Olympic Hopefuls Struggled With Mental Health in the Pandemic

by Msnbctv news staff

EUGENE, Ore. — Sam Parsons felt that he was in the best shape of his life when he lined up for the start of the 5,000 meters at the Drake Relays in April. He had used the yearlong Olympic postponement to ramp up his training with the goal of competing for Germany at the Tokyo Games this summer.

But as his mileage increased, so, too, did the pressure — the pressure to actually qualify for the Olympics after having invested so much extra time and effort in the pursuit.

“I could feel that tension constantly,” Parsons said. “And I know so many athletes who pushed themselves into an unsafe space, just because we all wanted to get to the Olympics so badly. So many people kept their foot on the gas for so long, and you can only give so much.”

For Parsons, the pent-up stress finally surfaced after he faded to a 10th-place finish, a disappointing result for a runner whose dream suddenly seemed in danger of slipping beyond reach. He recalled that as he took his first faltering steps on a cool-down jog, his heart was racing so fast that it felt like it might explode.

He was fortunate, he said, that Jordan Gusman, one of his teammates from Tinman Elite, a running club based in Colorado, was with him. Sensing Parsons might collapse, Gusman held him upright and reassured him that he would be OK. Parsons later learned that he had been having a panic attack.

“That’s a place I never want to be in again,” he said, “and luckily I was able to get help.”

For many Olympic hopefuls, the past year and a half was a period of great uncertainty and mounting anxiety. As athletes like Parsons pressed forward through the pandemic, they grappled with shuttered training facilities, canceled meets and shoestring budgets. There was also the big unknown: whether the Tokyo Games would happen at all.

“I think it’s been a very, very rough 15 months for a whole bunch of athletes,” said Steven Ungerleider, a sports psychologist based in Oregon who serves on the executive board of the International Paralympic Committee.

The strain was especially pronounced for those whose sports are primarily showcased at the Olympics: swimmers and divers, gymnasts and rowers, runners and jumpers. Many are creatures of habit with strict routines and single-minded goals, and the pandemic was the ultimate disruption.

“They’re obsessed with getting up in the morning and eating certain things and getting out for their run and seeing their trainer and talking with their coaches,” Ungerleider said. “So when things were getting a little uncertain, that’s the worst thing that can happen to an elite athlete. It was driving them crazy.”

Athletes are saying so themselves, speaking frankly in interviews and on social media about their mental health, a subject that no longer carries the stigma in sports and in society that it once did.

Simone Manuel, a four-time medalist in swimming at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, cast a spotlight on some of those mental health issues after she placed a distant ninth in the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic trials last month, revealing that she had been diagnosed in March with overtraining syndrome. Her symptoms included muscle soreness, weight loss and fatigue. She later qualified for the Olympics in the 50-meter freestyle.

“During this process, I definitely was depressed,” she told reporters. “I isolated myself from my family.”

After making his third U.S. Olympic team last week, the gymnast Sam Mikulak opened up about how he had fallen into depression when the Tokyo Games were postponed. For so long, he said, he had tied his self-worth to his athletic achievements. He sought help from mental health professionals to find more balance in his life.

“I’m just happy to be out here,” he said.

A host of runners withdrew from the recent U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore., citing injuries and fatigue. Colleen Quigley, a steeplechaser, said in a social media post that she was stepping away to take a break “both mentally and physically.” Drew Hunter, one of Parsons’s teammates with Tinman Elite, revealed that he had torn the plantar tissue in his foot. And Molly Huddle, one of the most decorated distance runners in American history, scratched because of issues with her left leg.

“It was harder to do anything athletically as far as having access to facilities and treatment, and you wind up compromising in all the things that you were maximizing before,” Huddle said in an interview before the trials. “At the same time, it never felt like we could ever really rest.”

Even those who persevered said it was a time like no other. Emily Sisson, who won the women’s 10,000 meters at the trials, said in a recent interview that not being able to race very much at the height of the pandemic produced its own set of challenges.

“You’re training for a while without much of an end goal,” she said. “It affects your income for the year, too. There’s no prize money, appearance fees — any of that.”

Before his panic attack, Parsons never considered that he would be so susceptible to the stress of his profession. He meditated daily. He studied mindfulness. He thought he was doing all the right things to stay balanced, he said. But the Olympic postponement, in an odd way, created an all-consuming sense of urgency.

“You just push and push and push,” he said, “because there’s this added level of ‘I’ve got to get this done now.’”

Parsons was also dealing with a chronic Achilles’ tendon injury — “Imagine dribbling a deflated basketball,” he said — while maintaining his high mileage. Five years into the Olympic cycle, he could not allow himself to take much of a break, even after he strained his calf in February and backed out of competing in the indoor season.

“You have all this locked-up energy when the Olympics get postponed, and you feel like you have to carry that forward and keep it going for another year,” Parsons said. “It definitely took a toll, and I think that led more and more people into dark places.”

Parsons, who was an all-American at North Carolina State, tumbled into that dark place at the Drake Relays in Iowa, a season-opening meet that he had highlighted as a chance to gauge his fitness. When his race did not go as planned and he found himself stricken, he knew that he needed to make changes.

He began meeting with Mareike Dottschadis, a sports psychologist who helped him reframe his approach. Parsons came to accept the beauty of simply trying.

“It’s a privilege to get even this far,” he said, “and to have the support staff and the talent to put me in this 1 percent position where I might be able to represent my country.”

Parsons bounced back with a solid race in May, then traveled to Europe ahead of the German championships in early June for his chance at securing a spot in the Olympics. (Parsons grew up in Delaware, but his mother is German and he has dual citizenship.)

On the morning of his race, he confided to Dottschadis that his Achilles’ was still bothering him. But he had been training through pain for months, and he figured the adrenaline of the race would help get him through it. Dottschadis asked him to visualize the worst-case scenario.

“I would only drop out,” Parsons told her, “if my body wouldn’t let me finish.”

After breaking clear of the field with another runner, Parsons tried to accelerate for a final sprint with just over a lap to go — and felt a jolt of pain in his calf. He hobbled off the track with a torn muscle.

“Everyone watching the race was like, ‘Why didn’t you just jog a lap and still get silver?’” Parsons said. “Well, I couldn’t jog.”

But because he had processed the worst possible outcome that morning, Parsons was able to cope with the reality that his Olympic dream was finished.

“I’m able to tell myself that I literally gave it everything I could until my body broke,” he said. “There’s solace in that.”

Parsons was in Eugene last week to support some of his teammates at the U.S. trials after a friend persuaded him to come out.

“I was still throwing a little pity party for myself,” Parsons said, “and he was just like, ‘Honestly, Sam, no one cares about what’s going on with your injury because there are plenty of other people who are going through the exact same thing.’ It was probably something that I needed to hear.”

Relegated to the role of spectator, Parsons was off crutches as he began to look ahead to the world championships next year. He has months to rebuild his body the right way, he said. He plans to apply all the hard lessons he has learned.

Juliet Macur and Karen Crouse contributed reporting.

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