Early one morning, Nigel Owens scrawled a note saying he “just couldn’t deal with it any more” and crept out of his parents’ house. Fat, lonely, bulimic, addicted to steroids and secretly gay, Owens climbed high above the Welsh valley where he grew up and waited for the sleeping pills to take hold.
He has no memory of being saved but was spotted and taken to hospital by a police helicopter. If his rescuers had arrived half an hour later, he would have been dead.
Nearly 13 years on, Owens is not fat, or bulimic and certainly not on steroids. Most notably, his sexuality is no longer a secret. This is a big deal because Owens is an international rugby union referee. Being a referee is a lonely job; being the only professional — player or ref — brave enough to be openly gay must be lonelier still on rugby union’s pitches.
Being open about his sexuality has done Owens no harm. Enjoying his 21st season as a ref, he is a television personality in Wales and has just published his autobiography.
“When I came out, it took a lot of weight off my shoulders that I was accepted, that I was gay and it made no difference,” he explains. “My refereeing improved because I was happy and my career took off.”
Owens is 37 and it took 20 years before he could tell people about his sexuality. Raised in the village of Mynyddcerrig in Carmarthenshire, he played rugby and dated girls. It was only in his late teens that he realized he was attracted to men. He fought his feelings.
“I didn’t want to be gay,” he says. “It was frightening. Coming from this old-fashioned, close-knit community, I didn’t really know what a gay person was or looked like. I remember walking into town and making a point of going to a hairdresser’s window to see if I could see a gay person there.”
He was never much of a rugby player, he says, and stumbled into refereeing after he botched a last-minute penalty for his school team.
“The sports teacher said, ‘Go and referee or something, will you?’ and that’s what I did. All by chance. And that changed the course of my life,” Owens said.
He began refereeing locally, while working as a technician. Aged 19, he lost 26kg in three months.
“I would eat too much and then I’d make myself sick, knowing that if I made myself sick I could eat something else,” he says.
So he started doing weights — and steroids.
“I was addicted to them because I’d put muscle on and I didn’t want to lose it. I was so low on confidence at that time, being gay and not wanting to be,” he says. “It was all linked up and the steroids made me depressed and short-tempered. It was a cocktail that just exploded.”
He was 24 when he tried to kill himself.
“That makes me feel so ashamed and angry with myself. I can’t imagine what my parents went through for those hours until I was found,” he says.
Owens kicked steroids and began to progress as a referee. Seven years ago, he became one of Wales’ first three professional referees. But he would still avoid being seen out with men.
Until he came out in 2007, his fear sabotaged his relationships.
“I didn’t want players or spectators or anyone to know because I was scared of it,” he says. “Would I get abused? Would I be able to continue as a referee?”
Owens has been encouraged by the sport’s reaction to his sexuality. He says he has never suffered discrimination.