Olivia Vivian's story
The first time I gambled with money was when I was 11, at the Royal Easter Show in Perth.
I was playing a machine where you pop 20c coins in and they fall down onto a platform inside a glass box. There’s a shelf inside that moves in and out, pushing the coins towards a ledge. You’re hoping that if enough coins stack up, they’ll fall into a bucket and you can collect your winnings.
Most of the time, you only win a couple of coins. On that day, I kept putting them straight back through the machine, hoping to take home a bigger prize.
I stood there playing that game for over three hours, spending all my pocket money. The machine had a hold on me and not even the cool rides around me or the other kids could distract me from it.
It’s the first time I can remember being affected like that . I’m just lucky that part of my personality eventually manifested in me pursuing a career as an athlete, representing Australia at an Olympic Games and reaching the finale of Ninja Warrior.
Other members of my family haven’t been so lucky. Gambling tore my mother’s family apart and caused years of violence and anger. It’s the reason why I’ve never met my grandfather.
I’ll be honest, sharing this story isn’t something I’ve done lightly. But I spoke to Mum about it first and we decided that sometimes you’ve got to drop your guard a little. You never know who your story might help.
A window of false opportunity
Problem gambling has been in my family for many generations and my mum has made a huge effort to educate me about that history.
My great-grandfather, Peter, would bet heavily on the horses. He studied the form guide obsessively, betting through the week, and he owned a horse or two. He passed that lifestyle down to my mum’s dad, Tony, who passed this obsession on to my mum.
Mum was basically raised at the track from about five years old, back in Invercargill, New Zealand, where her family are from.
One day, when she was about 13, he gave her $20 to play with. They’d received a tip on a horse called ‘White King’, which was paying $3.25. She backed it and the horse got up.
That was how my mum entered the world of gambling, with a win. It’s a story you hear time and time again. Your first win is a potent thing. It opens a window of false opportunity and before too long, Mum was gambling heavily every week.
She would give money to other people at the track, to place bets for her, so that she could hide her gambling from the rest of the family. For the first time in her life, she was lying to them about her actions.
There were weeks where she was going home with so much cash that she couldn’t even fit it all in her purse. There were other weeks where she would go home filled with shame, after losing money and lying about it.
Slowly, over the course of the next few years, she began to notice things; dynamics in the family that she hadn’t previously picked up on. She began to understand the difference between a good day at the races, and a bad one.
A good day meant the family could all go out for dinner. Lots of alcohol, nice food and laughter. Bad days would result in a lot of yelling, discipline from her father, mood swings and drinking. She began to grasp the harm her family’s lifestyle was doing.
There was a downward spiral of violence and anger that eventually ended in the separation of the family. At the age of 19, Mum realised she had to leave New Zealand to get away from that environment - and a few other dangerous things – to change the course of her life. She moved to Australia and has never spoken to her father again.
I don’t think she really understood how damaging her family environment had been until she made a new start in Melbourne. But it took her many more years to gain control of her own gambling.
At the casino, she found that roulette was her favourite. But when she was at the tables her mood would change, as she chased that winning feeling. Her friends would try to pull her away from the game but she wasn’t herself. Gambling turned her into a person that wasn’t very nice to be around, so her friends would just let her be.
When she realised that she was spending a lot more than she intended, withdrawing more and more money out of her account, she decided to set firm limits on how much she was willing to gamble. That helped her re-gain control.
Years later she found a partner and when they had kids, we became the priority in her life. But as I grew up, I saw her have a lot of down days dealing with what happened during that time in her life.
I can still see the emotions on her face and in her body language when she talks about it, and I can sense her deep sadness at how gambling broke up her family. It’s had a big impact on me.
When I think about gambling now, it’s all about ‘how much are you willing to lose?’ Because you can lose a whole lot more than just money.
You've gotta know when to hold 'em
My younger brother got hooked on Texas Hold ‘Em when we were growing up, playing online from the age of about 16. He signed up with a fake profile, to get around the over-18 rule the website had set.
