Sinister phone call that forced Daniel Kowalski to come out as gay

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Daniel Kowalski, pictured here after winning the 1500m final at the 2001 World Cup of Swimming in Melbourne.
Daniel Kowalski celebrates after winning the 1500m final at the 2001 World Cup of Swimming in Melbourne. (Image: MarkDadswell/ALLSPORT via Getty)

Aussie Olympic great Daniel Kowalski has opened up on his depression, bulimia and being forced to go public about his sexuality before he was ready in a candid chat with Yahoo Sport Australia for its new 'Mind Games' series.

The former middle and long-distance swimmer came out publicly as gay in 2010, five years after telling his family and close friends.

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However in a startling revelation, Kowalski says he only went public about his sexuality when a number of publications got wind of the news and threatened to 'out' him.

"In 2005 I had accepted who I was and I told my family and my closest friends," Kowalski told Yahoo Sport Australia.

"I made a very conscious decision that who I was was between me and them and I didn't feel I had this need to come out publicly.

"It wasn't until about 2010 that I started receiving calls from a number of publications saying that they were going to 'out' me.

"I really felt as though a part of me was being taken away and robbed from me, so I decided to take matters into my own hands and chose to come out publicly and did it on my own terms."

The 45-year-old revealed an incident on a tram when he was abused for his sexuality.

"I never really copped any abuse other than sitting on a tram and a guy just walked past and said 'You're a f***ing faggot' and kept going," he said.

"I was startled because I didn't realise some of the hatred that some people felt because of my sexuality...and that he even recognised who I was."

Daniel Kowalski, pictured here with Ian Thorpe, Michael Klim and Matthew Dunn at the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
Daniel Kowalski (L) with Ian Thorpe, Michael Klim and Matthew Dunn after winning gold with a new world record at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. (Image: Nick Wilson/Allsport via Getty)

Daniel Kowalski opens up on depression and bulimia

Kowalski competed at the Olympics in 1996 and 2000, becoming the first man in 92 years to win medals in the 200, 400 and 1500m freestyle events at the same Games.

The 45-year-old achieved the feat by winning silver in the 1500m, as well as bronze medals in the 200m and 400m in Atlanta.

Kowalski added a gold medal as part of the Australian team that won the 4x200m relay in Sydney, however it was his silver in the 1500m in Atlanta that he is perhaps best remembered for.

Despite securing an Australian 1-2 behind the legendary Kieren Perkins, Kowalski said he saw the silver medal as a failure.

"Going into the last day and the 1500m final - the one event that I really wanted to win - I was in lane four and Kieren Perkins was in lane eight and I was absolutely petrified," he said.

"I didn't want to be there. I wanted to be that nine-year-old kid in my lounge room watching because that's when it was fun and innocent and I had dreams. I was beyond scared.

"To come away with a silver medal was a massive failure and massive disappointment."

Daniel Kowalski, pictured here with Kieren Perkins and Graeme Smith at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
Daniel Kowalski (L), Kieren Perkins and Graeme Smith on the podium after the 1500m final at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. (Image: Getty)

Kowalski suffered from depression and bulimia in the period immediately after the 1996 Olympics.

"It led to such a dark period for a while after I got home from the Games because you shouldn't be disappointed or feel like you failed because you won three individual medals at the Olympics," he said.

"The period after the 1996 Olympics was a really difficult time because I knew my opportunity had passed.

"I didn't have anything else going on in my life. I was just a swimmer and that was my one identity.

"I left Melbourne and moved to the AIS in Canberra which is really when a lot of the demons started to kick in.

"I started to develop a lot of issues with my body image and how I viewed myself. I became extremely bulimic, would binge eat and purge and there were a lot of dark times where I felt it would be a lot easier to not be around.

"I thought long and hard about 'how do I end my life'. I never confided in anyone about how I was feeling, what my actions were.

"I was very good at putting on a front and a facade that everything was going great and I think that's one of the scary things about mental health is that people can disguise it. I did a very good job of it."

Daniel Kowalski, pictured here at the Jeans For Genes Excellence Ball in 2016.
Daniel Kowalski at the annual Jeans For Genes Excellence Ball in 2016. (Photo by Don Arnold/Getty Images)

Kowalski said he would tell himself two things if he could go back in time to the late 90s and early 2000s.

"I would tell myself that people aren't going to love me any more if I win a gold medal at the Olympics. People are going to love me probably more if I'm true to myself and accept who I am as a gay man," he said.

"They're the things I beat myself up about the most - I failed at the Olympics and it's embarrassing to be a gay man.

"If I could get a number of those years back I'd be grateful."

Kowalski is now the Olympian Services Manager for the Australian Olympic Committee, helping athletes make the difficult transition to everyday life after retirement.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

For confidential support about eating disorders and body image issues you can free call the Butterfly Foundation National Hotline on 1800 33 4673.

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