Clay's triumph over injury horror, booze, 'addictive' drug (2024)

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide.

Clay Stephens remembers waking up in the shower covered in vomit and blood. Depressed, anxious and desperate for an "escape", the Australian gymnast on numerous occasions ploughed through beers and gurgled down Oxycodone, an "addictive" pain medication, in the same rampaging binges.

He says he never tried to take his own life during a hellish 12-month period in the US, but admits he chased "risky activities" with no care in the world for what could happen.

Three years on from a time in his life he describes as "horrific", he's happy, healthy and striving to become an Olympian in Paris.

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The 26-year-old from Adelaide will compete at the Oceania Championships in Auckland on Sunday, hoping to win a spot on the Australian Olympic team in artistic gymnastics.

He dreamed of becoming an Olympian in Tokyo, but his hopes were dashed when he suffered a third ACL rupture.

Living on his own on campus at the University of Illinois, the COVID-19 pandemic running rife, his life spiralled.

"I was in such emotional and mental pain," Stephens recalls in an interview with Wide World of Sports.

"You go, 'What can fix this?', and then you do it [take Oxycodone while drinking alcohol] and you don't have to worry about anything because your brain's not thinking about anything. It's an escape."

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Over a four-year period from 2017, Stephens spent most of his time staggering around on crutches. He had six knee surgeries to repair three ACL ruptures and several other issues.

"I'd get off the crutches for two months and then I'd tear my ACL again," he recalls.

When it happened a third time, he was done. He had been a gymnast since the age of five, but yet another physical breakdown killed the spark. He checked out from the sport mentally, his Olympic dream unfulfilled.

Stephens has faced adversity from early in his life. He was born with Poland syndrome, which in his case meant being born without a pectoral muscle on the right side of his chest. It was the butt of an ongoing joke among school kids, and for a time in his youth he would train with a shirt on because he was embarrassed.

He also had a malignant tumour removed from his bowels. Suffering from agonising gut pain, he was cut open to have his appendix taken out. A 1.8-centimetre tumour was discovered.

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He was back doing what he does best — flipping, twisting and swinging with extraordinary technique, flexibility and strength — in time for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, where he finished just short of the medals.

But a few months later, tragedy struck.

One of his closest friends, his dear mate Josh, committed suicide.

He looks back on 2020 and 2021 as the lowest point in his life.

"I was physically isolated, I was socially isolated and I was geographically isolated from my family," says Stephens, who's now based in Canberra.

"It was isolation in every sense of the word, so it's easy to understand why I got stuck in a mental health rut there ... I hit a very, very low point.

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"It was rough as. It was the hardest time in my life, for sure.

"I'd be watching something on TV and I'd just black out. I was honestly having short-term memory loss."

Stephens was given Oxycodone to treat his knee pain. He barely touched it because he hated the taste and didn't feel like he needed it, so he had six bottles of it lying around and turned to it in his darkest moments.

"It's a pretty well-known, addictive pain med," he says.

"I was stuck in my own place. I'd hobble down, get someone to grab me a case of beers, and I'd be dropping these pain meds with beers ... I've woken up in some pretty horrific states.

"I wasn't suicidal in the sense that I didn't try to take my own life, but I was very active in pursuit of risky activities and I didn't mind what the outcome was. It was a period of risking it all and seeing what happens. It was a flip of the coin.

"It's not who I am ... I had a horrific 12 months."

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He was in a complex frame of mind.

"It's very difficult to get out of a place that you don't want to get out of," he says.

"I found a lot of comfort in being unhappy for a while. It was an uncomfortable place, but it was consistent for me. I was unhappy and I was in a mental health rut because of the inconsistency of my life. I was comfortable in an unhappy place because I knew I could be unhappy every day.

"I think the first step for me was accepting the fact that life is unpredictable, and I was willing to take the risk to be happy."

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In a far better place in his mental health journey, Stephens hiked Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa, in 2023.

"My plan for Kilimanjaro was to have a solo trip and climb a mountain to really figure out what the f--- was going wrong with my head," he says.

"[I was thinking], 'I'm in a good place, but let's really work out who I am and notice the thoughts that I have'."

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He initially planned to head to Tanzania on his own, but was joined by his two brothers.

Seven days after beginning the trek, they reached the top of the mountain. Standing at 5895 metres above sea level, they were blown away by a glorious view.

"Every single place along the way, throughout the seven days of climbing up the mountain, you're looking at the mountain from a different perspective, your view becomes different and you're feeling a different way," Stephens says.

"There were moments where you're starting to think, 'I wonder how long we've been going for' ... and as soon as those thoughts creep into your head, that's when it gets hardest.

"I reminded myself, 'Be at your feet, be OK with where you're at and accept the fact that to get to the top of this mountain you have to be here right now for the next six hours, or else you won't make it'.

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"It's the perfect analogy to what I'm trying to do in my sport. If someone just gives me a golden ticket to the Olympic Games and I go there, it's just not the same as earning your way, which is also not the same as earning your way and enjoying the process of earning your way there.

"Having all of these low moments ... forced me into this position of reflection, and I've found a place where I'm enjoying and noticing and understanding the importance of every single day that I'm doing what I'm doing.

"For me, looking at the Olympic Games now, by no means is there any less work put towards it — I strive for it just as hard as I ever did — but I do it trying to enjoy each day more than I did the last."

If you or anyone you know needs immediate support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or via lifeline.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

Clay's triumph over injury horror, booze, 'addictive' drug (2024)
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