Written by Akankha Basu Roy & Edited by Vidya Rajagopalan
Mental Health is widely overlooked by people in general. When it is concerned with sports, sportspersons dealing with mental health often have to put up a facade and pretend everything is well. They are often denied access to therapy, medications and even doctor’s consultation under the purview of their fame and standard. The stories of Mary Cain, Deja Young and Amanda Beard stand a testament to how mental health has been overlooked and how it is crucial to normalise discussions around mental health issues.
Mary Cain quotes “I was the fastest girl in America Until I joined Nike”. A 17-year-old girl, with extraordinary potential and the grit to exploit her superpower. She was elated when she was called to join the Nike Oregon Project (NOP) and get trained under Alberto Salazar, the best coach under Nike. However, she returned with a broken body and mind. She spoke up about her trauma in the NOP camp after four years in 2019. At present, Mary Cain narrates how being invited to train under NOP in Oregon was a “dream come true.” Once she signed up for the team she realised there was a toxic culture that Nike kept overlooking and encouraging- “a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike”. Salazar and his assistants were obsessed with shaming players and coercing them to lost weight. She was “pushed” to have contraceptive pills and diuretic drugs, the latter of which are not allowed on track and field, and was given meagre meals. She says, “I felt so scared, I felt so alone and I felt so trapped….and I started to have suicidal thoughts…started to cut myself… some people saw me cut myself…and nobody really did anything or said anything..”. When after a disappointing loss in a nominal race meet, she was reprimanded by Salazar in front of everyone else. During an emotional breakdown, she tried to harm herself. Instead of arranging for help, she was asked to “go to bed”. Her body retaliated against all the atrocities imposed upon her. She didn’t have her menstrual cycle for three whole years and broke five bones under stress. At the risk of developing osteoporosis and infertility issues, she left the camp. She voiced out her story in a The New York Times article and video, post the publishing of which Nike was forced to take actions against the accused. Her own NY Times story inspired her to do more and this year. She announced the launch of a women’s professional running team, Atlanta NY, that would employ athletes in return for them mentoring young women track athletes towards a successful career, a model based on Tracksmith, the company that employs Cain presently. This takes out the toxicity of cut-throat competition and changes the sports environment in itself. She is going to serve as the President and CEO of the company.
While a student-athlete crumbled due to institutional irresponsibility, another struggled her way through depression.
Deja Young, the 2016 Rio Paralympics Gold Medallist in 100m and 200m T46 race track, was born with a disorder which is known as Brachial plexus which limits the mobility of her right shoulder but never limited her athletic skills in her high school years where she also played softball and volleyball. After graduation, she was turned down by a lot of institutions before being accepted on a full track scholarship by Wichita State University. However, while managing college and her professional choice simultaneously, her mental health spiralled. A jolly person by nature, she repressed her anxiety with the notion that she would be acting selfishly if she were to open up. In an article published on team USA’s page, she wrote “Depression is a constant battle within yourself and it feels like it is endless. It also feels like there is no chance of winning.” Moreover, she also started feeling the immense burden of expectations that she not only had from herself but from the ones around. Depression, the embarrassment of opening up, the anxiety of failing at school and guilt pushed her over the brink and she ended up attempting suicide but was saved in time. She was admitted to a mental institution where she confessed the most difficult part was asking for help. Paralympic games were just 4 months away and Young realised how depression had “taken over life.” In the same article, she also penned down, “ I had to realize that when glass is broken, when the pieces are big enough, you can put it back together; but when it shatters it can’t be fixed. I realized that even in shattering I could still be put back together.” She pulled herself through and went on to win the gold medals at the Paralympic games. She graduated in 2018 and is still running strong. Since she realised that, “Athletics helps because it is my outlet but it is also a lot of pressure. I have realised I cannot depend on it (athletics) for my happiness. I’m going to have failures, bad days and bad meets so I have to find my happiness within myself first.”
Amanda Beard finds happiness in her family- her husband and two kids. The star swimmer, seven-time Olympics champion, and world record holder started facing difficulties once her parents got divorced when she was twelve. At just fourteen years, she debuted in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and won Silver for the two breaststroke events and gold in the Relay event. Shortly after her triumph, she hit puberty that altered her slender frame and resulted in her poor performance. She started pushing herself ruthlessly. This caused her to consume alcohol frequently. After winning an athletic full scholarship to Arizona, she was diagnosed with bulimia and depression. A “volatile relationship” with a star swimmer resulted in the addiction to drugs, and escaping pain through cutting herself. Her mental health kept declining which escalated her self-harm tendencies and for the first time in her career, Beard failed to win a medal. Things changed when she met her husband, Sacha Brown, who encouraged her to seek therapy. In an interview, she opens up “We can’t be ashamed of who we are or embarrassed of the things that we’re going through. It makes me almost emotional in a way to hear people’s stories especially if they’re still struggling with overcoming things. It breaks my heart because it’s not a fun place to be and you feel so lonely.” In a memoir released in 2012, “In the Water, You Can’t See Me Cry”, she narrates, “I wake myself up and look at myself in the mirror every morning and know [that] how I look, and my weight and how my hairdo is really not that important. I have two young kids and when I look at their faces if they’re happy and healthy, that is the best thing in my life.”
These stories unfurl the necessity to open up and destigmatise mental health. Athletes are, after all, humans. They too stumble through thorns of anxiety and depression but with appropriate help, they’ll learn to pick themselves up and reach the rainbow of their zenith. Mental health issues must be addressed as much as physical illness and help must be accessible to everyone who seeks it.
- Mary Cain
- Deja Young
- Amanda Beard