Friday, December 8, 2017

Time to take a breath

In the winter of 2014, I was interviewed by Merja Kallikari as a Canadian orienteer just having moved to Finland. We talked about training with the Turku Sports Academy and joining the club Angelniemen Ankkuri. This autumn, Merja contacted me again but with a very different type of interview in mind. She had been following my updates on social media about the difficulties of this last year and proposed writing an article in the Turku newspaper about what I've learned about myself in sport and in life. 

My first thought was to be terrified about putting my story into someone else's hands to write, but the more I thought about it the more I accepted that this was a valuable opportunity. It was an opportunity to reach out to a broader audience and share my experiences in finding hope within despair and self-compassion within self-criticism. The interview itself was a very supportive and constructive process with Andreas being by my side and Merja sending the article to me and discussing any last revisions I wanted to make. I often feel powerless when it comes to media publications so being given an option for input was a very refreshing experience. 

Together it feels like we have created a piece that I dare to hope has made a difference in somebody's life. Whether it has touched them personally or just given them insight into the pressures and mental health issues of elite sport, I hope that it has encouraged them to reach out or to speak out. 

With the help of my wonderful roommate, Emmi, we have translated the article into English which can be read below. The original article in Finnish can be found here

Photo: Riitta Salmi
Time to take a breath

Emily Kemp, the Canadian national team orienteer and Turku resident, ponders the continuation of her career. Last winter, high expectations and pressure got to the top athlete.

Emily Kemp smiles a lot. A good laugh accompanies her speech, but her voice also includes giddiness and uncertainty.

The Canadian top orienteer has not competed since the beginning of August. A foot injury is annoying, but the reason for the break is more serious. 25-year-old Kemp is even wondering if she will continue her career at the international level.

- I'm trying not to worry about next year and my career. If I continue, I will continue because I want to and not because I need to, Kemp says.

She has a tough year behind her, and life still feels like a roller coaster. The scariest part was last December when Kemp was barely able to get out of bed. An eating disorder and depression drove the orienteer to the bottom where she eventually understood that she needed help.

- How did I get here? Why and when? These are the big questions that I always ask myself. I believe that there are many contributing factors, but the most important thing now is to concentrate on recovering.

Kemp's life has focused on one goal for many years. She moved from Ottawa at the age of 18 to St. Etienne, France, in order to develop as a top orienteer. Three years ago, the Canadian headed to Turku, Finland, to learn skills in Nordic terrain.

You can say that Kemp was successful in her tough goal when she reached the fourth place at the Swedish World Championships in 2016, and even after the dark winter, a fifth place in Estonia. Achievements are great, but Kemp was doing badly. Her mind was left to wander through dreadful thoughts.

- Competition at the international level is really demanding. I no longer controlled the pressure. The better the results I got, the more pressure I felt, Kemp says.

- It's unbelievable how negative the dialogue is in my head. I would not treat anyone else as badly as I treat myself.

Kemp sees the bottom during the winter as a wake-up call that shook her to realize that she could not treat herself that way indefinitely.

- In a way, I am grateful that I went down, because I got the chance to look at my life and change my thinking to be healthier. However, change is really difficult when I have lived and reacted in a certain way for years.

First of all, Kemp had to accept that a top athlete is not a machine that is indestructible, but a person with feelings and fears.

- I found it difficult to admit that problems do not disappear by themselves, but that I need some help.

Despite difficulties, Kemp decided to continue to aim for the Estonian World Championships. The goal, set for the summer, got her out from the pit and helped her look ahead. She had a reason to take care of herself.

- Fortunately, I reached the top six at the World Championships, so not all the effort was futile. It was hard to put myself together for the race, but, on the way, I learned a lot about myself and my attitude towards elite sports, Kemp sighs.

Photo: Riitta Salmi

Now is the time to take a breath. During the autumn, Kemp has been focusing on chemistry studies at Åbo Akademi University and has done things that the top orienteer does not usually have time for. She can even go outdoors without thinking about how many intervals or miles she should run.

- Even though I’m not training, I still have to have order and routines in my life, so that the negative thoughts and emotions do not float to the surface. Otherwise I drift and go back to my bad habits.

Kemp is far from home, so support from the local orienteering community has been important. Likewise for the support from her boyfriend, Andreas Hougaard Boesen, who is in the Danish national team.

Boesen has encouraged Kemp to speak openly about her problems. Images and texts in social media have revealed the darker sides of the bright athlete.

- Although my smile and laughter are real, I want people to see and know the whole Emily. I'm trying to accept that life is not a mere victory and also show it to others.

Kemp has received encouraging messages from her competitors and people she does not even know.

- I wasn’t expecting to receive this much feedback. Many have been grateful for my openness because they are now experiencing or have experienced something like this. I am happy that I decided to be open, because it has helped not only me, but apparently others as well, Kemp smiles.

- If I had isolated myself, it could have ended really badly.

Kemp says she is hopeful that she will recover. Even though the journey is long, it's relieving to know that I’m not alone. The orienteer hopes that pressure and mental issues faced by elite athletes could be discussed more often.

- Every athlete handles the pressure in their own way. Everyone does not want to show their feelings and weaknesses, but at worst this pressure can bring a lot of negativity into their lives. At least, nobody should feel that their body is not good enough or doesn’t look right.

Kemp knows that mental problems are difficult to talk about. The most important thing is that someone cares and listens.

When I was struggling and surrounded by darkness, it was hard to believe that I would ever get better. But I’ve always had hope, and that hope is something that I've wanted to share with anyone who is struggling as well, Kemp says.

- Ups and downs are a part of life. You will overcome the difficulties when you stay positive and find reasons to smile.

Kemp dares to smile and laugh because her cheerful side is as true as the sad.


  1. Love you, Emily! Thanks for your openness.

  2. Thank you for your openness.
    I am a 26-year-old female Japanese orienteer,and I have been a big fan of you from the time I first knew you.
    I read your story,and I've became I can't help making a comment.
    I am always looking out for you from far away across the sea!

  3. Bravo for the article. Takes a lot of courage to go public, but there are rewards for doing so that are often far greater. Good for you.

  4. To speak about this is so important - not only to help others, but to hear your own voice.

    The toughest part about mental illness is recognizing you are not invincible, and to accept that you can't fix 'you' on your own. Reaching out and having faith in the therapeutic process is so so hard. Humbling yourself and actually changing your behaviour is even harder.

    There will be highs and lows - but it is most important to give yourself credit when you see the lows coming, and know that you can conquer them. You've dealt with worse before!!!

    Keep at it! Be good to yourself. You have to tools to overcome anything!

    Happy for you.