Inside Kelly Catlin’s amazing rise and tragic fall

Kelly Catlin's family explains the circumstances that led to the Olympic medalist's suicide at 23 years of age.

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Christine Catlin knew something was wrong.

It had been several days since the Catlin family had heard from Christine’s sister, Kelly. Text messages went unread. Phone calls went to voicemail. The spotty communication was not unfamiliar to Christine, as Kelly was often globetrotting to international cycling competitions. Yet there was urgency behind Kelly’s current silence.

“I was really worried. I had a foreboding feeling,” Christine Catlin said. “I didn’t want to assume the worst.”

In late January, Kelly Catlin had attempted suicide in her on-campus apartment at Stanford University, where she was pursuing a graduate degree in Computational Mathematics. The attempt was unsuccessful, and according to family members, Kelly was found in her bathroom, dazed, staring at her reflection in a mirror. The incident began an unhappy and stressful ordeal for the entire Catlin family. Kelly was placed in a hospital at Stanford, where she stayed for a week.

After her release, Kelly promised her family, and hospital staff, that she no longer desired to kill herself, a statement that Kelly’s parents, Mark Catlin and Carolyn Emory, firmly believed. Kelly attended group therapy sessions to address her suicidal thoughts, and the Catlin family believed that she was improving.

Christine, however, feared that Kelly might make another attempt at her life. So in early March, when she learned that Kelly was no longer returning calls, Christine panicked.

“Over the past weeks I had this feeling like I needed to try and keep her alive,” Christine says. “It was always on my mind.”

Kelly was found this past Friday evening in her Stanford apartment, having killed herself by inhaling toxic gas. The news sent shockwaves throughout the international cycling community. Kelly was a member of the Rally Pro Cycling professional road racing team and was known for her short hair, bright smile, and powerful time trial. She was also one of the world’s best riders on the velodrome and had won an Olympic silver medal in 2016 and three world titles with the U.S. women’s pursuit team. Teammates and friends described Kelly as a determined competitor who was sometimes shy, always focused on her training.

To the Catlin family, Kelly was someone else entirely. She was one of the triplets, with siblings Christine and Colin. She was a multi-talented child who excelled at sports, music, and even foreign languages. She read science fiction and marveled at stories of dragons and dinosaurs. She roared like a tiger when teased about her intense focus. She ate chocolate every day. She played classical violin, yet blared German heavy metal in her headphones. She could recite 400 digits of the mathematical constant Pi without hesitation. She handled intense pain with ease, and once declined anesthesia when doctors had to set her broken arm, fearing it might trigger a red flag with the U.S. anti-doping agency.

And Kelly was, by her family’s admission, the most internally determined and competitive person they had ever met. She never turned down a new project or a new challenge. As members of the Catlin family have processed Kelly’s death, they have begun to wonder whether this internal determination placed her on an unhealthy emotional pathway that led to her suicide.

“Her feeling of self-worth is tied up in being a full-time graduate student and pro racer and wonderful track rider, and when things became bad, it became a real crisis for her,” Mark Catlin, Kelly’s father, tells VeloNews. “A lot of us would say, ‘You need to take a time out,’ and her approach was like, ‘If I can’t perform everything at the same time, then I have no value.’ If she couldn’t live up to her internal standards, she killed herself.”

Kelly Catlin

A life of achieving

The Catlin family lives outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, and all three children grew up pursuing various activities, from soccer and cross-country running, to the arts. All three excelled at school and sports, yet Kelly’s drive to be the best surpassed that of her siblings, Christine said.

“We were all extreme overachievers and Kelly took it way beyond,” Christine says. “She was always an extremely competitive and intense kid. She had to be the best at it.”

Kelly was introduced to cycling by her brother, Colin, who began racing cyclocross at age 14. Kelly had become frustrated with soccer; she suffered regular shin splints from the constant running. Colin saw cycling as a low-impact activity that Kelly might enjoy. Kelly loved the analytical side of cycling and was quickly sucked in by the sport’s emphasis on scientific training.

