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This conversation has lurked in the back of my mind for a bit, taking on more depth and shade as I process it all.
2020 Team USA Olympian Mattie Rogers was on top of her weightlifting game going into the Tokyo Games this summer. She’s a multiple World silver medalist, and holds the American record in the clean and jerk.
Her body was strong, training on point and she felt reasonably in control of her mental and emotional health, heading into her first Olympics. Rogers has been open about her struggle with depression and anxiety, with her mind throwing her into dark and exhausting places on the regular. It's something she needs to manage, like her training and nutrition.
Her body went into the bad place at the worst possible time: getting ready to compete at the Olympics in the 87 kg competition. It was a panic attack, the most potent she's ever experienced, strangling her confidence moments before stepping on the podium to lift. The precious time before she lifts dials in her focus. Instead, she was left fighting for her sanity.
Her tears, panic and fear, merged at the wrong time, all in front of the world during the precious window that may never come again. It sucked. It was horrible - for Rogers, her family watching at home in Florida and friends around the country cheering for her. They were helpless to comfort her, and she was held hostage by the panic and anxiety.
Her first two attempts were fails, but she nailed the third. It was a small moment of success, but she knew it would not land her a medal. Her Olympics was over.
“The Olympics are a bummer to me, and I am a little bitter. I was in the best physical shape, and my training was so good,” Rogers said to me for teamusa.org. “I just happened to have the worst panic attack ever, at the wrong time on the biggest stage. I could not get it back together.
“It is what it is. My brain was in control of that, and I was just going to have to suffer through it. And I did. I’ve never experienced that in competition before. I’m pretty good at handling it at other times, as I can go somewhere and get myself together. However, that was not possible, especially right then and there at the Olympics. I had to try to compete mid-panic attack, and yeah, that did not go well.”
Rogers had to get it together, after finishing sixth, to talk to the media moments after competition ended. And shocker, she was not together, as she remembers it, answering questions in a daze amidst waves of tears.
She was far from OK, and has spoken clearly post-Games that her mental health suffered from the stress of the Olympics. Rogers says she is under good medical care and is getting back into a stronger mental health space back home in Florida.
Our best athletes must be machines, the Ivan Drago’s, and perform when the switch is flipped. The warrior mentality in sports does not allow for depression, panic attacks, athletes competing in disciplines and for National Organizing Committees that enabled - and then denied - their abuse, or those gripped with aggression borne out of mania.
Something did flip this year, as I see our discussions about mental health and sports getting to a better level in 2021. We need to thank athletes like Rogers, fellow Team USA weightlifter Kate Nye, tennis star Naomi Osaka, gymnastics legend Simone Biles, Liverpool soccer star Andy Robertson, and others for being up front with their mental health challenges and struggles.
Their openness to discuss their lives has taken on new meaning in the public. The ignorant, old school reflex to label an athlete as weak for not winning or falling apart in a big moment is fading. We have now have wiser context, admitting that athletes at the peak of their training and skills can also struggle with mental health. A powerful human body is still inherently fragile, with the extraordinary circumstances surrounding athletic performance serving as the very triggers for a crippling episodes.
Biles wanted to win another slew of Olympic medals, but was overcome with performance-crippling anxiety. (With, of course, a gigantic side order of PTSD from the sexual and emotional abuse she suffered for competing for USA Gymnastics.) Rogers wanted an Olympic medal of any color. Nye took silver and discussed her bipolar II disorder. Osaka wanted to contend for the French Open, but withdrew after the second round because she said her depression was too overwhelming. Osaka later struggled at the Olympics and the U.S. Open, and decided the rest of the 2021 tennis season needed to be shelved to get her mental health back. Robertson wanted to be a star, and then found ascending to the top to be suffocating.
Throw in disorders like OCD, when seen in a sports light, can be a positive for an athlete. Who doesn’t want an athlete to practice free throws, quad axels and PKs until the move is perfect? Over and over and over and over. Sanity? Insanity?
The specter of toxic masculinity that haunts some sports, like football, soccer, boxing and wrestling, leaves athletes in a tough spot to seek help - even if their teams/associations/universities say it is available. Therapists, mental health services and team doctors are everywhere. But they may not be encouraged beyond the showy reveal to prove their existence. Real men don't need help.
Make yourself the star athlete. You don’t want to admit you are “crazy”, if you know your teammates, coaches, sponsors and fan base will judge if the news gets out. Stay quiet, keep the pain buried, and keep playing. Nothing is wrong. And then hope nobody notices. Rinse, repeat.
The highs are high when you win, and the lows are crushing when you lose. You ride the mania until it breaks your mind.
Being an athlete means you can suffer in plain sight, and be rewarded. A linebacker fueled by unhealthy rage is paid millions for lighting people up on the field. But he needs to turn off that same anger and urge for violence as mental release, because they are not acceptable at Target or at home.
I’ve had enough private discussions with athletes at all levels, from amateur to the Olympics/professional, to recognize this important - and long-overdue - change. Ten years ago, the best PR advice would have been for the athlete not to let anybody know what was happening while they were still competing. Keep it together as long as you can. And if you need help, make it secret. If you reallllly want to say something public, save it for Oprah and do it when you have a book and are retired. That way, you cannot be hurt from such a "shameful" disclosure.
Today, Rogers and other athletes telling us what is happening, in real time, is taking away the power of the ignorant. Retired athletes such as Abby Wambach, Michael Phelps and others are also up front with their suffering while they competed - and vocal about making things better for today's athletes.
There is no stigma for tearing your ACL, so there should be zero stigma for discussing depression. We have seen our medical discourse evolve in this country outside of sports: it used to be taboo to show pregnant women on TV (HORROR), discuss an older relative having dementia (FAMILY SHAME), reveal a breast cancer diagnosis (WE CAN’T MENTION A BODY PART LIKE THAT!), and so on. The mental health piece has been the caboose on this train.
Humans do awesome things, which is why we love sports. The challenge of performance and defying limits connects us. But we are also linked by humans being utter dumbasses about stuff we are incorrectly ashamed or scared about in our own heads.
Which brings me back to Rogers’ pain in Tokyo. My heart broke for her. But in a weird way, I am happy for her, because she has the space to get real about what is happening. Her suffering, which was plain, does not need to be minimized to allow us to pretend a different reality existed.
Maybe, in time, her openness about what happened on that day will matter a lot more than an Olympic medal. The awareness may help somebody else seek help.
Or better yet, maybe someday, Rogers can have both - Olympic hardware and the satisfaction of knowing she made a difference getting others to be mentally healthier.
Coming Tuesday: How you can get involved with a powerful growing non-profit, Goods For Greatness, that helps kids get the sporting equipment they need.