Today we interviewed Damon Jaenke, an elite wheelchair basketball player and personal trainer who has beaten cancer twice and been through mental health struggles, to come out the other side stronger and more determined than ever.
Damon, tell us about your life and how you became a wheelchair basketballer
I was born with a disability called spina bifida which is a condition that affects the spine. Despite my disability, it’s never really stopped me from doing anything. Some of the stories my mum told me about when I was two or three years old are really funny. She found me on top of a garden shed when I was about three years old and she asked me how I got up there; I simply said “I climbed up the chip bark and then onto the fence.” So, she walked away and said, “You got yourself up there so you can get yourself down.” Teaching me resilience from a young age was important as it showed me if I put my mind to something, I can achieve anything. I got into all different sports as a kid like swimming, wheelchair tennis and wheelchair racing. But I found my love for basketball when I played wheelchair basketball for the first time. I’ve been in a wheelchair my whole life. I can walk and I do sometimes at home and for short distances; however, it’s much safer to use my wheelchair when out in public places.
Can you tell us about your sporting story?
I started playing wheelchair basketball when I was ten years old. My mum actually had to drag me to the basketball courts the first time, but then I loved it so much, she had to drag me away at the end! I’ve been playing ever since. I’ve played for my hometown of McKay since I was ten and I’ve also played for Queensland in the junior ranks right up until I was eighteen. I have also played in the national competition and the National Wheelchair Basketball League. It’s taken me all around Australia; to Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, but I’ve also been across to Perth and up through Queensland.
What is it like travelling with a team of wheelchair basketballers?
It’s fun and we all get along, but the logistics can be a bit tricky. Almost every single athlete has two wheelchairs and two bags, so we travel with our wheels in a separate bag so that it can’t get damaged by the airlines.
What sporting achievements are you most proud of and why?
I get asked this one quite a lot and people are shocked by the answer. Playing for McKay in 2014 in the final of the North Queensland championships would probably be my greatest achievement because we were all locked up twenty-eight all at full time. I took a shot right on the buzzer to win the game and I missed it, so we went into overtime and my team ended up winning. And the reason it’s so special to me was that same year was the first time I had cancer. So, I’d had a really rough year prior to this and it was good to get back on the court and actually come away with a win on our home court. I hit the winning basket to win the game so this made up for my missed shot.
You spoke about getting cancer. Can you tell us about that?
I was diagnosed with testicular cancer at age twenty-two during a routine check-up at the doctors. I had no symptoms or signs so it came as a real shock; I didn’t even know it was there. I had a scan and my doctor saw a black spot on my testicle which he said wasn’t normal. He told me it was more than likely testicular cancer but I would need to go into surgery to find out for sure. I tried to protect my family by telling them there was a chance it wasn’t cancer, but I knew that it was. The doctor said there was 99% chance it was cancer. I ended up having the testicle removed but decided not to have more treatment as I presumed that by removing the testicle, all the cancer would be gone. The doctor did tell me that if the cancer were to come back, it would do so within eighteen months. Unfortunately, it did come back and it had also spread into my stomach and lymph nodes. I had a lot chemotherapy and ending up developing “chemo depression” as a result. My body was at war with itself and I ended up very depleted and with a chemical imbalance which made my mood crash.
How did you deal with that?
I felt like I dealt with the depression quite well using mindfulness, however, I progressively got worse. My moods, energy levels and tolerance of other people plummeted. I’m usually pretty laid back but I became very snappy and intolerant. I woke up one day and I just didn’t want to be here anymore. Something within me just snapped and I reached my tipping point, this was day I attempted to end my life. After I did it, a voice in my head said “drive to the hospital”. So, I did, and then I was on suicide watch and a nurse sat with my until I was ready to talk. Eventually I did want to talk and I spoke for around five hours continuously. I didn’t shut up and got everything out that was bottled up inside me. I brought up everything, even things from when I was a child. I hadn’t even realised I was holding onto these things and they had been bothering me for all these years. After that, I moved back to McKay with my parents for eighteen months so I could work on myself to get better. I saw psychiatrists, psychologists, took medication, tried essential oils – I tried everything. What helped me through the most was the support of my parents; having someone to support you through challenging times is essential.
How did you get back into sport after your suicide attempt?
I’d left my basketball chair in McKay for just under twelve months so I didn’t see it. One day I just got this itch to get back in my chair and have a roll. So, I went into McKay, got my chair, and brought it back to where I was living in Dysart, Central Queensland. The next day, I jumped in my chair. It was probably the most nerve-wracking day of my life, and of my sporting career. I was in my chair vomiting and crying for the whole two-hour session. From that day onwards, I just progressed every day by doing something in my chair or with my basketball. I eventually got back into team training about eight months later, after working on myself each day. I’m very hard on myself when I play, so if I’m not up to a certain standard, I won’t put myself into a position where I might fail.