“We’d come home from high school and she’d be on the indoor trainer next to me doing VO2 interval after interval,” Colin Catlin tells VeloNews. “That was the key to her success. She loved to train really hard.”

Kelly won her first road race and was soon a dominant rider in Minnesota’s junior women’s road and mountain bike races. Like all talented cyclists, Kelly enjoyed a breakout race when her combination of raw talent and intense training turned heads. Kelly was a senior in high school, yet she competed with the University of Minnesota’s college cycling team since she and Colin were both taking university classes there. The women’s race started several minutes behind the men’s “B” field. As Colin watched the race, he saw a lone rider pedal ahead of the men’s field.

“Kelly had caught the men’s field and was soloing away from everyone,” Colin says. “That was one of those moments. It was like wow, she just beat the crap out of a bunch of collegiate men.”

Kelly Catlin
Kelly Catlin first showed her immense potential for cycling as a young mountain biker in Minnesota. Photo courtesy Mark Catlin

Kelly’s cycling career took off quickly. In 2014, she attended a talent identification camp at the United States Olympic Committee organized by USA Cycling, and coaches marveled at her raw talent. She was chosen alongside Chloé Dygert, Jennifer Valente, and Ruth Winder to train for the 2016 Olympics in the team pursuit. To mark her newfound life as a professional athlete, Kelly cut her hair short; it didn’t matter that she was sometimes mistaken for a boy. The short hair was simply more efficient for the life of pro cycling.

Back home in Minnesota, the news that Kelly was on track for the Olympics was a welcomed surprise to the Catlin family. Kelly was hesitant to pursue the opportunity, as it would require her to take time away from her dual degrees in Biomedical Engineering and Chinese at the University of Minnesota. Kelly’s mother, Carolyn Emory, says the family encouraged her to pursue cycling.

“She had this desire for greatness; a quest to be great at something and to be recognized,” Emory says. “So we were thrilled. We told her, from our point of view, this cycling opportunity might not come around again and she could always go back to school.”

Andy Sparks, coach of the U.S. team, said he was impressed by Kelly’s natural talent on the track. Yet it was her ability to focus on track workouts, plus her undergraduate classes, that set her apart from the other women on the team. Kelly placed immense pressure on herself to be the best at all three pursuits. Sparks said he and Kelly sometimes argued when he asked her to lighten her load.

“Kelly put the most amount of pressure on herself of any athlete I have worked with,” Sparks says. “Kelly wanted to achieve perfection in everything she did, never wanted to show weakness, always wanted to make everyone proud, and first and foremost, never wanted to let anyone down.”

For the next two years, Carolyn and Mark dutifully followed their daughter’s results online. They lacked the finances to attend Kelly’s World Cup races in Colombia and Manchester, and instead kept connected through emails and phone calls. Carolyn sent Kelly care packages of chocolate and tea — Kelly was a tea connoisseur — and kept her abreast of the news from home.

When Kelly was named to the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, the Catlin family initially balked at attending the games due to the travel costs. When fears of Zika virus diminished the demand for hotel rooms, Mark and Carolyn booked a last-minute trip to Rio de Janeiro. It was the first time they had watched Kelly compete on the track.

“I couldn’t breathe the tension was so great,” Carolyn says. “Watching them in the gold medal round was really exciting. My heart was pounding. I just remember having to take deep breaths.”

Catlin and the U.S. team won the silver medal after a tight battle with the Great Britain team in the gold medal round. The Americans were the defending world champions and were favored to win. Emory says Kelly was initially disappointed, however, her mood turned to joy after a few hours. After a few weeks, Kelly appeared to revel in her newfound title as an Olympic medalist. She attended assemblies at local grade schools and cycling clubs and happily showed off the medal.

