Michele Hewitson interview: Ben Fouhy

By Michele Hewitson

Silver medallist Ben Fouhy has been hurt by some of the media coverage he's received in the past. Photo /  Richard Robinson
Silver medallist Ben Fouhy has been hurt by some of the media coverage he's received in the past. Photo / Richard Robinson

Ben Fouhy the Olympic silver medallist kayaker, is, bar the rubber-stamping, and despite his well-publicised travails, going to the London Olympics.

I wish I'd thought to take him (or me) a bottle of fizz, because, phew, what a relief. I hadn't realised what a relief this was until after I'd been to see him, after which I felt like drinking a whole bottle of anything myself.

He does rather do your head in, but not half as much as he does his own head in, so it would be churlish to hold this against him.

He is supposed to be a hothead, a tantrum thrower, a difficult character. Well, is he?

"Absolutely, I find myself difficult. Ha. But, I mean, it's a difficult job."

It sounds, actually - and this is to remove from the equation the falling-outs he's had with various kayaking people and the sports' funding body; the quitting the sport, twice; the things that have been written about him - like the job from hell.

The training is awful, for one thing, and he trains six days a week.

But that's the case in most sports where the aim is to win at the Olympics. I happen to think that most top athletes are to a greater or lesser degree bonkers, because you have to be. So, in that context, he might almost pass for normal. We'll see.

He says that when you're lining up in an Olympic Games race, and there are all those people watching, "it's just you ... and the whole world is seeing what you're made of. I think, whether you like it or not, it's in some way demonstrating who you are as a person and what you're about."

In other words, it's personal. "It's really personal and that will go some way to explain why I can be fairly direct when I'm not happy with my circumstances. And why people may say I'm difficult."

Let's get this being difficult out of the way. So, is he temperamental, a hothead, a tantrum thrower? "I'm very passionate about what I do, okay?" If he's unhappy with the circumstances he feels are preventing him from doing his utmost to win: 'I'll make it clear in no uncertain terms that I'm not happy."

Right, that seems to cover temperament and hotheadedness. Tantrum thrower? "I think if you push anyone far enough ..." I was actually trying to get all of this out of the way early, but you don't get off so lightly with him, which I should have known. The other thing he is, is a world-class worrier, and one of the things he worries about is what people think of him and he says he doesn't believe people who say they don't care.

Fair enough - although there are certainly people with thicker hides who might not care as much - as he says, his "shortcomings and idiosyncrasies ... and dissecting who I am and what they think I'm about" have been the stuff of many stories. "Was there any effort demonstrated to represent the counter-argument or another point of view? It's hard to watch yourself in ink ... I hurt to this day. I'm very sad and hurt."

He said, later: 'Have you decided that I'm difficult?" He'd already told me he was, and I had no choice but to believe him. "Yes, I did say that. I think you can also go on your experience of me."

We moved on, or so I thought, but he came back to the question of what I'd decided about him later again. I think that what he was trying to get at was that I must have a preconceived idea about him and that I was going to go on what had been written about him and that I might not have got what he called "the full balance of it ... because it seems very convenient for people just to take whatever's already been said and ..." And, aargh! Is what I was actually thinking, because he was doing pretty well before getting himself, and dragging me along with him, tangled in the thicket that is the inside of his head.

He does, perhaps with justification - I have no idea - seem to think people, and journalists in particular, are out to get him. So I did wonder why he'd agreed to an interview. He answered that question without me having to ask it: "I'm with you now to help you understand who I am."

It was silly to ask why he reads the stuff (no choice, he's Ben Fouhy) but if he was reading about this person and he wasn't that person what would he think? That he was an utter shit? "Yeah. Absolutely."

What a strange and interesting fellow he is, and he is strangely likeable, at least I liked him while seeing that it might be hard to. If I'd had another hour (that would have required a second bottle) I might have asked him if he likes himself. I imagine his response would be what all of his responses are, really: That there are layers and contradictions.

He's so strong, physically, obviously, and appears so brittle otherwise - but he must be tough mentally to be a world-class athlete. Still, world-class athletes can have breakdowns and I was wondering whether he had and wondering how to ask the question. I wasn't about to make any jokes about athletes being more or less bonkers.

