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Anna Willcox opens up about her struggles with mental health since having to quit skiing

New Zealand Woman’s Weekly logo New Zealand Woman’s Weekly 13/05/2019 Cloe Willetts
a woman sitting on a bench: The Dancing with the Stars shares how her mental health suffered after a crash ended her skiing career and how she bounced back. © Provided by Bauer Media Pty Ltd The Dancing with the Stars shares how her mental health suffered after a crash ended her skiing career and how she bounced back.

Olympic freestyle skier Anna Willcox turned heads during her stint on Dancing with the Stars with her sultry dance moves and glitzy gowns, but under it all the sports journalist is a nature-loving adrenaline junkie.

It's no surprise that she's a fierce competitor – her dad is Olympic sailing champ Hamish Willcox.

When the Weekly steps onto a boat docked at Auckland's Westhaven Marina to chat with the retired skier and her family, Hamish is preparing to sail to Whangarei with Anna's mum, Ulrika.

They're dropping off the boat they've lived on for the past three years.

Her older brother, Dan (28), is jetlagged from last night's flight home from Italy, where he won gold in the Hempel World Cup sailing series in Genoa.

Anna's own whirlwind sporting career once saw her chasing winters around the globe.

She competed at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and was, for a time, the sixth-best female freestyle skier in the world.

"I was so in the [skiing] zone because it was everything I cared about, and my real goal was to go to the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018," she says.

But disaster struck. She suffered a head injury during training in 2016 and then broke two vertebrae in her back.

She made the heart-wrenching decision to follow her parent's advice and retire from skiing.

"My personality changed quite a lot after the head injury. It was one of those moments you realise how bad it can get," she recalls.

"Quitting was the biggest decision I ever had to make."

During a trip around Spain two years ago – to escape anything that reminded Anna (27) of her shattering retirement – her mental health quietly started to spiral.

After leaving work at a sailing resort one evening, she was hit by a bike and woke in an ambulance with no memory.

"I had one of those, 'Why me?' moments, but I picked myself back up. Then I went to work on yachts in Croatia, backpacked in Eastern Europe, and lived in Berlin and London, which was amazing."

But last year, back in Auckland and having taken over from Hayley Holt on TV's The Crowd Goes Wild, her mental health declined.

"I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, which came out of the blue, and hit me when I had a great job and had met someone I love," says Anna, whose DWTS charity was the Mental Health Foundation.

"I prepared myself for some low periods when I came out of skiing, but not for depression to come when I felt like everything was on track. It was hard coming out of an established identity and career I was proud of and having no plan. Suddenly the world seemed intimidating."

Anna, who lives with her partner, Campbell Lowe, a secondary-school dean, says reaching out to friends and family helped.

a group of people posing for the camera: The family that sails together: Dan, Ulrika, Hamish and Anna in familiar territory – on a boat. © Provided by Bauer Media Pty Ltd The family that sails together: Dan, Ulrika, Hamish and Anna in familiar territory – on a boat.

She and her family have always been close. When she was a child, the tight foursome went on sailing expeditions around New Zealand and to Fiji, and there were no electronic games, phones or TVs on board.

"It was just family time with cards and a barbecue!" Hamish says.

Anna was seven when her parents pulled the kids out of school for a four-month road trip around Europe, while being home-schooled.

"That van trip was pretty pivotal," Anna recalls. "We had the Rolling Stones on cassette tape and set up a little basketball hoop in the back."

When the sports-mad blonde was 13, the family moved to Spain for a year to follow Hamish from one sailing regatta to the next, and she made friends with other yachting kids.

"I'm grateful for learning to sail as a kid," she says. "Being on a boat is very grounding and homely for me now."

a person standing on a stage: Anna and dance partner Brad Coleman go retro with a paso doble to ABBA hit Mamma Mia. © Provided by Bauer Media Pty Ltd Anna and dance partner Brad Coleman go retro with a paso doble to ABBA hit Mamma Mia.

For Christchurch-born Hamish and his Swedish wife, both 57, raising their kids with a "bit of a gypsy life" is partly to thank for their sporting success.

"Sailing is something we always did as a family," says Hamish, a three-time 470-class world champion.

"Every Sunday, we went to the sailing club in Murrays Bay. It didn't come as easily for Anna as for Dan, but she always found something she enjoyed, like jumping off the wharf."

Hamish is proud his daughter carved her own career path, even if she chose skiing over sailing!

"It's incredibly hard following in Dan's footsteps and even mine, in a way, and I can understand why Anna wanted her own niche," he says.

"But what did surprise me was how quickly it all happened. She was playing around on the slopes and the next thing she was on the ski circuit."

a man jumping in the air on a snow covered mountain: The skier freestyling at the Sochi Olympics. © Provided by Bauer Media Pty Ltd The skier freestyling at the Sochi Olympics.

Hamish's success also began early. "My dad got me into sailing at about nine and by 14 I was involved in youth sailing," he recalls.

"I went through an era where an amazing number of sailors were doing well. It was the year of Russell Coutts, Chris Dickson and John Cutler, and we all kind of pushed each other along."

In the 1980s, Hamish got into Olympic sailing with David Barnes, and the two became the first New Zealand team to win an Olympic class world championship. Then they won two more.

"With sailing, your arena is out on the water and I really like that aspect of it, the freedom it gives you," he says.

At 21, he met keen boatie Ulrika in San Francisco and they bought a little vessel together.

"Ulrika loved the whole sailing scene and always said she was going to marry a sailor, so she pulled that off!"

Hamish stopped competing professionally when the kids were born and turned his sights to coaching, securing a job with the America's Cup when it came to Aotearoa.

When he wasn't working in Europe, family time was precious and included annual holidays to the ski fields.

"We went for about six days, once a year, because that's all we could afford, and the kids always rated it," he says.

Anna recalls she and Dan begging for a PlayStation and being asked by their parents, "Do you want that or a ski holiday?" They chose the slopes.

"Those ski holidays got my passion flowing and in high school I was down the mountain every second weekend," Anna says, smiling.

"After school, I didn't know what I wanted to study, so I drove to Mt Ruapehu with a best friend and got a job at a bar for the season. I was hooked from there."

She loves being in the competition scene again with DWTS, and she and dance partner Brad Coleman are in it to win it.

"There's a bit of rivalry with Clint [Randell] and his partner, Brittany [Coleman], who is Brad's sister," Anna admits.

"I'm happy with how I've danced so far and it's a great group of people."

Hamish enjoys watching his daughter perform, even if he and Ulrika have to stomach hearing the judges' criticisms!

"I'm super-proud and, for us, it's a lot nicer to watch her dance than to take on one of those ski jumps," he says.

Anna's beaming mum agrees. "We think she could win. You've always got to go for the gold."

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