When most people think of an Olympian, they think of the glory and the glamor. The sculpted muscles and shimmering medals. The inspiring faces of determination, the universal expressions of triumph, the adorable opening ceremony outfits. And the smiles – oh the smiles! I don’t think there’s anything quite like the emotion that’s captured in an Olympian’s smile.
But there’s another part of being an Olympian that nobody talks about – and that is what happens after the Games. What happens when the flags in Olympic Park come down; when the buzz of returning home dies off; when we go back to “real life” and realize that, for the first time in many years, it is extraordinarily ordinary.
For many Olympians, this next phase is not so glorious. There is a phenomenon called the post-Olympic depression*, and it’s a lot more common than you may think. If you’ve ever reached a lifelong goal, you may be able to relate: when you’ve spent years being 100% invested in one thing and then it’s over, life kind of turns upside-down.
*A note on semantics. While the severity of depression varies among individual athletes, in this context, post-Olympic depression refers to the entire spectrum, from mild depressive episodes to clinical depression.
Post-Olympic depression can take on many different forms.
For the medalist who just experienced the highest high she ever dreamed of, it’s coming back down and wondering how she’s ever going to top that.
For the athlete who fell short of his expectations, it’s questioning every decision he made that led to him missing a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
For the retiring athlete whose entire identity is intertwined with his sport, it’s wondering how he’s now supposed to see himself.
For the athlete who spent four years working towards this thing that she thought would bring her ultimate happiness, it’s realizing that there is still a piece of her that’s not satisfied – that the void she was trying to fill is still there.
I was warned about the post-Olympic depression (I actually came across an Atlantic article about it a few weeks before Rio, but did not allow myself to read it until the Games were over). But you see, I developed a plan to outsmart it: I signed up for a marathon. I poured all of my energy that was once focused on the Paralympics into this new endeavor, thereby distracting myself from the post-Rio emotions that I hadn’t processed. It was a crafty move (if I may say so myself), and for a few months, I was actually able to convince myself that I had evaded the dark period that follows the Games.
But in reality, all I was really doing was prolonging the inevitable. Then two days after the marathon, I woke up drowning in all of the feelings I had been suppressing. I initially thought the emptiness I felt was a result of my disappointing performance at my marathon, but I soon realized that it ran far deeper. I could run away from the post-Olympic depression all I wanted, but in my particular case, it was a reality I would eventually have to face.
I won’t lie – the last six weeks have been really hard. I’ve felt exhausted much of the time, a combination of physical fatigue and mental burnout. I’ve struggled to get excited about the season ahead, and experienced hopelessness when I couldn’t find the motivation to get even the easiest workouts in. I’ve been overwhelmed and confused thinking about what I want the next four years to look like, and was terrified to realize that I don’t know who I would be if I wasn’t an athlete. There were a few really bad days: days where I was completely despondent and all I wanted to do was stay in bed. But overall, this time has been characterized by more of just a dulled interest in several aspects of my life. But considering these were the aspects that used to be my greatest sources of joy, dulled interest feels like pretty sharp pain.
When I first started to experience the post-Olympic depression, I tried to force myself out of it. However, I’ve learned that in order to work though this, I need to be patient with my emotions and not pressure myself to change the way I feel. The culmination of the Paralympics is very much a loss, and like any loss, it must be grieved. And so I am going to be generous with myself, listen to what my body needs, and not force a motivation that isn’t there. I will reflect on what else I’m looking to get out of my sport, I will ask myself if my heart is still in it, and I will be honest with my answers. I’ve already found that by giving myself permission grieve at my own pace, I’ve started to feel a lot better. And while I can’t say that I am completely out of the woods just yet, I do believe it’s just around the corner.
So why am I talking about this – this thing that nobody talks about? Why would I come out and write publicly about a stigmatized idea that we like to pretend does not exist? I guess it comes down to two reasons: to normalize and to demystify.
To address the normalization reasoning, it’s worth mentioning the other time in my life that I experienced very similar feelings. When I went to college, I really struggled with the transition. I had a difficult time assimilating myself into a group and never really felt like I fit in. I remember breaking into tears at seemingly random moments throughout my first year. I remember being angry so much of the time, but not being able to explain why.
What made that year even harder was the fact that everyone I knew had told me that college was supposed to be the best time of my life. That dichotomy between others’ expectations and my actual experience was one that I started to internalize; if I was the only person who could go to college and not have fun, there had to be something wrong with me. What I didn’t learn until after I graduated is that the emotions that I felt my freshman year are actually incredibly common. Even some of my friends – the same people who I thought were having the time of their lives – later told me that they felt the way I did that first year.
When I think back to my 18-year old self, the one thing that I wished more than anything was to know that I was not the only one who was hurting so much. That feeling – that burning desire to have my experience validated – was very much on my mind when I decided to write this. I want any other athlete who may be struggling with life post Olympics to know that they are not alone.
More generally, I want any person who has experienced depression – regardless of the duration or severity– to know that they are not alone. And even though it’s rarely discussed, it’s something that affects even the strongest people in the world.
Which leads me to my next reason: to demystify. I think a lot of people view Olympians as being superhuman. In order to reach the limits of human potential, we must be immune to the internal struggles that are central to the human experience.
This notion is further perpetuated by the image of Olympians that is portrayed in the media, an image that I am responsible for contributing to in the buildup to Rio. I conformed to the norm of publicizing my highlight reel while conveniently omitting the bloopers, convincing those around me that everything was perfect. I couldn’t let my competitors know that I was on the brink of overtraining or that I had so much anxiety that I wasn’t sleeping, so I hid those facts from the world while choosing to share the things that made me look better. It felt like something I had to do at the time, but I also hated that I couldn’t be honest about my reality.
The thing is, I don’t want people to think that my life is all wonderful all the time. It’s necessary to talk about the hard stuff, in part because struggle lays the groundwork for success, but more importantly because to not talk about it would feed the false belief that Olympians are beyond ordinary. The truth is that we Olympians are humans – impacted by feelings, susceptible to pain, capable of doubt.
My goal here is not to expose some dirty little secret of my fellow athletes. I am just one person, and I can only speak to my own experience. But for this particular Paralympian, here’s what I can tell you:
I fall down a lot. Sometimes I get back up immediately, and sometimes I’m down for longer than I’d like to let on.
The internal struggles that we all face – the questions of worth, the uncertainty of my life’s purpose, the disparity between how I feel and how I think I should feel – are battles that I fight every day.
I believe that these shared struggles can connect us to each other in ways more beautiful and more profound than the highlight reels can do.
And I think it’s time we start talking about them.