Sensing her teammates were shaken by her stunning withdrawal from Tuesday’s Olympic team competition, the world’s greatest gymnast tried in vain to deliver a pep talk.
Simone Biles hugged Sunisa Lee, Grace McCallum and Jordan Chiles and urged them not to worry about her. Then she gently reminded them, “You guys have trained your whole entire life for this.”
“We were very stressed,” Lee later recalled. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves.”
Added Chiles: “It was definitely something unexpected.”
It was jarring to watch the reigning Olympic champion remove herself from a competition that was supposed to be her coronation, but this isn’t the first time anxiety and self doubt have made a seemingly indomitable athlete vulnerable. In just the past decade alone, mental health issues have waylaid some of America’s most decorated Olympians.
Depression was a more daunting challenge for Lindsey Vonn than hurtling down any mountain. The gold medal-winning skier revealed in 2012 that before she sought treatment, she struggled to get out of bed sometimes and “felt hopeless, empty, like a zombie."
Former Olympic golden girl Missy Franklin’s anxiety and depression worsened after her abrupt fall from phenom to afterthought. Missy the Missile based so much of her identity on swimming that when she stopped winning, she wondered, “What else do I have to offer?”
Even a 28-time Olympic medalist is not immune. Michael Phelps has said he battled depression and substance abuse. In 2014, his second DUI left him contemplating if he should "just end it all," he said on his 2020 HBO Sports documentary, "The Weight of Gold.”
It’s not just high-profile Olympians who have battled these mental health demons either. In fact, the pressure to perform in the Olympic spotlight once every four years is so relentless that it begs the question: Are Olympic athletes especially vulnerable to mental health issues?
Study examines mental health of elite athletes
A little over two years ago, a former French soccer player published a groundbreaking mental health study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Vincent Gouttebarge’s analysis found that 34% of active elite athletes and 26% of retired elite athletes suffered from anxiety and depression, slightly higher than the typical rates among the general population.
It was Gouttebarge’s theory that the gap “might be related to the sport-specific stressors likely to affect athletes during their career.” Those could include anything from the demands of training, to the pressure to win, to the threat of injury, to the culture shock of involuntary early retirement and life after sport.
A lack of Olympics-specific data makes it difficult to quantify whether athletes in those sports are more prone to mental health issues than their counterparts elsewhere. What psychologists have noticed anecdotally, however, is that Olympians face certain unique pressures because so many are only in the spotlight for two weeks every four years.
An NFL or NBA star benefits from his sport’s year-round platform and the chance to annually compete for championships. A bad game is seldom a career killer. The chance for redemption is seldom too far away.
A swimmer, sprinter or gymnast only gains relevance outside his or her sport’s niche audience during the buildup to an Olympics. Miss that opportunity to win a medal or catch the eye of a corporate sponsor, and it’s an excruciating four-year wait until the next window comes around.
“It’s a uniquely stressful situation,” said Schroeder Stribling, CEO of the nonprofit organization, Mental Health America. “You are practicing with such intensity for such a long period of time for a very short shot at glory. Anytime you have a very, very public-facing ultimate moment after years of practice, that’s the height of a stressful situation.”
For Olympic sports athletes, the mental burdens are not monolithic.
At one end of the spectrum are the canoeists, fencers and the like, athletes who must qualify for the Olympics and perform well there to attract sponsors and secure the money they need to pay their bills and keep competing. At the other end of the spectrum are the Biles and Naomi Osakas, athletes who are the faces of the Olympics in their countries and are under intense pressure to live up to the hype.
“Obviously these folks compete during non-Olympic years, but the attention is focused so much more on this period of time,” said psychiatrist Dr. Victor Schwartz, an adviser to the NFL and NBA and member of the USOPC’s mental health task force. “What happens in one sprint or one balance beam routine impacts their careers, their fame, even their earning power. It creates incredible pressure. It’s almost miraculous that any of them can function.”
Pandemic, other tensions challenge current Olympians
If the life of an Olympian was challenging before, the past 18 months have unleashed a flurry of new obstacles.
A global pandemic, a racial reckoning and escalating political tensions have increased the prevalence of anxiety and depression, ensuring that tending to the mind is as important for Olympians as speed, strength and stamina.
