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He went to rehab for drug addiction. Now he's a world-class athlete. This is his story.

Feeling trapped by social stereotypes, Gavan Hennigan turned to drugs and alcohol.

He went to rehab for drug addiction. Now he's a world-class athlete. This is his story.

Gavan Hennigan is a world-class athlete.

He's a 35-year-old ultra-marathoner who recently set an international record as the fastest person to row solo across the Atlantic in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. To put this in perspective, more people have been to space than have rowed the Atlantic.

In short, Hennigan is unstoppable.


Photo via Ben Duffy. All images used with permission.

But 14 years ago, things weren’t looking so bright.

Hennigan's childhood was rough. His father was an alcoholic. It made him a deeply angry person from a young age.

He found his solace in sport and nature. He grew up a few hundred meters from Ireland's Galway Bay and was an avid swimmer. He says his earliest memories involve time spent outdoors.

Photo via Gavan Hennigan.

As a teen, Hennigan says he knew he was gay. But the uncertainty of what that meant for his future — and his harbored anger and the abandonment he felt because of his father — led him to find comfort in drinking around age 16. Later, he turned to other drugs and substances, including heroin.

Six years into his drug addiction, Hennigan found himself living in a squat in London. Trash bags were taped over the window to keep out the light and fresh air. He was completely disconnected from nature, the very thing that had always brought him comfort.

He moved back to Ireland and, at 21, began a rehab program. It was at this program that Hennigan decided to come out. Unfortunately, the brave moment was met with a homophobic response.

“The guy who I was sharing a room with specifically left rehab because he was sharing a room with a gay guy,” Hennigan recalls.

Hennigan attempted suicide after the six-week rehab program.

“I felt cornered. I felt like, ‘This seems like the only option to get out of the way I feel right now.’ A lot of it was the sexuality thing. You don’t just figure that out overnight,” he says.

The recovery process was not an easy one. Gavan found himself dealing not only with his addictions, but with the difficulty of being gay in Ireland through the '90s and early 2000s. His complicated feelings about his own sexuality made his recovery a series of fits and starts.

Hennigan began to surf on the west coast of Ireland. He credits much of his recovery to reconnecting with nature.

He also started competing in ultra-marathons, trekking across Siberia, scaling mountains, and eventually rowing solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Photo via Gavan Hennigan.

“A lot of people comment that I’ve replaced one addiction with another, but I don’t see it that way at all," he says. "I see addiction as very damaging. I feel like I’ve tapped into some crazy energy within myself. It’s more about passion and trying to see the world and trying to experience as much as I can.”

Even though Hennigan's hashtag as he rowed across the Atlantic was #souloGav, he credits recovery to opening up to others.

Photo via Gavan Hennigan.

Looking back, he saw that he was internalizing all of his negative thoughts and emotions, which allowed them to gain power and to seem larger than life.

“No matter how bad you think it is, talking about it to somebody takes the power out of it,” he says. Gavan clarifies that speaking his innermost thoughts is still not an easy task and that voice of doubt is still there, but it's much quieter than before.

“It's the absolute hardest thing. I’ll go out on the Atlantic Ocean in 30-foot waves, I’ll run 500 [kilometers] in the Arctic, but when I have to sit down with somebody and talk about my feelings — that’s 100 times scarier.”

Photo via Gavan Hennigan.

Hennigan says he didn’t feel like he fit into any one societal stereotype — not of a gay man or of an ultra-athlete. But that's exactly why he wants to share his story.

He hopes that in talking about his life, young people who may be struggling with the similar identity or addiction issues can see that being a gay man or a recovering addict doesn’t mean you're just one thing.

“I want to share my story so other younger guys who feel like ‘There isn’t a guy like me out there' — there is.”

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less