'Heartbroken' Jamie Anderson opens up about struggling to defend Olympic medals

·4 min read

BEIJING — Sometimes it all gets to be too much.

The women’s snowboarding big air competition concluded Tuesday morning at the mammoth Shougang Big Air jump on the outskirts of Beijing. Austria’s Anna Gasser won with three of the most brilliant runs of the Olympics, with Zoi Sadowsky Synnott of New Zealand taking silver and Japan’s Kokomo Murase winning bronze.

Beyond their victory, though, was a looming story: who wasn’t there, and why. Defending silver medalist and American Jamie Anderson failed to even make the finals, and gave the world a look behind the curtain at the pressure Olympians face to achieve lasting greatness.

“Honestly heartbroken,” Anderson said when asked how she felt failing to reach the finals. “Such a high high when you do well here, and the worst low when you can’t pull it together ... I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”

USA's Jamie Anderson reacts after her run in the snowboard big air qualification during the 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the Big Air Shougang in China on February 14, 2022. (Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images)
USA's Jamie Anderson reacts after her run in the snowboard big air qualification during the 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the Big Air Shougang in China on February 14, 2022. (Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images)

Snowboarding, in particular, is a still-developing sport defined by relentless progression. What won gold last Olympics won’t even get you onto the podium the next. Fortunately for Anderson, snowboarding also happens to be one of the most inclusive, we’re-all-in-this-together communities in sports. Riders seem genuinely motivated not by defeating their rivals, but by lifting them up. At the base of the Big Air ramp, many of the riders who reached the finals embraced in a group hug, each thrilled that the other had succeeded.

“We were all pretty much crying,” said silver medalist Sadowski-Synott. “We have worked so hard these past four years. So to see our final Olympic event finally go down with pretty amazing tricks, it was pretty super special.”

Still, as close as your community may be, in the end we’re all fighting our own battles alone. Earlier these Olympics, Anderson had struggled in her better event, slopestyle, where she was the two-time defending gold medalist. She could only manage a ninth-place finish, and in a later post on Instagram, confessed to wrestling with “a rollercoaster of emotions.”

“At the end of the day I just straight up couldn’t handle the pressure,” she wrote. “Had an emotional breakdown the night before finals and my mental health and clarity just hasn’t been on par.”

There’s a line of thinking that an Olympian needs to have elite-level mental fitness as well as physical strength, and there’s something to that … provided, of course, that said Olympian understands and addresses the mental health aspect of their training. An athlete failing to incorporate mental health awareness is like training to an elite level physically while dining out on fast food and soda; at some point, all the training doesn’t help if you’re sabotaging yourself elsewhere.

“Part of me just wants to quit,” Anderson said. “Part of me wants to go work harder and come back and win everything because I know I’m capable ... I’m not retiring right now. That’s for sure. I might want to go back to Italy (site of the 2026 Games) to end on some red wine and pasta. Who knows? We’ll see.”

Anderson, with two golds and a silver to her name, doesn’t need to prove her mental toughness to anyone. The fact that she’s exhibiting this level of vulnerability is both striking and, in a post-Simone Biles world, unsurprising. Biles dropped out of several events at last year’s Summer Olympics, and despite drawing heat for her decision, ultimately won credit for opening up a national conversation on mental health, and not just for athletes.

As literally everyone on earth can attest, the last two years have placed a tremendous mental strain on all of us. Fear, frustration, uncertainty, suspicion … it all undermines our mental health as surely as the tide undermines a sandcastle … or, to keep with the winter theme, as surely as the sun melts even the heaviest snow.

Now, layer on top of that an Olympics unlike any other before it — one where athletes spent weeks dreading the possibility of contracting the highly contagious Omicron variant, ending their Games before they could even begin. And when they arrived in Beijing, they spent their entire time inside the “closed loop” — from hotel room to venue and back again, and nowhere else.

“We’ve been here for so long,” Anderson said. “I feel that the whole crew was over it, like, just barely hanging on by a freaking strand of hair, tired of the food, homesick, tired of the pressure, a little bit tapped out. I’m excited to go home.”

Her fellow Olympians agree. “This winter was a challenge with COVID,” said France’s Tess LeDeux, a freestyle skier, “and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen my family. There you go. It’s been a small war between my head these past few days, but I am still happy because I was here, I was present.”

There you go. Sometimes, just showing up is enough.