I explained what happened, what I felt, and started being more open about my feelings. That made me feel better, day by day. It led me to understand that I am human, that it’s okay not to be okay, to cry, to have bad days.
Everything happens for a reason and, while it may not feel like it at the time, these things ultimately work out for the greater good.
I had experience with this before. Before all of this, one of the things that first led me into a cycle of depression wasn’t my performance. It was racism.
My mom is from Uganda, I am mixed race, and in Greece the only well-known black athletes are me and Giannis Antetokounmpo – the Greek Freak.
Because of how I stood out, it was very hard in the beginning. I was only 15. We had a lot of racist coaches in the stadium. When I was young, and I started jumping higher than the rest of the kids, I started getting racist comments, looks, stares.
These black guys cannot pole vault.
Go back to your country with your mother.
It was my first time dealing with racism and it almost destroyed me mentally. That continued until my 20s. For six years, I was dealing with it almost every day and, finally, I decided to talk about what was happening, to tell my federation about the things the coach was saying.
The story went crazy. The news outlets were all talking about it in Greece, and the case ended up going to the Supreme Court. My testimony was backed up by other athletes who had heard what was said, and I was vindicated. The coach was banned for a year.
I had been used to attention as an athlete, but this was different. It became political. It’s a very different kind of publicity and it was scary, but I feel very proud of what I did.
I became someone who stood up to racism – and I won.
This, to me, was even bigger than sport, or whatever else I do in life. The things I’ll be most proud of is how I fought these battles off the track. In doing that, I motivated a lot of young, mixed-race kids to be more open, to talk about these things when they happen.
As an athlete, you come to understand that you are an influencer, whether you like it or not. We’re able to use our platform to communicate so much beyond athletics. If one kid can speak freely about the racism they experience and put a stop to it as a result, then that’s something worthwhile.
It’s why I believe that, as hard as it was, it might have happened for a reason. That also goes for what happened last summer.
When I came back from Italy, I started with a new coach – my dad. He’s a former decathlete and a really good coach, but not specifically in the pole vault. But he is my dad and I felt good to have someone I truly trusted on board, someone that loves me and who I love unconditionally.
Over time, he learnt to understand me as a vaulter, and I was able to explain to him how I feel as an athlete. We slowly developed our relationship from dad to coach and, in the end, it was the best decision I’ve made.
Off the track, ever since that horrible moment last summer, I kept working on my mental health.
I started breathing exercises, thinking about positive things, and did other stuff that slowly made me more relaxed when I was going through the worst of it. There were other mechanisms, too: a lot of talking, a lot of sessions spent getting to the core of why it happened.
If I’m honest, I’m still trying to find out some things. It’s a long process, but it’s worth it, and right now I’m in a good place and – most importantly – I love what I do.
The records are okay, the medals, but what matters to me most is doing what I love at an elite level and to be able to do it with passion. I have found that again this year, found my smile, and I’m the type of guy that when I have that and get into competitions, I can surpass my limits.
These days, I don’t look at what’s written in the media, whether positive or negative. The only thing that matters to me is my family. On the good days and bad days, they’re the people who are there for me regardless, who love me unconditionally.
The thing is: I know many other athletes struggle, more than we know. The first thing I’d say to them?
Rediscover your love of the sport.
None of us started because we wanted to make money or become Olympic champions. We started simply because we loved this sport. If you’re struggling mentally, or spiritually, talk with your closest circle. It could be family, friends, coaches, sports psychologists. The first thing is identifying what is the problem.
It can be hard to communicate because maybe you don’t want to be seen as weak, but the reality is, it’s really brave to talk about your feelings, especially as a man because there is such a taboo of talking about it. But you know what? It’s okay to cry, to smile, to hug, to feel love and to be loved.
That’s what makes us human. That’s what makes us who we are.