“The whole school would be there and she was aglow,” Emory says. “I think she was really proud of silver and wanted to get the gold next time.”

Kelly Catlin
Kelly Catlin enjoyed meeting kids at local schools to talk about her Olympic experience. Photo courtesy Mark Catlin

A dangerous spiral

Like Kelly’s coaches, teammates, and friends, the entire Catlin family is still trying to understand why she took her life. Colin Catlin was Kelly’s roommate throughout their undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota. He said Kelly’s various accolades obscured a more private and complicated person who, at times, joked about suicide.

After Kelly’s suicide attempt in January, Colin says he reached out to his sister. He was shocked by her perspective on the incident.

“She mentioned to me frustration that she had failed,” Colin says. “I think she was so determined to prove that she could do it because she could do anything she put her mind to.”

Another challenge to understanding Kelly’s motivations was her private personality. Family members said Kelly’s stoic and shy personality led her to gut out challenging situations, rather than seek assistance or even divulge that she was struggling. When Kelly first moved to Colorado Springs, Mark Catlin says, she was often lost in the new city because she did not want to ask for directions. When her bicycle malfunctioned, she tried to fix it herself, rather than ask the team mechanics, he says. Due to her private nature, the true root of Kelly’s suicide will remain a mystery.

What the Catlin family does know is that Kelly placed huge expectations on herself to succeed at all of her commitments. When she entered Stanford’s graduate program this fall, a sizable workload was added to her already complex schedule of training and international competition. Kelly did not back off, and lumped more pressure on herself to succeed at all three, her family says. In her recent column, Kelly discussed the huge challenge posed by her multi-faceted life. In private, however, Kelly admitted to her family starting in November that she was beginning to feel burned-out.

“She told us she felt trapped by these obligations,” Mark Catlin says. “We told her she could back out of them but she wanted to live up to her expectations.”

Mark Catlin also points to a recent string of injuries as a catalyst for Kelly’s suicide, including a head injury. In October, Kelly crashed during training and broke her arm. Rather than take time away from cycling, she continued to train and race.

Then, on January 5, Kelly crashed during a Rally team training ride in Malibu, California. A team representative said Kelly was immediately checked out by team officials and showed no indication of serious injury, and she completed the ride. The following day, she left Rally’s camp and traveled to Colorado Springs to attend a training camp with the U.S. national team. Mark Catlin says Kelly reached out to the family during the camp and complained of dizziness, nausea, and sensitivity to light. Mark believed Kelly had suffered a concussion. Whether Kelly reached out to USA Cycling for medical advice is not known. In a statement provided to VeloNews, USA Cycling confirmed that Kelly did not crash at any point during the training camp.

“Out of respect for her family’s privacy over this tragic loss, USA Cycling will not comment further and will not respond to any questions concerning her medical treatments or physical condition,” the statement said.

Mark Catlin says Kelly quit the camp early due to her symptoms and traveled back to California.

Kelly Catlin
Mark Catlin believes that a concussion sustained in a crash at a team camp in December contributed to Kelly Catlin’s suicide. Photo: Wil Matthews

Mark says he advised Kelly to visit a doctor once she returned to Stanford. Stanford University declined to release any information about Kelly’s medical visits, or treatment, and issued VeloNews a statement saying it was “devastated” by Catlin’s death. “While we do not discuss in the media the details of individual students’ experiences, supporting the mental and emotional health of students is a critical priority for Stanford, and we are dedicated to listening to the input of everyone in our community and improving wellbeing,” the University said in a statement.

The Catlin family says Kelly’s demeanor changed in her weekly phone calls after the injury. She adopted a nihilistic attitude toward training and school. She complained of feeling apathetic in her workouts. Again, she told the family she felt trapped. Only in these communications, Kelly said that her mind was often racing, and she was unable to quiet what she called “circular thoughts.”

“Before [the crash] she still seemed like she was in control of herself,” Carolyn Emory says. “After the concussion, she expressed a fear that she was going crazy.”