Olympic hopefuls across all sports had their training regimens interrupted last year when gyms and pools closed and Americans sheltered in place. Swimmers resorted to doing laps in murky ponds and backyard pools. Runners created bathtub treadmills or attempted “ghost hurdles” in the park.
The unforeseen postponement of the Olympics also wreaked havoc on athletes who intended to retire after the Tokyo Games or take time off to have a child. Athletes weighed whether to put their lives on hold another year amid concerns that the worsening pandemic might force the IOC to cancel these Olympics for good.
Nia Ali, the reigning world champion in the women’s 100-meter hurdles, decided to try for a third child last year, even if a pregnancy meant sacrificing her hopes of chasing gold in Tokyo. As the rest of American track and field’s top stars competed at last month’s U.S. Olympic Trials, Ali watched from home in Jacksonville alongside her 5-week-old son.
“I wasn’t really confident that the Olympics would move forward this year,” she said last month. “I didn’t even see it as a 50-50 chance, honestly. I really didn’t think it was going to happen.”
Credit the USOPC for being prescient enough to get ahead of the mental health crisis that the pandemic sparked. In February 2020, the USOPC established a 13-person mental health task force charged with ensuring the appropriate systems were in place to deliver mental health support to U.S. athletes who needed it.
At a time when so many organizations were furloughing staff or laying them off altogether, the USOPC listened to the recommendations of its task force and made a critical new hire. Last September, Dr. Jessica Bartley came aboard as the USOPC’s first director of mental health services and spearheaded a number of significant changes.
The USOPC conducted mental health screenings of all its Olympic athletes before they left for Tokyo to acquire baseline information. The USOPC also set up a 24-hour mental health support line and provided athletes with a list of licensed mental health professionals.
Those are the types of changes that Loyola Marymount professor William Parham says are long overdue from the USOPC and other governing bodies. The USOPC mental health task force member and the director of the NBAPA’s mental health and wellness program said, “They have not failed at addressing mental health and wellness with athletes in the past. They have succeeded in not addressing it.”
To Parham, the USOPC devoting more resources to mental health is not only benevolent but also good for the bottom line. “When you treat athletes as people first, they perform better,” Parham said, “and everybody wins.”
Olympian Jeret Peterson's death inspired launch of foundation
Shannon Decker knows all too well what can happen when an Olympic athlete’s depression goes untreated.
Her beloved cousin died by suicide a decade ago.
Jeret “Speedy” Peterson was an aerial skier with a kindhearted smile, a daredevil’s spirit and a lifetime of trauma. He was the victim of sexual abuse as an infant, his older sister was killed by a drunk driver when he was 5 and a friend committed suicide in front of him when he was in his early 20s.
The first of Speedy’s own suicide attempts came soon after he finished seventh in the aerial skiing competition at the 2006 Olympics. He was in position to make the podium entering the final round of jumps, but instead of playing it safe, he boldly attempted his gravity-defying signature jump, the Hurricane, which featured five dangerous twists and three somersaults.
Speedy landed off balance and touched his right hand to the snow. The error cost him a medal and plunged him into an alcohol-fueled depression.
“He attempted suicide twice, but that had to be kept quiet,” Decker said. “If it was in the open that he attempted suicide, then he would have been viewed as a liability and he would have lost the ability to perform.”
In 2010, having sworn off alcohol and reentered skiing, Speedy qualified for his third Olympics. This time he nailed his signature jump and came away with a silver medal, but achieving his Olympic dream didn’t turn out to be as life-changing or fulfilling as he hoped. He started drinking again after that. Only 17 months later, he was gone.
Speedy’s death inspired Decker to launch a foundation with a mission to prevent suicide and to support mental health education. The way Decker remembers it, “We could see that there were glaring holes in the system that needed to be filled and we thought we could use his story to champion mental health.”
For Decker, the sight of Biles withdrawing from the team competition on Tuesday unleashed a torrent of bittersweet emotion.
Relief that Biles felt comfortable prioritizing her mental health and opening up about the anxiety she had experienced leading up to the competition. Hope because of how those around Biles defended her and supported her. And, yes, a twinge of sadness that, just a decade earlier, her cousin couldn’t count on the same.
“The difference between then and now is that these athletes are empowered to stand up and seek help,” Decker said, fighting back tears. “I am so proud of her for addressing mental health and putting herself first.”
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.
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