Sir John Kirwan: Waving goodbye to the Covid-19 blues


A long time ago, I learned that one of the best things I could do to manage my mental health was to get to my “happy place” as often as possible. My “happy place” is a small pocket of Waihi Beach.

My favourite spot is at the northern end of the beach and, when I sit on my surfboard on a spectacular day when the waves are clean and glassy, gazing back at the green headland and white sand… well, it feels like heaven.

In those moments, nothing else matters, and I’m overcome with gratitude. For me, the physical and mental transformation that occurs is life-changing and life-nourishing.

If I can’t get to Waihi literally, and I’m stressed, I close my eyes and go there in my mind.

I’m a huge believer in what I call “blue health”, or what others describe as the “blue mind”, and recognises that all human beings possess an innate and genetically predetermined affinity with the natural world.

For me, my strongest affinity is with water and the ocean. And surfing is my umbilical cord to Mother Nature.

I haven’t been able to get to Waihi for four months now. Nor have I surfed during that time. With the Auckland border about to open, I can experience my happy place again.

I’m excited. But I’m also apprehensive. I’m anxious about the so-called “return to normal”. There’s a “new normal” now, and with it comes a litany of things to worry about.

Having been stuck in Auckland since lockdown – how will the permanent residents in Waihi feel about me and other Aucklanders coming to an area that ideally needs a higher vaccination rate? Will my old mate around the corner greet me with enthusiasm, or suspicion? What if some of my neighbours aren’t vaxxed, and want to come over… how do I navigate that?

And that’s before I even get in the ocean. Do I still have my paddle fitness? Will I still be able to surf in a decent swell? Will there even be any good waves? Or will it be flat and onshore? How do I reconnect with the Waihi community? How worried should I be?

My point is that Covid has brought with it endless anxieties. But it’s okay if we acknowledge that. From there, we can manage and start to find the way back to our happy places.

It’s also okay to feel there are certain things you don’t want to do. Sometimes, I have to force myself to do things. When I do, I call that courage.

But there are also times when showing courage is actually saying “no” to doing things. I think of Simone Biles, the US gymnast who withdrew from key Olympic events for the sake of her mental health.

One of the ways I try to achieve balance is by making sure my weekly routine includes doing things I really care about. Staying involved in rugby, educating kids about mental health through my JK Foundation, and helping people in their workplaces proactively manage their mental health through the company I co-founded called Mentemia are all good things for my soul – that’s why I love doing them.

Outside of the day-to-day, you need to spend time doing things that are “fun” for you.

Surfing is my passion, but I haven’t been able to surf since July. So during lockdown, a highlight has been a weekly video call with a tight group spread across New Zealand, Australia and the US who are all involved in bringing the first surf park to New Zealand.

The founders of the company, Aventuur, approached me about a year ago to get involved in the project, which aims to bring perfect waves and incredible experiences for surfers, families and kids to Auckland.

We’re in the early planning stages, identifying the right location and land for the project, and building the foundations for something that is going to have a remarkably positive impact for the community – I’m proud to be a part of it.

Our weekly video call has been a lifeline for me. We share surfing tales, brainstorm about the park design and discuss holistic community programmes to engage and give back. It gives me joy, and gets me excited about the future.

It also fits my ethos of killing two birds with one stone, whenever I can. Like taking a walk with your partner or somebody you care about. You get physical exercise on the one hand, and emotional connection on the other. My work to bring a surf park to Auckland is another example. It will remove the barriers to entry for surfing for so many people, providing mental and physical nourishment. I can’t wait for it to open.

So, as we tentatively explore the post-lockdown world, my message to you is to try and find the courage to go to your happy place this summer.

Reconnect with nature; accept it’s okay to sit with your anxiety; show the right type of courage you need in that moment; do that for yourself.

Be kind to yourself; switch off your phone; find something you look forward to every week this summer; enjoy it; and, if you’re out in the waves at Waihi, give me a wave.

Aloha, JK.

• Former All Black Sir John Kirwan established the JK Foundation to help young people recognise and respond to mental health issues and co-founded Mentemia for mental wellbeing in the workplace.

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