Monthly Archives: January 2018

Story Untold: “There’s So Much More to an Individual Than Their Diagnosis”

Travis Gerrits on Story Untold

Canadian freestyle skier Travis Gerrits has become a mental health advocate after receiving a diagnosis of Type 1 Bipolar. Photo credit: Tyler Gerrits.

When it comes to highs and lows, Travis Gerrits is something of an expert. One of the top freestyle skiers in Canada, he is also part of a rising tide in sports: athletes using their platform to raise awareness about mental health. For Gerrits, the issue took on greater significance after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the fall of 2014.

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“At the start, I was like, ‘what does that mean? What does this involve now? Where do [I] go from here?’ It’s been a lot of learning and understanding what I have, and research, and therapy, and medication — you name it,” he says.

Skiing has long been a part of Gerrits’ life. As a young competitor getting into the sport after first taking up gymnastics — nailing his first backflip on skis at the ripe age of 10 — he sharpened his skills in his family’s backyard, launching off makeshift jumps on their two-acre property just outside of Milton, Ontario. Not long after, he caught the attention of famed Canadian Nicolas Fontaine after a competition at Quebec’s Mont Orford.

“I was pretty much starstruck,” says Gerrits. “I see this guy, and then two years later, he’s competing at the Salt Lake Games in 2002.”

“I started planning my years and how many tricks I’d have to do this year to get to where I’d need to be at the Games in 2010 or 2014, because I knew it was going to be a bit of a push to get to Vancouver.” – Travis Gerrits

Then just 11, Gerrits began training in earnest, intent on one day representing Canada at the Winter Olympics. In 2010, as a fresh-faced teenager, he got a further taste of the Olympic magic, forerunning at the Vancouver Games — an opportunity to jump in front of the crowd and judges at the aerials event, without officially taking part in the competition.

By the time the 2014 Winter Olympics had arrived, so, too, had Gerrits. After finishing second at the 2013 World Championships in Norway, the aerials skier had pre-qualified for Team Canada, and medal potential was now being discussed. As the pressure mounted in the build-up to the Games, Gerrits’ mental health took a dive.

“It was probably the most stressful time of my life,” he says. “I was all alone. I had no other teammates with me that were competing in aerials […] so I felt like I had the weight of a lot of expectation from myself and the country to do well at these Games.”

Two days into the Games, Gerrits broke down. After weeks of speculation about a podium finish, he ended up finishing 7th.

“The highs and lows of an Olympic journey are pretty crazy. I had the biggest high of my life at the Olympic Games, but also one of the lowest lows that I’ve ever experienced.” – Travis Gerrits

“At the time, I was devastated. I didn’t leave my room at the Olympic Village for two days, when normally, everybody else is going out and celebrating,” he says.

In the following months, his depression worsened. A hospital stay in the fall of 2014 led to a clearer picture. Gerrits was diagnosed with Type 1 Bipolar. It was a secret he kept for nearly four years.

“I was ashamed to tell people. I couldn’t even phone my coach to tell him that I wouldn’t be showing up to training the next day,” says Gerrits.

The freestyle skier credits a combination of therapy, mindfulness, family support, and the right medication for his improvement. In 2017, he decided to make his story public, using his platform to advocate for further eliminating stigma.

“It takes a lot of courage for someone who is sick with mental illness to go get help on their own. It’s a very difficult struggle, because the last thing you want to do is find help and talk about your problems when you’re feeling that way,” says Gerrits.

“Now, I try to live my life where bipolar disorder does not define my life as a human being, or what I’m capable of doing in sport or otherwise. You can’t let it define you.”

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Story Untold: “We’ve Got to Enjoy Every Little [Moment] We’ve Got”

One List, One Life on Story Untold

What would you do if you found out you had a year left to live? Since September of 2017, Chris Betancourt has been facing that question in earnest. The Carmichael, California-based 20-year-old had just started his first year of college, intent on becoming a police officer, when he got the news: His cancer — chronic myeloid leukemia, which he had first battled as a nine-year-old — had returned at an alarming rate.

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“Once I heard the news, it kind of shut me down,” says Betancourt. “What it does is it makes these white blood cells, they don’t look normal, they don’t function normally, and sometimes they can attack … healthy, living cells.”

Doctors told Chris that without a bone marrow transplant, he had a year left. The cancer cells in his blood had jumped from 0.001% to 11%. Faced with the news, he called his best friend, Dillon Hill — the same friend who, years before, had sat by his bedside playing video games while he battled cancer the first time around, and later co-founded a charity, Gamers Gift, with.

“When Chris called me, he said something that really stood out to me. He said, ‘I’m afraid of not being able to experience the things I want to in life.’ And that’s a hard sentence to hear,” says Hill.

The next day, Dillon drove back to college but continued to replay the conversation during class.

“Just sitting there,” says Hill, “knowing that 30 miles away, my best friend was dying — literally given a year to live — why am I sitting here?”

“[Chris] said, ‘I’m afraid of not being able to experience the things I want to in life.’ And that’s a hard sentence to hear.” – Dillon Hill

He decided to drop out. When the two spoke next, a plan formed.

“[Dillon said], ‘alright, give me a list of 50 things you want to do, and we’re going to go do them, no questions asked,’” says Betancourt.

With that, One List, One Life was born. The two best friends began brainstorming all the things they’d ever wanted to do — fly a plane, serve food to the homeless, have a pillow fight with strangers — then started pursuing them, sharing the list and their adventures online. Soon enough, people began reaching out. Offers poured in from countries around the world to help the two in crossing items off their list.

“To have a bunch of people come forward and [offer help] … it’s really just like, wow. It’s definitely not expected, and it’s really appreciated,” says Betancourt.

