Julie Nykiel: On overcoming crippling injuries, adversity and depression

Former Australian Opals star Julie Nykiel has been to hell and back since retiring from basketball. After surviving it all, she now wants to use her experience to help others.

“I want to go out there and do good things. I want to go out there and talk about depression, talk about mental health, talk about bullying, talk about being in team sports, I want to do so much good.”

Julie Nykiel, 61, was a trailblazer in women’s basketball and helped develop the culture of the Australian Opals from the very start, but her life has been filled with challenges. Many would have succumbed to those challenges, but after 20 long years of battling depression and isolation, she has found new meaning in her life and wants to help others.

Nykiel was a star of the WNBL from its inception in 1981, and went on to win two WNBL Most Valuable Player Awards in 1984 and 1988, playing for the South Australian-based Noarlunga Tigers. She could do it all on the court and did most of her damage close to the basket where she was simply unstoppable.

“What we did was we had a weekend away and we’d play all three Melbourne teams. On the Friday night we’d play a Melbourne team, Saturday night we’d play the second Melbourne team and then on the Sunday afternoon we’d play the third Melbourne team,” Nykiel said.

“We all had to have full-time jobs, but I do remember thinking, ‘how good is this?’, I thought it was just fantastic that we could play at that level all the time, week in, week out. After a couple of years of the WNBL, that’s when Australia started climbing the world rankings, because of the week in, week out competition.”

Starring for Noarlunga was one thing, but pulling on the green and gold in Australia’s first ever women’s basketball team to make the Olympics was one of her career highlights.

“That really stands out for me in 1984 – the opening ceremony was at the [Los Angeles] Coliseum and there was 100,000 people watching us. Being the first Australian women’s basketball team to go to the Olympics still remains as one of the special, special highlights of my basketball career.”

After achieving the highest of highs in basketball, Nykiel’s career in sport left her with life-altering injuries. Whilst rehabbing a knee injury in late 1989, she suffered a horrific bike accident that left her with severe facial injuries.

“I fractured my skull, smashed my nose, fractured my jaw – broke every bone in my face. I ended up in the Craniofacial Unit in the Royal Adelaide Hospital, which is world famous, and at the time they said that it was the most fractured face they’d ever seen,” she explained.

“I think that was when my depression started – no one ever counselled me on it – and let’s face it, man or woman, to have your face completely smashed and knowing you’re not going to look the same again, is a pretty horrible thing.”

Incredibly, Nykiel played in the following WNBL season after recovering from the bike accident and then retired from the league in 1990. Growing up, Nykiel was a talented netballer and returned to the sport after retiring from basketball, and then in 1995, she retired from sport altogether.

Upon stepping away from sport, she underwent major surgery to realign her right leg, which was needed because of a troublesome knee. This surgery started off a chain of events that would rob Nykiel of her mobility and send her into deep depression.

Two major knee surgeries - which included reshaping the femur to re-align the leg and using skin grafts from the hip - failed, with both collapsing after months of rehab.

“After the second surgery collapsed again, I fell into a deep depression. I was in that depression and self-isolated for 20 years, and it was Groundhog Day every day for me. I was home and just went to the shops, the pharmacy or the doctor to get scripts. The only people I saw were my Mum and my Aunty, I didn’t see any friends or any other family, I just closed off from everyone, that was just the way I coped,” she said.

“Physicality was a big part of my life, being physical and fit was my identity in those days, but my right leg was left mutilated. I’ve lost about nine centimetres in height, which could be due to my back as well, but I was 183cm as a player and when I got measured up last year for surgery, I was 174cm. My depression went on for a very long time and I doubled my weight to 166kgs.”

In 2017, after two decades in the darkness, Nykiel started to see the light again. And that light was coming from two well-known Aussie basketball legends; Cal Bruton and Ken Cole.

“At the beginning of 2017, I was on Facebook and saw a lot of Cal Bruton and Ken Cole’s posts and they inspired me; Cal with what he’s doing with Indigenous people and his clinics, and Ken with his sayings and knowledge,” she said.

“Without them knowing, they were mentors to get out of the hole I was in and lose weight. After I started on small doses of medication from a doctor and being motivated by Cal and Ken, my mindset was starting to change, and in the first week I lost 7kgs. From the beginning of 2017 to the middle of 2018, I lost 91kgs – it was a day-by-day thing, and I was strict.”

Nykiel reconnected with friends and got her life back on track, but last year her right knee collapsed once again.

“I went through hell last year and there was a chance I could lose my leg. I had knee replacement surgery in November last year and it took six hours, I nearly died on the table because I bled out. I had seven transfusions of blood, I had a blood clot on my lung and I was in intensive care for a very long time,” she said.

“It’s taken me up until now to recover. The leg is good now and I’m back on my feet, but it’s drained me in every way – mentally, physically, emotionally and big-time financially.

“Basketball taught me to be resilient, strong and positive – that’s what I’m doing now, day-to-day. If anyone finds themselves in that position, and there would be plenty of people out there, you’ve got to reach out for help, don’t isolate yourself, because there are people out there that can help you. You can’t isolate yourself; it doesn’t do you any good.”

This year, the Australian basketball community has rallied around Nykiel as she continues her road back to recovery. The Julie Nykiel Rebound Fund has been set up by friends and Nykiel has been overwhelmed by the support she has received.

“The group of people in Adelaide who started the GoFundMe page, and everyone who has got behind it, I want to thank from the bottom of my heart for what they’ve done for me. It’s obviously helped me financially, more than they will ever know, but more importantly, the support I’ve got has just brightened my days.”

“The group of friends that started this off, and people all over Australia and the world that have reached out to me to help me, I want to say from the bottom of my heart, thank you. This has given me my life back.”

“Once I get my other knee done, because that is so sore now, I want to go out there and be healthy and happy, but most of all I want to make a difference and help people that need it. There’s not a stigma to depression now, people understand that it is a genuine illness. Probably the proudest moment of my life is coming out of that depression, recovering and surviving the last 12 months.

“I’m climbing Everest, and sport gave me the base and got me halfway up. I took a big sidestep, not a step back, I just took a very big sidestep for a long time, and now I’m on my way back up. That’s the way you need to look at life – if you hit adversity, don’t think that you’re falling down, you’re just taking a sidestep.”

Donations to the Julie Nykiel Rebound Fund can be made HERE or by contacting Helen Buvinic on 0418 250 979.