Greater Than Gold

The 2016 Rio Games are upon us, a good moment to reflect on the struggles that athletes and even Olympic champions endure with mental illness. One of the hardest things athletes face is the stigma of mental illness, which can be all the more difficult for people constantly striving to be the best.

David Boudia is an American Olympic medalist in diving who shares the story of his battle with depression in a book out this week titled Greater Than Gold: From Olympic Heartbreak to Ultimate Redemption.

His struggles after coming up short in the 2008 Beijing Games included overcoming suicidal thoughts. In 2012, he went on to win the gold medal in diving at the 2012 London Games. You can catch Boudia’s performances at the 2016 Rio Games—see the NBC Today Show’s pre-Rio interview with Boudia here.

Clara Hughes, a six-time Olympic medalist in cycling and speed skating, is a Canadian athlete who shares her personal struggle in the fight against the stigma of mental illness. After the 1996 Atlanta Games, she lapsed into daily crying spells and gained weight, only to feel more isolated when she threw herself into more intensive training. In 2006, she went on to become the first athlete to win multiple medals at both the Summer and Winter Games. Since 2010 she has been the national spokesperson for the Bell “Let’s Talk” Day.

In 2013, after publishing a memoir titled Open Heart, Open Mind, she talked about the difficulties of overcoming the stigma herself:

“I definitely underestimated how hard this was going to be. There’s a lot of just really personal issues I have struggled with over the years and experiences over the years, familial and in the sporting world that I still am trying to understand, and it’s been really traumatic, it’s been really, really hard. It makes me realize that I still have a lot of healing that I need to do and I have a long way to go in my own mental health.”

Silken Laumann, a three-time Olympic medalist in rowing, became a national hero in Canada for winning Bronze in the 1992 Barcelona Games just weeks after suffering a shattering injury. But Laumann says sharing the story of her depression and anxiety even with her future husband was a more grueling experience. By writing a memoir titled Unsinkable and working with organizations that support child development, she joined the fight against the stigma that prevents people from getting help. As she wrote in Unsinkable:

“Even though I’m terrified to be so open about my journey, I have a deep faith in people’s ability to hear with their hearts. I also believe that life is a beautiful, challenging, terrible and exhilarating experience in which we must strive to realize our greatest potential no matter how forbidding that path.”

In Huffpost Maggie Crum presents a good discussion of the sporting life and mental illness. It includes the story of 2012 American gold medalist in swimming Allison Schmitt:

“I didn’t really understand it. I came back from the most successful summer I’ve had. Everything had always seemed to go my way. So I was like, well, I’ve had great friends, great family. I’ve had success in the sport that I wanted. I went back to school, finished my degree. I was like, what could possibly be wrong with me? I know I was grateful for all those times but at the same time, I wasn’t happy. But I couldn’t really understand why I was unhappy. I was like, why would I be depressed? I have no reason to be depressed.”