Home >Sports >Olympics News >For Olympic athletes, it’s been an even more stressful games than usual

TOKYO: Simone Biles. Naomi Osaka. Katie Ledecky. Their golden sweep hasn’t always played out as expected.

Biles dramatically withdrew from her gymnastics competitions, saying she wasn’t mentally ready to safely compete. Japan’s Osaka lost in the third round of the tennis competition and said she didn’t know how to cope with the pressure of being the face of the Games for the host country. Ledecky has had an up-and-down swim meet in which she hasn’t always found her expected home at the top of the podium.

The three women, all under 25, have spoken in recent weeks and in Tokyo about how the pandemic’s delays, isolation and loss, plus the already intense pressure to win, have taken a toll on them and their mental health.

“I think people maybe feel bad for me that I’m not winning everything," a teary Ledecky said Wednesday, “but I want people to be concerned about other things that are going on in the world, people that are truly suffering."

The women’s candor in discussing their struggles has been applauded as a game-changing moment in the discussion about mental health and sports and beyond. Their willingness to talk about it “while they’re in an active situation in their careers, it’s commendable and significant," said Vera Feuer, an adolescent psychiatrist at Northwell Health. “It has a huge impact on a lot of youth…We see it in our offices."

It’s also having an impact at the moment in Tokyo. American swimmer Caeleb Dressel knew he’d be under pressure to win multiple gold medals at these Games, thus coronating him as the heir to Michael Phelps. He didn’t expect it to be so hard to handle under the spotlight. After winning the first individual gold medal of his career in the men’s 100-meter freestyle on Thursday, he broke down in tears. He said his head swirled with self-doubt ahead of Saturday’s final session, during which he raced three times and set a world record in the 100 butterfly en route to winning gold.

“This sport was a lot more fun when no one knew my name, to be honest," said Dressel.

Earlier in the meet, Erica Sullivan, the 20-year-old American swimmer who came second to Ledecky in the 1500-meter freestyle, opened up about her own mental-health struggles.

“There was a point in 2018 when I started getting psychological help for my mental issues," she said. “At the end of the day, so little people understand the struggles of an elite athlete, let alone an athlete like Simone Biles…I think people fail to recognize that she is also a human being."

It’s not just the superstars that are struggling at the Tokyo Olympics. The Games are already an isolating experience for athletes under normal circumstances. In Tokyo, pandemic protocols mean that nearly everyone is separated from their families, their normal training routines and often from each other.

After missing out on bronze in the 3-meter synchronized diving competition by nine points, two-time Olympian Lola Hernandez thanked her brother on Instagram. “Despite not being with me in person, he sent me the strength to be here every day," she said.

Of the U.S. team’s 764 athletes, including alternates, roughly one in five reported experiencing mental-health issues including anxiety, depression, drug or alcohol abuse or an eating disorder in the team’s very first pre-Games mental-health survey, according the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. Six reported suicidal ideation.

It can also be taxing on athletes in lower-profile sports whose only chance for global exposure comes every four years at the Games, said Todd Herman, a performance psychologist who consults with more than 100 Olympians.

“Sport for them is their identity. It’s what they’ve been doing since [age] 7 or 8," he said. “And if I can’t compete at my best at this Olympics then what am I good for? That was exactly what someone said to me last night," said Herman. He’s based in the U.S., but has been talking by phone with coaches and athletes in Japan asking for help with navigating the stress of these pandemic Games.

The heat of competition is not the time for intensive talk therapy, Herman said. He suggested mindfulness and meditation exercises in several conversations with athletes and team directors and urged his clients to remember that their support networks remain strong even if they cannot be physically present in Tokyo.

On Thursday, Biles tweeted: “The outpouring of love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before."

Athletes have experienced tremendous loss and adversity throughout the pandemic. Some lost family members and jobs, according to Jessica Bartley, USOPC’s director for mental health services. Others feared getting Covid, in part, because the virus can sometimes have long-term impacts on the heart, lungs and other organs, which could derail their Olympic dreams.

“There’s often a lot of anxiety for test results to come back," said Dr. Bartley.

Some athletes were disqualified for competition after testing positive here, including Argentine pole vaulter German Chiaraviglio.

“It’s really hard to process something like this. It’s likely going to take me a long time," he posted on Instagram.

Even before the Games commenced, lockdowns had cut into athletes’ ability to see family and friends and to train.

Mexican rhythmic gymnast Rut Castillo told Marca Claro that she and her coach “didn’t have a place to train. We trained over Zoom. It was super, super tough."

“These Olympics are certainly like no other that I’ve been to," said Ruth Anderson, Cycling Australia’s head for performance psychology and behaviors. “The biggest challenge for these Olympic Games is how athletes are able to adapt to…a competition environment that’s very different to what we’ve had before."

Still, the psychological effects of the pandemic’s disruptions on training and daily life might not be all bad, she said. It has required athletes to build their resilience over the last year and a half, in part by practicing stress management and mindfulness and tracking sleep to calm themselves and stay healthy.

“They’ve been building their psychological ability in daily life, and that presents a really strong foundation to go into any competition, because that ability doesn’t just disappear," Anderson said. “It transfers into a different environment."

Christen Press, a forward on the U.S. women’s soccer team, said she meditates twice a day to decompress and balance herself. She keeps up the routine even outside of major tournaments.

“People look at elite athletes and say, ‘That’s so stressful,’ or, ‘That’s so hard,’ but all of our lives are stressful and we all have history and baggage," Press said.

The Australian team’s behavioral staff teaches athletes how to cope with anxiety, regulate emotions and make tough decisions under pressure. USOPC staff are reaching out to athletes directly and training coaches to identify mental-health issues early.

It has also started peer support groups to help athletes through tough transitions, including not qualifying for the Games and retirement, said Bartley. Because an athlete’s identity and self-worth is often tied to their sport, figuring out what to do next can be difficult, experts said.

To bookend his Olympic career, Mexican gymnast Daniel Corral took a picture by the rings.

“I never imagined that at 31 I’d be doing gymnastics, but there was something inside me that I had to heal. That was the principal reason for embarking again on this journey after two years of retirement," he wrote on Instagram. “Today I finally feel that relief and liberation I so longed for."

—Rachel Bachman contributed to this article.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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