Olympic Gold: Be Careful What You Wish and Work For.

August 14, 2021

Olympic Gold: Be Careful What You Wish and Work For.

May 29, 2023

Regardless if it is the summer or winter, I love watching the Olympics--particularly figure skaters and gymnasts. But what I really like to learn are the stories behind the athletes, their families, challenges, and the hard work involved in getting to that elite level.

Several months ago, someone recommended I watch The Weight of Gold narrated by Michael Phelps. I could not help but think about life transitions as I watched the documentary. It is about the mental health challenges Olympic athletes face and the lack of support provided.

Basically, the documentary emphasizes how athletes don’t know how to transition from training to be an Olympic athlete to living and working as a regular citizen. Even if they are gold medalists, they often struggle. Several of the athletes said, "No one prepared me for life after being an Olympian."

I was reminded of The Weight of Gold as I followed the Simone Biles story during the recent Olympics. Mental health is being emphasized as it should be given the pressure these athletes face and feel. While I admired her courage and respected her decision not to participate, my heart was breaking for her knowing how hard she had worked and thinking this might be her last Olympics.

The silver lining was how Biles's teammates stepped up and were able to shine. Suni Lee's personal story was so moving I wanted to stand up and cheer with her family and Hmong community in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Weight of Gold shares many stories about athletes who have struggled after winning Olympic gold. Since Michael Phelps narrated the documentary, I was particularly interested in his reactions and comments about Biles. He was interviewed by Mike Tirico about this. You can read the interview here.

Most of the stories he shared in the interview are also included in the documentary and they are heart wrenching.

"I know there are things that are being put into place and they are starting to move in the right direction," Phelps says. "But my concern is how many more athletes are we going to lose. We’ve already lost a handful to suicide."

Freestyle Jeret "Speedy" Peterson was 29 when he killed himself in 2011 less than two years after winning a silver medal.

Australian Olympic cyclist Kelly Catlin won a silver medal at the Games in 2016. She was 23 when she committed suicide in 2019.

Stephen Scherer was only 19 when he competed in shooting at the 2008 Games in Beijing. He took his own life in 2010.

"How many more can we lose?" Phelps said. "It breaks my heart."

Phelps concluded:

"The biggest thing is understanding and accepting. For me, I felt like I’m alone sometimes, that I’m the only one who can go through something like this. But that’s not the case. There are millions of people out there going through the same thing I’ve gone through or Simone is going through. People are standing up and talking about it left and right. And that’s what we need.”

In a USA Today article, Nancy Armour described how Biles' inability to compete because of mental health issues allowed other athletes to open up and share their own struggles. "Raven Saunders spoke of being suicidal. Noah Lyles talked about how he’s benefited from therapy. Rory McIlroy reflected on the importance of having things in his life that have nothing to do with golf. Several athletes noted that they had deleted social media apps, or moved them to the last screen on their phone."

As I was reading about mental health and the Olympic pressure, I thought back to the Modern Elder Academy (MEA) online course on "Your Roadmap for Navigating Midlife Transitions." "Retirement" is a challenging transition for most people and athletes age-out much sooner than most of us. Phelps says in The Weight of Gold that there should be support and education for athletes to help them make a healthy transition to what comes after the Olympics--for what's next in life.

The question of legacy seems to always be talked about during the Olympics. In the past, there was so much attention paid to the physical health of athletes. But the legacy for the most recent Olympics should include the spotlight on mental health. My hope is we give mental health the attention, respect, and support it deserves. We should want the athletes to succeed in life long after the Olympics.

Jann Freed, PhD, an MEA alumna, is a leadership development coach, author of Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts, and TEDx speaker. She writes a column for Training Magazine called "The Leading Edge" and hosts a monthly podcast "Becoming a Sage." As a Certified Sage-ing Leader through Sage-ing International, Jann helps people make the rest of life the best of life. Her forthcoming book is Breadcrumb Legacy: Seeing Life Through a Different Lens.

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