Those are all images we witnessed. There are many moments that equally capture the spirit of the Olympian and are never seen. Some of those moments don’t even lead to the Olympics.
Last Friday, American figure skater Gracie Gold pulled out of her Grand Prix events next month. It didn’t make a huge ripple in a sports world given over to NFL highlights and U.S. soccer lowlights. But it should have. It’s important. It’s brave.
“It saddens me deeply to sit out this Grand Prix Series, but I know it is for the best,” Gold said in a statement. “I am currently in treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. I will not have adequate training time to prepare and compete at the level that I want to.”
The level that she wants to compete at is very high. Gold finished just off the podium in individual competition in the Sochi Games, she won U.S. nationals last year, and she is only 22. This decision lessens the likelihood that we will see her compete in South Korea in February, where she would be a crowd favorite if not a podium favorite.
She announced a break from competition in September, but didn’t specify exactly why. Her statement late last week is especially courageous considering that no one would have pushed her to name the reasons for her withdrawal. Depression, anxiety and eating disorders are almost always confronted in private, and in many cases they aren’t even acknowledged or realized by the person facing them.
Over the last generation, there has been more attention paid to the psychological toll of competing in the Olympics. One of the leaders in speaking out has been Phelps, who opened up about his post-Olympics struggles as far back as 2005. But in a lot of cases, personal demons have been shooed away or shelved in the months leading up to an Olympics. There is always another practice or sponsorship meeting or fan greeting to do for this once-in-a-lifetime moment. Often the needs of the self are suppressed or ignored.
Gold is not ignoring them.
“We really applaud her for her courage and honesty,” says Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association. “There is a tremendous amount of stigma with eating disorders, so someone with a public profile like her really has a positive impact on a much broader impact for those who feel shame about reaching out.”
It’s hard to imagine the strength Gold has summoned to get to this point of self-awareness. In January, she told Olympics writer Phil Hersch, “I never felt I was in an actual depression and I needed a psychologist. I was fine out of the rink. It was just in the rink and in skating I wasn’t myself … I was still a normal human being, regular by all standards. I’m just trying to do something above and beyond, trying to be a national champion, a world champion, an Olympic medalist.”
But that’s just it: normal human beings face depression and anxiety all the time. And most of those who face those battles do so starting at Gold’s age or before. According to a 2011 study by the American College Health Association, half of 195,000 college students surveyed dealt with “overwhelming anxiety” within the prior 12 months. Now subtract the college setting and add the unique pressures of being a world-class figure skater and you can start to see the crucible that is Gold’s daily life. Eliminating perceived flaws are ingrained in the culture.
“Athletes are at increased risk,” says Mysko. “That’s another aspect of her statement that has a positive impact. It educates the public.”
And part of the education is the link between eating disorders and other issues like depression and anxiety. The three often weave together in nefarious ways, and Gold naming all three will also be reassuring to those who can’t fully grasp what they’re going through.
“Thirty million Americans struggle with eating disorders at some point in their lives,” says Mysko. “This doesn’t often get discussed in the context of mental health.”
The effort of the Olympian is usually well-documented: training, practice runs, the weight room. Even the daily life of a hopeful gets coverage, through behind-the-scenes footage of family time and part-time jobs. Yet another kind of effort is almost never seen: therapy sessions, late-night talks with coaches, the struggle to get out of bed in the morning. Gracie Gold is making that effort, and we may never know how hard it is for her.
But whether she is in South Korea or not this February, she is now more of an Olympian than ever.
To learn more about eating disorders or to reach out for help, go to https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/ or call 1-800-931-2237.