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Olympic hopefuls also struggle with mental health

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EUGENE, Ore. — In April, when Sam Parsons lined up for the start of the 5000 meters at the Drake Relays, he felt like he was in the best shape of his life. He had taken advantage of the one-year postponement of the Olympic Games to reinforce his training with the goal of competing for Germany in the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

However, just as her mileage increased, she also increased the pressure…the pressure of actually qualifying for the Olympics after having invested so much extra time and effort to achieve that goal.

“I felt this tension all the time,” Parsons said. “And I know a lot of athletes who pushed themselves to the point of putting themselves in danger just because we were all dying to get to the Olympics. “A lot of people kept their foot on the accelerator for a long time and we all have a limit.”

For Parsons, the pent-up stress finally came to the surface after he placed XNUMXth, a disappointing result for a runner with a dream that suddenly seemed to be slipping through his fingers forever. He remembered that, when he took the first hesitant steps of a cool-down jog, his heart was beating so fast it felt like it was going to explode.

Parsons mentioned that fortunately Jordan Gusman, one of his teammates from Tinman Elite, a running club based in Colorado, was with him. When he felt Parsons might collapse, Gusman kept him upright and reassured him that he was going to be fine. Parsons later learned that he had had a panic attack.

“It's a place I never want to find myself again and luckily I was able to get help,” he mentioned.

For many Olympic hopefuls, the last year and a half has been a period of great uncertainty and growing anxiety. As athletes like Parsons struggled during the pandemic, they faced the closure of training facilities, canceled competitions and tight budgets. There was also the big question: if the Tokyo Olympics were actually going to happen.

“I think it has been a very, very difficult fifteen months for many athletes,” he said. Steven Ungerleider, sports psychologist based in Oregon who is part of the executive council of the International Paralympic Committee.

The pressure was especially noticeable for athletes whose sports are essentially showcased only in the Olympics: swimmers and divers, gymnasts and rowers, runners and jumpers. Many are creatures of habit with strict routines and focused goals, and the pandemic was the worst disruption.

“They are obsessed with getting up in the morning, eating certain things, going for a run, seeing their trainer and talking to their trainers,” Ungerleider said. “So, when things get a little uncertain, it's the worst thing that can happen to an elite athlete. He was driving them crazy.”

Athletes say the same thing, in very sincere interviews and on social networks about their mental health, a topic that no longer carries the stigma it once had in sports and society.

Simone Manuel, four-time swimming medalist at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, put the spotlight on some of those mental health problems after placing a distant ninth in the 100-meter freestyle at the US Olympic Trials last month, after which he revealed that he had been diagnosed with overtraining syndrome in March. Some of his symptoms were muscle pain, weight loss and fatigue. She later qualified for the Olympics in the 50 meter freestyle.

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

After qualifying for his third Olympic team for the United States a few days ago, gymnast Sam Mikulak said who had fallen into depression after the Tokyo Games were postponed. For a long time, he said, he had linked his self-esteem to his athletic achievements. He sought help from mental health professionals to find greater balance in his life.

“I'm just happy to be here,” he said.

In the United States, a large number of runners withdrew from the recent Olympic track and field events in Eugene, Oregon, citing injuries and fatigue. In a social media post, Colleen Quigley, an obstacle course runner, commented that she stepped aside to rest “both mentally and physically”. Drew Hunter, one of Parsons' Tinman Elite teammates, revealed that he had torn plantar tissue of the foot. And Molly Huddle, one of the most decorated distance runners in American history, canceled her participation due to difficulties with the left leg.

“It was more difficult to do anything athletic because there was no access to facilities and treatments, and we ended up putting at risk everything we were focusing on the most,” Huddle mentioned in an interview before the tryouts. “At the same time, we never felt like we could really rest.”

Even those who persevered said it was a unique time. In a recent interview, Emily Sisson, winner of the women's 10.000 meters in the trials, said not being able to run much at the height of the pandemic produced its own set of challenges.

“For a while, we trained without having an end goal,” he said. “This also affects your income for the year. There are no monetary prizes, appearance fees… none of that.”

Parsons in competition in Doha, Qatar, in 2019

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. However, the postponement of the Olympics, in a strange way, created an all-consuming sense of urgency.

“You put more and more pressure on yourself because there's this added level where you're like, 'I have to do this now,'” he said.

Parsons also suffered from a chronic Achilles tendon injury — “Imagine you want to dribble a deflated basketball,” he said — while maintaining his high mileage. Five years into the Olympic cycle, he couldn't afford much rest, even after straining his calf in February and withdrawing from the indoor season's competition.

Simone Manuel in a qualifying race for the 50-meter freestyle in Nebraska on June 20, 2021 at the United States Olympic Trials.

“I had all this energy built up when the Olympics were postponed and I felt like I had to keep carrying it and keep going for another year,” Parsons said. “Ultimately, it took a toll on me and I think that happened to a lot of people and caused them to end up in dark places.”

Parsons, who was one of America's greatest athletes at North Carolina State University, fell into that dark place at the Drake Relays in Iowa, a season-opening sports meeting that Parsons had chosen as an opportunity. to gauge your physical condition. When his career didn't go as he had planned and ended with an injury, he knew he needed to make some changes.

He began seeing Mareike Dottschadis, a sports psychologist who helped him reframe his approach. Parsons ended up accepting the beauty of simply trying.

“It's a privilege to just make it this far and have the support staff and talent that put me in this one percent, giving me the chance to represent my country,” Parsons said.

In May, Parsons bounced back with a good run, then traveled to Europe before the German championships in early June to fight for his chance to secure a spot in the Olympics (Parsons grew up in Delaware, but his mother is German, so who has dual nationality).

On the morning of the race, Parsons admitted to Dottschadis that his Achilles was still bothering him. However, he had trained for months with pain and thought that the adrenaline of the race was going to help him overcome it. Dottschadis asked him to visualize the worst-case scenario.

Emily Sisson won the 10.000 meter race at the US Olympic Track and Field Trials in Oregon on June 23, 2021

“I will only retire,” Parsons replied, “if my body doesn't let me finish.”

After coming into the lead with another runner, Parsons tried to accelerate for a final sprint with just one lap left… and felt a jolt of pain through his calf. He limped off the court with a torn muscle.

“Everyone who watched the race was like, 'Why didn't you jog another lap to at least get silver,'” Parsons said. “Well, I couldn’t jog.”

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

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

Recently, Parsons was in Eugene to cheer on some of his teammates at the U.S. trials after a friend persuaded him to come out.

"I kept wallowing in my pain a little bit and he just said, 'Really, Sam, no one cares about your injury because there are so many people going through the exact same thing.' Maybe it was something I needed to hear,” Parsons said.

Parsons, relegated to the role of spectator, was without crutches as he began to set his sights on next year's world championships. He has months to rebuild his body properly, he said. He plans to put into practice all the difficult lessons he has learned.


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Yair Ramirez
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