Many people tell you that life is what you make it, but I am a firm believer that life makes you at a very young age. As you get to your late teens you have probably become the person you will be for the rest of your life.”
International rugby union referee Nigel Owens is addressing a rapt audience at this year’s SIBEC UK conference at The Belfry Hotel and Resort, explaining how he came to be where he is today.
“Everyone who’s around you when you’re young has a huge influence on the person you’ll become,” he says. “The way you’re brought up, what you’re taught is right and wrong, the community you’re within, the sporting clubs you join, your coaches, the school you attend.
“It’s important that we recognise how a person’s history can shape their life, and realise the huge influence we have on the future lives of young people as parents, teachers and coaches.”
Known on the rugby field for his humour and unique style, Owens has reached the highest level of refereeing. But his journey to the top was far from smooth.
Brought up in a tiny village in West Wales with a population of just 140, Owens went to a primary school that had a total of 14 children. “It was a very old fashioned, close knit community,” he says. “All of my family, 95 per cent of the village and the surrounding villages spoke Welsh as their first language. I couldn’t speak English until I was about seven years old.”
Moving from a tiny primary school to a secondary school with 1,200 pupils was understandably difficult for Owens, and to make matters worse he became the target of a bully.
“If you’ve experienced being bullied,” he says, “you’ll know it brings a horrible sense of shame; as if you’re doing something wrong. You feel a sense of weakness.
“That’s why lots of people that are bullied don’t speak out – because you think there’s something wrong with you. When actually there’s nothing wrong with you; it’s the bully. It was a very difficult time for me and probably affected the rest of my life – it certainly affected my education. I didn’t play sport and I began playing truant in school.”
Eventually Owens moved to a different school where he was incredibly happy. He started playing rugby and at 16 started refereeing.
At 19 years of age, Owens’ life changed forever. He realised he was “different” from other young men of his age and felt there was something wrong with him. He found himself attracted to men, something he describes as “a totally alien feeling”.
Having been brought up in such a small village, Owens says he’d never known a gay person. His only impressions of gay people came from the camp characters in the sitcoms of the 70s – but Owens knew he wasn’t like that and didn’t want to be.
“I started having mental health issues,” he tells the audience of delegates. “Feeling down, feeling scared, worried about what would happen if people found out. What would my friends say? Would I be able to keep going to the rugby club?”
“It put me in a dark place and I started comfort eating and bingeing to cope with these feelings. As a result I put a lot of weight on.”
In an effort to lose the weight, but unwilling to address the core issue, Owens became bulimic, making himself sick three or four times a day. Owens admits that he still suffers from bulimia today, albeit not to the same extent.
Over six years, his weight plummeted from 16 stone to 11. Wanting to be strong again, he started going to gym, but soon became hooked on steroids, taking them regularly for the next five years until he began having suicidal thoughts.
“A huge side effect of taking steroids is the mental repercussions. So by the time I was 25 years of age I was deeply depressed, I was bulimic, I was taking steroids and I was in a very, very dark place.
“I did something that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life. I left a note for my mum and dad to say I couldn’t carry on living. I’ll never forgive myself for what I put them through when they woke that morning and thought they would never see their only child ever again.”
Nigel’s suicide attempt saw him rescued from a remote mountain, where he lay in a coma, having consumed a box of paracetamol.
Thankfully he survived, and realised that he couldn’t do that to his parents. However, even after this traumatic experience, Nigel was still unsure whether he should come out as gay to family, friends and colleagues.
“I felt I had to choose between living a lie in order to do the job I loved, or giving up what I loved to be true to myself. Nobody should have to make that choice. It’s only when you are truly happy in your yourself and in your place of work, that you can excel and be your best.”
Realising that he wouldn’t be able to properly focus on or excel in refereeing until he unburdened himself of the secret he’d been carrying since he was 18, Nigel finally came out in 2005, and became the first openly gay rugby union referee. As it turned out, everyone – from his parents and friends to the Welsh Rugby Union, the players and supporters – was hugely supportive.
This overwhelming support enabled Nigel to perform to the highest level as a referee. He has currently refereed 81 international test matches, a World Cup final, six European finals, a record 108 European cups matches, a record five Pro14/ ro12 finals and 169 Pro14/Pro12 matches.
“I wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of that if I hadn’t accepted who I was, and been accepted in my sport, my community and my workplace,” says Owens.
“Never underestimate the huge influence your attitude and behaviour have on people around you, whether in your sporting world or at work.”
The power of words
Owens concluded his presentation with a moving story that illustrated the power our words and actions can have on others without us even knowing.
“In 2007 I was one of two shock referees chosen for the World Cup. Although I had come out in 2005, there was nothing in the media about my being gay until I was made a World Cup referee.
“After my story had been made public, I received a letter from the mother of a 16-year-old boy. He had tried to take his own life a few months earlier and they hadn’t known why, but they had been worried he would try again.
“When it was announced that I would be a referee for the World Cup, the family were sitting around the dinner table with friends, and one of the adults said, ‘Nigel Owens, isn’t he the gay referee?’ The boy’s father answered, ‘It doesn’t matter if he’s gay. It matters that he’s good at his job. It doesn’t matter what his sexuality is’.”
After the friends left, the boy went upstairs and looked up Owens’ story. He came back down and told his parents, “I tried to take my own life for the same reason that Nigel Owens did”.
“He knew,” says Owens, “from the language spoken at that table, that now he could tell his mum and dad who he really was. If that conversation had gone differently – if his dad had said that it was a sin – then he might have acted very differently.”
“The way you say things, the way you project things, the language that you use, can all have a huge impact on the people around you. The words you use can hugely impact people that are different to you in the workplace.”
“Not only are we responsible for what we say and do in front of others; we sometimes bear more responsibility if we stand by and do nothing at all.”