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One big topic coming out of this year’s Games is mental health. Some athletes pulled themselves out of the event before it started, notably Australian Opals basketball captain Liz Cambage, while the likes of GOAT gymnast Simone Biles withdrew mid competition – all to protect their personal mental health at the cost of public criticism. Many athletes will experience mental health challenges once the Games have finished, and it’s one of the unspoken negatives of the world’s biggest sporting event.
In my experience, the highs of elite level sport must also be balanced with lows. What goes up must come down, and sometimes it’s a long way down. I’d usually experience a low at the end of every season, particularly if I finished with participating in the World Championships, but I could usually explain it away with it just being fatigue from a long season and time for a much needed off-season.
The year I really noticed an unusual low was in 2014 following the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. It was in August so the full season fatigue excuse didn’t quite cut it. A month after the Games I could barely pedal and was struggling in all the races, and it was clear I wasn’t going to make it to the end of the season let alone the World Championships. I got the OK from the team to fly back to Australia and start my off season early. It amazed me that even though I knew I would experience some sort of let-down, it still hit me harder than expected and affected my physical fitness so much.
Two years later was the Rio Olympics, and as I wrote in my previous column it was a tough selection process that really stretched my limits. The Games experience was incredible and I was lucky to be in Rio for three whole weeks – one week before our race and two weeks afterwards staying in the Athlete Village, watching all the sports I could and attending the closing ceremony. To be in the bubble for that long was going to be tough to come out of and landing back in Europe to finish the season felt like waking up from a nice dream and wondering if that really happened.
I did what I could to train during those extra two weeks in Rio, but the week-long taper into the race and then a fortnight of minimal training meant I wasn’t nearly as fit as I was a month prior. Mixed with the mental comedown of being back in the real world and the Olympic experience being over, I felt quite listless and could feel myself slipping into a depression. It was also the year that the World Championships was to be held in Doha, Qatar – an event that was set for three weeks later than the usual Worlds weekend because of the predicted hot climate. We had a big chance for a top result with sprinter Chloe Hosking and I didn’t want to let her down, but I was scrambling to get myself through those months.
Once I finally got home in late October I could enjoy seeing my family and friends and show off all my Olympic swag, but it was clear that I wasn’t myself. It took months to feel like the fog had lifted in my mind, months to feel less irritable, months to stop feeling like I wanted to just be alone. I got a small tattoo to commemorate my Olympian status (not the rings!) which I still love, but it was certainly a reckless moment just to feel something.
In the year following the Olympics I found out through a family friend (a leading sports psychologist) that athletes were entitled to 10 free sessions of psychology. I was surprised that I hadn’t already heard about it, but it made me realize that the mental health of athletes was still a behind-closed-doors topic, and our federations seemed to be reluctant to admit the mental cost of the Olympics. I would have benefitted from those sessions had I known about them.
Now, I don’t want to only criticize those in charge of athlete welfare. There has been considerable emphasis in many sports put on mental wellness in the last five years, and there has been overwhelming public support for athletes who speak out about mental health or have made big decisions like those stated at the start of this column. The few closed-minded individuals that cannot understand the importance and implications of such topics (looking at you Piers Morgan and Patrick Lefevere) have made themselves look even less relevant than they were already.
My advice to athletes is to be patient with yourself – you probably don’t even realise the weight you have been carrying for so long. No matter if you won a medal or experienced disappointment, most of you will suffer the blues for days, weeks, months, or even years. Talk about it to people you trust, and if you feel comfortable then post about it too – all of us can benefit from knowing even Olympians aren’t immune to feeling low.
My advice to everyone else is taken from a wonderful Instagram post from Todd Herman: send a nice message to any athlete you admire and tell them that they’re inspiring, that you appreciate all the effort they’ve made to be there in the first place and they have made their country proud. In the next few months they will need those messages more than the ones that said “good luck” before the Games – especially those sitting in hotel quarantine. Send a message to athletes who didn’t get selected for the Games – they’ll still be feeling low now too.
Heck, send a message to anyone you admire and tell them why.
For anyone, athletes or not, that are experiencing some tough mental health times please talk to someone. A trusted friend or family member is a great start.
If you’re in Australia, consider the incredible services of Lifeline Australia, Beyond Blue, Black Dog Institute, Headspace (youth), Butterfly Foundation (eating disorders), Friendline, and Mensline. I also personally recommend our cycling friends at PukaUp, Knights of Suburbia, and Shannon Malseed Human Potential, for helpful and supportive communities.
If you’re outside Australia, a list of mental health support resources relevant in other countries can be found here.
I wrote this piece last week but wanted to add my heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Olivia Podmore. The tragic loss of her life is devastating to all who knew her, and a huge blow to the whole cycling community. Talking about our struggles and about our mental health is so important. You are not alone. You are not alone.