Retiring from professional sport is a difficult time for athletes, two-time 1980s Olympian Julie Nykiel OAM has said, after revealing injury and misfortune sent the basketballer into a state of depression for more than 20 years.
- Basketballers Julie Nykiel and Michael AhMatt have been inducted into the SA Sport Hall of Fame
- Injuries and botched surgery lead Nykiel into post-career depression
- Her friends have launched a ‘Rebound Fund’ to help Nykiel with spiralling costs
Nykiel was today inducted into the South Australian Sport Hall of Fame, along with the late basketballer Michael AhMatt, after being voted the Women’s National Basketball League’s most valuable player in 1984 and 1988.
“Being a top sports person you live a certain lifestyle, and then when you retire it’s so different,” Nykiel told ABC Radio Adelaide.
“You’ve got to come back to reality, and there is no transitioning for you.”
Nykiel represented Australia at three world championships and took the single-game 20-year record of 53 points in 1982 — achieving it without the three-point line — before going on to play state netball after retiring from basketball in 1990.
“You play for your state and country, and because you love the game you don’t expect things like this,” she said.
“It’s great to be recognised and this award for me is very special being a South Australian … but you can’t achieve anything without your teammates around you.”
The SA Sport Hall of Fame also inducted powerlifter Heidi Taylor last week.
Taylor won four world powerlifting championships, set nine world records and 34 Commonwealth records, won six Australian championships and set 32 national records.
Fellow inductee Michael AhMatt was one of the first two Indigenous Australians to represent the country at the Olympics in both 1964 and ’68.
He represented the Northern Territory in the 1959 Australian Championships before moving to SA where he helped lead the South Adelaide Panthers to five titles.
Nykiel’s problems started after she injured her knee during her basketball career, and then her ankle at the beginning of 1988, whereupon she was advised ahead of the Seoul Olympics to keep playing.
After arriving home after the Olympics, she had to have an ankle reconstruction which put her out of sport for 12 months and left her with life-long leg problems.
In 1989, while riding a bicycle to help her leg, a shopping bag she was carrying caught in her front wheel and threw Nykiel over the handlebars to land on her face.
“I fractured my skull, shattered my nose and I broke my jaw,” she said.
Nykiel recovered and completed her sporting career, at which point she was invited to have surgery on her knee in 1993.
But shortly after her surgery, her knee collapsed.
“I ended up with a leg that was one-and-a-half inches shorter than the other, and that created back problems and everything else,” she said.
It sent Nykiel, who described her body as her “passport” in life, spiralling into a pit of depression she would not emerge from for 20 years.
“When my body was mutilated — and that’s the way I look at it, crippled — it really spun me into that area [depression],” Nykiel said.
“Hiding away is not the best thing to do, but it was the only way I could cope at the time.”
After living in denial of her condition for two decades, it was the advent of support organisations like Beyond Blue and R U OK?, and a few “motivating” people, that finally encouraged her to try and find her way out of the darkness.
This included losing weight and deciding it was time to try and get her knee fixed.
“I was in intensive care a number of times and my health failed along with my leg.”
I ‘nearly died’
At the end of 2019, she was given “hope” by another surgeon who operated on her leg once more.
“But as a consequence, when I went into surgery, I had kidney failure — I think from all the stress and everything else gong on with my life,” Nykiel said.
“I nearly died on the table.”
Nykiel suffered a pulmonary embolism with a blood clot in her lungs, as well as on the back of her knee.
“It’s probably taken up until now for me to recover from that … but the knee’s doing quite well,” she said.
She has not been able to work the past two years, however, and is living on a disability pension which, with “utility costs rising all the time” and ongoing treatment costs, is not covering bases despite Nykiel’s attempts to move into cheaper accommodation.
Fundraising page launched
Some well-meaning friends aware of her plight over the years have recently banded together to set up a Go Fund Me page, called the Julie Nykiel Rebound Fund.
Describing Nykiel’s plight as a “travesty”, the page states that “no-one can give Julie back her 25 years but we can help her quality of life moving forward”.
“But I do hope they look after athletes today because it’s tough, especially when people retire from sport and they find they’re back in the normal world.”
A further two inductees into the SA Sport Hall of Fame will be announced over the next fortnight.