“So many people were signing up for the bone marrow registry on our behalf that we got a call from the national registry. It’s crazy,” adds Hill.

A bone marrow transplant remains Betancourt’s best hope for recovery. The wait can take as long as three months before finding out about a possible match with a donor.

“I want to look back and remember that was the year Chris fought cancer, that was the year he [beat] it again, and that was the year we experienced our bucket list together and inspired thousands of people,” says Hill.

Regardless, it’s an event that has profoundly shaped the way the two look at their lives.

“Life can be gone at any moment,” adds Betancourt. “We’ve got to enjoy every little bit we’ve got.”

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Story Untold: “The Arctic is Melting Twice as Fast as Anywhere on Earth”

Kevin Vallely on Story Untold

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Kevin Vallely remembers well when he first felt the call of the Arctic. As a child growing up in Montreal, the architect and adventurer’s father would regale him with stories of working as a radio operator in northern Labrador.

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“It was just a brutal, harsh place, yet strangely enticing and magnificent as well,” says Vallely. “He talked about how lonely, and quiet, and desolate it was. It intrigued me: this place that is part of our country, yet so completely out there and inhospitable. It just painted a scene of something so adventurous and unique.”

He would get his first experience with the Far North in 2000, strapping on a pair of skis to traverse Alaska’s Iditarod Trail. Competing in the first ever Iditasport Impossible — described by Nerve Rush as “the Ironman’s badass uncle who did a tour in Vietnam and went back for vacation” — Vallely and his companions travelled over 1,000 frozen miles from Knik to Nome.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into at all,” he laughs. “I mean, the banner across the start line — their motto for this race was ‘Where cowards won’t show and the weak will die.’”

Vallely completed the race, and three years later, he was back: this time, riding a bicycle from Dawson City, Yukon to Nome, Alaska. Over the ensuing years, the Vancouver-based adventurer would embark on over a dozen expeditions around the world, becoming a World Record-holder for his trek to the South Pole and earning the title of one of Canada’s leading adventurers by the Globe and Mail.

Still, one elusive ‘first’ remained: traversing the Northwest Passage under human power. Vallely had first entertained thoughts of the crossing twenty years ago, while swapping stories with a friend.

“Traversing the Northwest Passage solely under human power in a single season was something that no-one had ever even come close to achieving,” says Vallely. “At the time, we both laughed and said it’s impossible.”

The melting sea ice gave him an opening, and a purpose: If Vallely and his fellow expeditioners could row the Northwest Passage unimpeded, perhaps they could draw attention to the urgency of global warming. Along with three other adventurers — two Irishmen and a fellow Canadian — Vallely set off in 2013 in a custom ocean rowing boat, intent on completing the crossing in a single season. The story has become Vallely’s first book, Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear, and Awe in a Rising Sea.

“It’s the classic canary in the coalmine. The Arctic is melting twice as fast as anywhere on Earth,” says Vallely. “I don’t think we realize how profoundly [things] will change … We need to do something about it.”

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Story Untold: “All Travellers Are Freaks, Really”

Chris Urquhart on Story Untold

Photo of Chris Urquhart by Alex Berceanu.

Few have captured the experience of life on the road as Chris Urquhart has — not the family vacation kind, but the dumpster-diving, punk house-squatting kind. At age 22, Urquhart, the author of Dirty Kids: Chasing Freedom with America’s Nomads, set out to follow young, often homeless, teen and twenty-something travellers across the United States.

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A student at McGill University at the time, Urquhart and Kitra Cahana, a photographer friend, were on assignment for the Italian magazine COLORS, profiling the young nomads who congregate at Rainbow Gatherings across North America — setting up camp en masse in U.S. National Forests for a festival of hippies, punks, runaways, and vagabonds. Over the course of a week or more, as many as 30,000 people attend Gatherings, complete with camp kitchens, jam sessions, and sanitation systems — set-up and torn down to leave no trace behind.

“What I was really interested in with Rainbow was that a community could get together […] They had this whole society, right? And it was all free,” says Urquhart.

“I was completely overwhelmed when I first entered Rainbowland […] Everyone was screaming how much they loved each other; there were naked people everywhere; there was a topless woman riding a horse with a baby in a sling… there’s just all this crazy stuff happening, and I was like, Wow, this is great.”

“I hadn’t encountered people living so rebelliously, so openly, so chaotically and sustainably. It was really such an inspiration.” – Chris Urquhart

Enthralled with the community they’d found amongst the runaways at Rainbowland — “we kind of met on a friendship level and and just went from there,” says Urquhart — the Toronto-based author continued following their stories, through Burning Man festivals, Ann Arbor’s Punk Week, New York City’s nightlife, and post-Katrina New Orleans. Along the way, Urquhart slept in treehouses and on forest floors, packed like a sardine in punk houses and flea-bitten on public beaches — all the while, gathering stories from the penniless young travellers who lived this life sometimes by choice, but often by circumstance.

“A lot of the people that I ended up living and traveling with, and interviewing, were queer and LGBTQ-identified, as I am. And a lot of them were quote-unquote ‘hitting the road,’ not because [they wanted to], but basically because they had been kicked out of their family,” says Urquhart.

“People will yell at you; people will spit on you. People will also take you out for dinner and buy you things. It’s luck of the draw, really. But a lot of people take their anger out on transients, or people they see as homeless, just because it so threatens them — they’re so unhappy, and they see these people pursuing whatever they’re pursuing.”

In Dirty Kids, Urquhart delves into the lives of these transients, sharing their stories and reflecting on how the road has changed her own life:

“I hadn’t encountered people living so rebelliously, so openly, so chaotically and sustainably. It was really such an inspiration […] They’re joyous, and they’ve made another life for themselves out of crap.”

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