Kelly emailed a suicide note prior to her first attempt. Kelly’s writing was often well-crafted and laden with humor; her note was incoherent. In the email, Kelly said that her mind had been conquered and that it would not stop, “spinning, spinning, spinning.”

The Catlin family called Stanford University, and campus police discovered her after her first suicide attempt and took her to the University hospital, Mark Catlin says. Again, Stanford declined to release information about the treatment she received. Her family says she spent 72 hours in a psychiatric unit, and her full stay in the hospital was one week. Kelly spoke to a sports psychologist during her time at the hospital. She began legal action to get released from the hospital, and her parents eventually spoke with hospital staff to have her released.

The Catlin flew to California to be with Kelly for week. They initially planned to stay another week with their daughter, however Kelly assured them that they did not need to stay that long.

“Kelly seemed chipper and felt it was totally unnecessary,” Mark Catlin says. “She wanted some quiet time alone to rest.”

The Catlin family maintained daily calls with Kelly to determine her progress. Kelly returned to school with a reduced class schedule, and participated in group therapy sessions after her release — she complained to her parents that the sessions were a waste of time. Her parents wanted her to seek treatment from a sports psychologist who worked with elite or Olympic athletes. Mark Catlin says the school would not approve individual therapy sessions with a staff psychologist because she was not a varsity athlete. Again, Stanford declined to comment on Kelly’s treatment.

Mark Catlin says Kelly underwent a medical exam at Stanford that included a test for traumatic brain injury, which she passed.

The initial suicide attempt caused a series of new health problems for Kelly. The toxic gasses damaged her heart and lungs, Mark Catlin says. She tried to train but was often out of breath and unable to push herself in the weeks following her attempt. She was ruled out of participating in the UCI track world championships in Poland. In one of the final calls with her family, Kelly said she was contemplating ending her cycling career altogether.

Kelly did not write a note for her second attempt, Mark Catlin says. The Catlin family had tried for several days to contact Kelly. However she was not returning calls or even text messages, which was strange. Carolyn Emory called the campus police, and on late Saturday, they learned the news.

Christine Catlin was riding her bicycle in New Orleans when she learned the news. She stopped riding and walked with her bicycle for several miles as she processed the news.

“It still doesn’t feel real,” Christine says. “I think everyone is in shock.”

Kelly Catlin
Kelly Catlin (second from left) on the Rio Olympics podium with her teammates after winning silver in the team pursuit. Photo: Tim De Waele | Getty Images

Remembering their daughter

The Catlin family has been busy in the days following Kelly’s death. They are planning a private burial for their daughter at a cemetery alongside one of Kelly’s favorite training routes outside Minneapolis. They want to hold a larger memorial for the cycling community, and hope that the awareness could help raise funds to repair the local velodrome.

They also hope that Kelly’s death helps shed light on the pressures that athletes face. They have agreed to donate Kelly’s brain to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) center, where researchers can study the impact of Kelly’s head injury.

In a letter sent to VeloNews, Mark Catlin expressed the lessons he hopes athletes can learn from Kelly’s death. While Kelly’s do-or-die attitude helped her achieve greatness, Mark Catlin believes her unwillingness to back down from challenges, and to admit to weaknesses, ultimately led her to suicide. If athletes can learn anything from Kelly’s death, the willingness to ask for help is perhaps the greatest lesson.

“There are many lessons in her short and eventful life, but perhaps more in her death,” Mark Catlin wrote. “Listen to your body and your mind when you train. Give yourself permission to rest, to take time off. Don’t ignore any head injury, particularly if you feel differently. Get baseline neuro testing so the effects of a head injury can be objectively evaluated. Learn to say no. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for and accept help and advice. Others close to you may have a better perspective on what is happening with you.”

Note: This story has been updated with new chronological information about the final weeks of Kelly Catlin’s life. 

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