Kiwi swimmer Daniel Bell would like the nation to remember him for his proudest moment when he stood on the podium to receive a silver medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
But instead, the public’s most enduring image is of him drunk, slumped over a toilet, only hours after the Hawke’s Bay swimmer and the New Zealand men’s medley relay team finished fifth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The cellphone picture, taken by a teammate, made headlines and raised the issue of binge drinking in top-level sports.
Other incidents at international meets soon followed, including Daniel being sent home from Delhi for breaching alcohol protocols after celebrating his silver medal win in the 100m backstroke.
He was also hospitalised for excessive alcohol intake at the world championships in Rome.
Once touted as the young hope of New Zealand swimming, Daniel’s antics have seen him dubbed the “bad boy” of the water.
At 23, he is ready to put his indiscretions behind him and blames being an “immature teenager” for his behaviour.
In an exclusive interview with the Weekly, Daniel talks about redemption and the chance to prove himself – aiming to make the Commonwealth Games in Scotland this year and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Daniel says he’s matured immensely and while he has always had the support of family, his mother Sheree Rae, her partner Brenton DMoney and friends to get him through, he now draws support from the new love in his life, Maxyna Cottam.
“I’ve been labelled as a potential alcoholic, but that’s furthest from the truth. We go six months without touching a drop. But I make a mistake and the public ended up finding out about it.
“Unfortunately, that’s the life of being an elite athlete, the fact you are in the public eye, and the public makes judgments about you and things keep being dragged up.
“What’s in the past is in the past and I’m trying to move forward. I was only 18 and 19 when it all happened. All my friends back home were doing that on the weekend. I spent six months being this ideal athlete, everything I ate was healthy and I wouldn’t touch a drop.”
Celebrating his many successes at world events sometimes did get out of hand, admits Daniel.
“I did it while I was away with the team, and not doing it with my friends when I got home. I realise there is a time and a place for everything.”
Despite his battle with drinking, Daniel says he still produced the goods when it came to swimming.
“I have always been strong mentally to stay in the pool and keep getting great results, whereas a lot of people in my situation would have probably given up and thrown in the towel. I’ve got unfinished business. I want the results to speak for themselves.”
Daniel says being in a supportive relationship has kept him on the straight and narrow. He met 17-year-old Maxyna nine months ago when he moved to New Plymouth to be closer to his coach, Donna Bouzaid.
Maxyna is a cycling champion and the pair met when Daniel took up cycling as an alternative form of exercise.
“She has been a huge support and she has also had to cope with everyone asking about my reputation. But she knows me and cares about me, and knows that I’m different,” says Daniel, fondly.
It’s Maxyna’s dream to become a world championship cyclist. Having a partner who understands the pressures of top-level sports makes their bond stronger, she says.
“Daniel has a lot of drive and determination and that inspires me to do my best too,” she says.
Her family has also been supportive of Daniel. He works for Maxyna’s parents’ plumbing business as a drain layer.
Maxyna says she knew Daniel was special when he attended her uncle’s funeral last year and met her family for the first time in tragic circumstances.
“That was a huge thing to do,” says Maxyna.
Despite suffering a recent bout of injuries, Daniel is currently striving to qualifiy for this year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
“I have high expectations of myself. I’m not worried about the external pressures. I’m the only one who can control what I do on the pool.
“I have a medal from a world champs and I have a medal from a Commonwealth games. But I don’t have a medal from the Olympics and that gives me the motivation to carry on,” he says.
“The Rio Olympics will be my swan song. I hope to end my career and pursue something else.”