Somebody who has observed him for years, and admires him, told me he is reputed to have a sense of humour but that you have to have known him for five years before it emerges. That may have been a joke. Actually, playing the transcript back there were flashes, not registered at the time because even when he's making a dry joke, those intense, unblinking blue eyes don't so much as flicker.

I did ask, gingerly, whether he'd seen sports psychologists and the short and candid answer is that at one stage he was told (he doesn't say who by) that he was mentally ill and should be on anti-depressants.

"I went to a psychiatrist. I'll be truthful about this." He says when you are told you are mentally ill, "after a while you start to believe it".

Anyway, he saw various doctors and in the end the psychiatrist and discovered, as one blunt Australian sports psychologist put it, that he wasn't nuts at all, he said: "I think you're really pissed off." I'd better say that he didn't use the word nuts. He was at pains to make sure that I knew he wasn't being offensive to people who were mentally ill, or who need anti-depressants. I didn't for a moment think he was but, boy, he does take a lot on.

I said I really hoped he got some enjoyment from his sport and he said: "I'm having another crack at this because it's going to be really difficult and tough and I'll have some run-ins with people and it's going to be really stressful ... I'm not trying to be facetious, but it kind of sounds like I'm indulging in a suffer feast."

He meant I was making it sound that way. I can take a hint, so all right then: Is he a happy sort of person? "Some of the time." Is he happy at the moment? "I'm all right. It's like: What choice do you have? I guess you can choose to be happy. So I try to choose to be happy." Does he think he might mellow, as he gets older? "I bloody hope so."

So do I, but the signs aren't, so far, too good. I asked, hopefully - because there is something about that intensity which makes you itchily anxious for him - whether he was trying not to be so introspective these days. He said: "Perhaps in some ways I'm becoming more ... introspective." This made me want to put my head in my hands, because: How could this be possible?

"It's something people like to jump on, I guess. There's a whole lot of other athletes in New Zealand other than Ben Fouhy. But it so happens that I've shared what I have ... at certain times and the media have found it interesting covering the topic of being Ben Fouhy."

He has a weird, matter-of-fact way of talking about certain aspects of himself (mostly those aspects of himself that he reads about in the media), and his past troubles, in the third person. I thought he might be using that third-person reference to distance himself from that other person, who nobody would be too keen to recognise, and those events.

He thought about this for a while and finally said: 'I'm just trying to process what you're saying. I wasn't intentionally trying to speak about myself in the third person. So I hope that's not a sign of madness or narcissism, or something!"

So, there, he does have a sense of humour - cause for another phew! But if you put something to him, you do so at your peril. He doesn't do short answers, and he doesn't do flippant. He wanted to make it clear that there are "other people in a similar situation ... but the person I know most about and that's who we're talking about is myself."

I wondered what on earth he could be like to live with. He says his wife, Helen, "does tend to laugh a lot when we're in the house at the same time. So whether she's laughing with me or at me ... !"

I suggested, faintly, that this might be a survival technique and he laughed and said, "yeah, maybe it's a coping mechanism!"

They live in a little, astonishingly clean house with absolutely no personal clutter, in Glenfield. He says his wife is in fact tidier than he is, and that of course he tidied up before we came because, who wouldn't? Hmm. He conceded that his idea of a mess would be a few papers on the dining room table. His idea of gardening is to go out with the Round Up. His medals are tidied away somewhere. He doesn't "need" to have them out. A bit of cod psychology: He has so much clutter inside his head he couldn't cope with any external messiness.

A redundant observation about Ben Fouhy: It's not easy being him. "No, not really. But that cuts both ways you know, that affords me the opportunities, the highs and lows, the heights and depths that perhaps other people don't ... experience."

He said, about the burden of personal expectation: 'I'm hugely determined and uncompromising and ... most of the world doesn't work that way." Whatever he did, he'd still be him. I can imagine him playing, as a little boy, Snakes and Ladders, say, with the same fierce, introspective, worried, intensity he brings to everything he does - including an interview. He said, "I don't have a choice."

He was probably born that way. "It's hard to know this, isn't it, really? Nature or nurture?" He still doesn't know and he has thought more about what it means to be him than anyone else - although I bet more than a few people have given trying to figure him out a good go.

I'm still trying.

- NZ Herald

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