I saw him sink countless hours and dollars into that game, all with the unwavering belief that he could win it back. During that time, a real breakdown in communication developed between us and I noticed a personality change in him.
When he started asking Mum and me for money, saying that he’d pay us back, we realised he’d been losing more than he could afford.
Mum, who had struggled so much with gambling in her own life, was really worried. She had a fear that it could end with her losing more family. But she also knew that telling him not to do something wasn’t going to help.
She approached the issue from a point of education, sharing her experiences and offering different options to help him grow and get off that destructive path.
In Australia, I think we need to do a much better job of educating people about gambling, because we live in a culture where it’s widely accepted as a social pastime.
We’ve got big horse races, casinos everywhere, pokies in every pub and sports betting apps on our phones that are widely advertised. And still, gambling remains a hidden addiction.
For most people, it’s something that’s not to be talked about openly, which is why we need to have honest conversations so as a nation we can begin to understand that gambling doesn’t just affect the person placing the bet. That’s simply the action that begins a ripple effect.
A loss can make you moody, which can affect your relationships. It can take you out of the moment, so you’re not really present when you’re supposed to be spending time with your friends, having a good time.
It can drive a wedge between a person, their friends and families and it’s hard to really know the extent of that damage until you’ve experienced it or spoken with someone who has.
It’s about people understanding there can be a fun social side to having a bet, as long as you know how to keep it in check. I think our schools need to be doing more to equip young people with the right information early.
What a friendship is worth
As I mentioned earlier, I certainly have that same personality trait that runs in my family.
The only difference is that I’m addicted to the endorphins and highs of performing, competing and entertaining at the highest level. For me, that’s a much more positive outlet than gambling.
I basically grew up in a gym, chasing my Olympic dream. As I grew older, I chased that winning feeling and the thought of winning prize money began to take more of a hold on me, as motivation for doing well in competition.
That can lead some athletes down bad paths. Fortunately, I had an angel on my shoulder keeping me grounded; I had my mum.
Even in sport though, through my involvement with Ninja Warrior, gambling has still had a significant impact on my life. I lost some friendships after sports betting companies opened up markets for betting on the TV show.
As the show was airing, I had friends harassing me for information on who had done well. It was another reminder of how desperate gambling can make people.
Instead of reaching out to see how I was going and to catch up, it was about them getting information from me so they could win some easy money. They didn’t respect the fact that I was under a non-disclosure agreement and stood to lose a great deal if I broke that contract.
More than that, it made me feel a bit sad that to them, that’s all our friendship was worth. There are so many things we could have had a laugh about but sure enough, after refusing to disclose the information, I never heard from them again.
What sport has taught me
In sport, when you work hard and achieve a goal – no matter how small – you receive a really powerful high. The best part about it is that no-one can ever take that feeling away from you.
Reaching the Olympics took 11 years of hard work and mental training. Becoming the first and only female to make the grand final of Ninja Warrior has been another huge achievement. They are two things that I have forever now.
Knowing this has inspired me to help others and educate them about what’s possible when you work on your resilience and chase goals that will help you become the best possible version of yourself.
To look back at everything I’ve overcome is so satisfying.
I lost my father to cancer when I was 23 and fell into a depression. I broke my back later that year, and that was another hole I had to climb out of.
At times like those, when you’re in your head, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that things will never get better. Life’s an unpredictable journey and many of us go through dark periods in our lives. Finding positive outlets like sport can be helpful.
For some people, it’s easy to go looking for the quick fix. Distractions like gambling, drinking or drugs, that can take your mind off those feelings for even a little while. They can take your mind off the anxiety or that unsettled feeling in your stomach.
That’s why I think it’s important that we learn to guard our mental wellbeing. We need to practice good habits and hold ourselves accountable because we often tell ourselves things that stop us making progress.
And the other thing is that we need to seek out education and help where it’s available, so we have an understanding that although we might be on a difficult road, there are so many sources of help and support out there.