As an athlete, you need to have mental strength as well as physical strength. After everything you’ve been through, how did you use your mental strength?
For me, I like to move forward and put things behind me and not dwell on the past. However, saying that, there are days where I just don’t want to get out of bed or I don’t want to go to a medical appointment because I know the outcome is not going to be positive. I work on mental strength with my psychology team. They take me into psychological situations in the session, which could be to do with anything in life and they ask me how I would deal with a particular situation. I answer the question and if they think I can improve things more then they make some suggestions. I’m the sort of person who likes to get on with things and I generally don’t let things hold me back.
Self-talk, both negative and positive, is a big part of sport and mental health. Do you practice self-talk?
I’m the first to admit that I’m a very negative self-talker. I thrive off the adrenaline of negative self-talk. I’m always internally (and sometimes verbally) yelling at myself to do better because that’s how I thrive. My mental health team are trying to instil positive self-talk in me as I need to be kinder to myself.
Who is in your mental health team?
I’ve got a psychologist, who also doubles up as a sports psychologist. I also have a Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) coach for the positive side of the mental health. Having this team behind me is really instilling the confidence in me to achieve all the things in life that I want to do, but which I’ve never had the confidence or the belief in myself to go out and smash it. I would love to get to the Paralympics; this would be the pinnacle of my career. I also want to get back to playing in the national leagues for the wheelchair basketball because I think it would be pretty cool to show other people that you can come back from adversity and life potholes.
Do you think it’s easy to speak about mental health in sport?
Well I find it easy but I know having spoken to teammates that it’s not. I’d say 98% of them would not find it easy to talk about their mental health. Most players feel like they’re letting their team down if they say they have a problem. When I was going through my rough patch, I didn’t trust myself to be able to speak out to my teammates. Afterwards when they found out what I was going through, they told me they would have been there for me and I should have confided in them. I just physically could not say the words, “I’m struggling, I need help.”
Now that you speak so openly about your physical and mental health issues, do you think people come to talk with you more about their mental health?
Very much so. I often have people come up to me, sometimes daily, to ask me for advice on something or to simply tell me they’re feeling flat. It’s nice that people can confide in me. I only give advice based on my experiences as I’m not trained professionally to advise. I can be there for them, as an ear or a shoulder to cry on, or for them to have a venting session. I’ve got my phone turned on 24/7 and my friends and family know this. If they want to reach out to me, they can.
Do you have any rituals before a game?
Yes, I do. I always have to have my hair gelled as I can’t train or play without hair gel in my hair. I also have to brush my teeth. On a competition day, because we play three to four games a day, I’m brushing my teeth constantly and I take my toothbrush to the stadium. Even if we have a back-to-back game, I brush my teeth. I always listen to “Lose Yourself” by Eminem and this is the one song I listen to before I put my headphones away and get into the warm up. I’ve always got my kneepads on too so I put my right kneepad on first and then my left one. Having these rituals relaxes me and sets me up for a good game.
What keeps you going on good days and bad days? What gets you out of bed?
I guess it’s my own mindset. Some days it’s very hard to get out of bed. But I know I’ve got to do it and I know I’ll feel better for it, and I do. I get out of bed and within an hour or so, I’m good to go. I might not be 100% that day but I feel better for being up and not lazing around. I get up, go have a coffee and do the rest of my morning routine. On the days when I don’t do my morning routine or spend an extra hour in bed, I feel sluggish throughout the day and like I’ve wasted time.
Do you take time to self-care? What do you do?
Yes, I do. Every Sunday I do self-care Sunday where I go and sit in an infrared sauna for an hour and then I go jump into a float tank to do float therapy for an hour. So that’s two hours on a Sunday just for pure relaxation and it helps set me up for the week ahead.
You’re also a personal trainer. How can someone get hold of you if they want to train with you?
I’m working at Fitness Studios in Ipswich in Queensland, so if you’re in the area definitely come down. It’s good fun as we make it fun. I’m looking to do some work outside of that as well. I’m also hoping to do motivational speaking because I want to get my story out there to help people overcome their struggles and build resilience.
What advice can you offer other sports professionals to help keep their head in the game?
To trust your struggles. What I mean by this is, trust everything you go through in life and know that you’ll come out the other end and you’ll be able to move forward. So, in a sporting sense, trust every single training session that you do is bringing you closer to that end goal, whether it be an NRL Premiership or an Olympic team or a gold medal. Or even at a local level, making that local team to go and represent the town that you live in. Just trust all those hard days that you go through, and all those lonely moments. So, in wheelchair basketball it can be very lonely on court when you’re training by yourself. But, all of that is worth it in the end. You’re going to have bad days, you’re only human; but you’re also going to have a hell of a lot of good days, and you got to thrive off those and run with them. Support is also key. Surround yourself with people who can get you through the tough times and champion you on. Speak up and tell people you’re struggling so you can get the help you need.