Olympic Athletes Cross the Finish Line in Mental Health

Piper Rutherford ’22

American track and field sprinter, Allyson Felix, has been chasing her gold medal dreams since she was a young, aspiring athlete in Los Angeles, California. Throughout her career she has won 18 medals, making her the most decorated female athlete in World Athletics Championship history, while also holding the title for the most gold medals at a staggering total of 13. Although, with the Tokyo Olympics hanging in the air, she is unsure if she will ever be able to compete again on this prestigious world stage.

The media was first introduced to this triple threat back in 2004 at the Athens Olympics, where the talented 18 year-old, who wore the bib, Felix, competed in not one, but three events including the 100 M, 200 M, and 4 X 400 M. Despite her novice season, Felix was successful in taking home the silver medal in the 200-meter race finishing second to Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown.

Felix then went further by not only proving her athletic abilities but made a name for herself in the next three consecutive Olympics traveling to Beijing (2008), London (2012), and Rio (2016), exceeding expectations, and making America proud, a true force to be reckoned with.

After winning her first gold medal in Beijing, 22-year-old Felix, beams and shakes her head as she comes to terms with her astounding success.

“It was a good time to step up to a challenge and see what I could do. It did prove that I can do the process. I can train for it and execute my race plan,” Felix said.

However, after the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics were postponed, Felix was forced to reconsider her training and preparation by trading in her cleats for a journal, prioritizing her mental health and well-being.

During this time of loss and grief, the track star was able to address her struggles with body image and motherhood. A lot has changed since she raced around the track in 2016, as she gave birth to her daughter, Camryn, in 2018, and struggled with the aftermath of training and working tirelessly to get back into elite shape.

Despite her surviving a high-risk pregnancy and being grateful for her body, Felix was concerned about the pressure to return to the track and the urgency to dominate the Olympic world once again.

This said, she is not the only well-respected athlete who has dealt with their emotions and opened up about mental health in the last year.

Swimming phenomenon, Michael Phelps, 35, has voiced his battles with suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, and depression in the past. Recently he released his HBO Sports documentary, “The Weight of Gold,” where he revealed life behind the cameras and outside of competition for high level athletes who are constantly consumed by their training, diet and sacrifices made to achieve their Olympic dreams.

The world-renowned swimmer and champion of 28 medals, 23 of them gold, make him the most decorated Olympian of all time. Yet, he is human just like the rest of us, and has experienced stints of hopelessness throughout his career.

Phelps shudders as he explains the tumultuous times in his life where he did not want to be alive.

“I thought the world would just be better off without me. I figured that was the best thing to do – just end my life. Really after each Olympics, I think I fell into a major state of depression. Picking up the pieces after coming off such a high in competition is tough,” he said.

Similar to Felix, Phelps welcomed not one, but two sons in the past four years his first coinciding with his last Olympic appearance at the 2016 games in Rio. After having Boomer in 2016 and later Maverick in 2018, Phelps has been able to turn the page to a new chapter in his life full of family and self-love, absent of the Olympic pressures that once determined his state of mind and controlled his whole world.

Addressing her own confrontations with the sensation of emptiness, Felix shares her initial reaction to the sudden news of the postponement of the 2020 games.

“As an athlete, everything is timing. And for me personally, I feel like my family had made a lot of sacrifices for me to be able to have this opportunity, and so for it not to go according to plan and not look like the way that we had imagined was really difficult,” she said.

Time is imperative and precious for the 35-year-old, who will not be able to train for another four years and put her body through such rigorous demands yet again.

Her competition days are fleeting by the minute.

However, coming out of quarantine, Felix describes her sense of gratitude for her body and how she now chooses to listen to it, regardless of the gold medal stakes.

“I have never been more grateful for my body — for working so hard through my preeclampsia and for delivering my baby girl. My body has delivered — on and off the track — and I definitely have a newfound appreciation for it,” she said.

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