I just read a really wonderful book by Suzy Favor Hamilton called Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness.
As someone that was obsessed with the Olympics as a kid, I remembered her name as a US track star. I ended up staying up til 3am finishing the book after picking it up on a stopover on a flight that I was taking despite having a full schedule the next day that I had to be up at 6:30am to execute (it was worth staying up to read it).
A brief synopsis was that Suzy was a runner, obsessed with winning from a young age, and who won. A lot. As a teenager in Wisconsin, she broke all kinds of records, before going on to a career at the University of Wisconsin where she broke more records. She went on to become one of the first female runners to get huge endorsements by companies such as Nike, and had an Olympic career that spanned 3 Games. She talked about how running for her was an escape from a family that had a brother suffering from mental illness who later committed suicide, and a family that didn’t communicate about it. She talked about how unhealthy she was in times during her running career suffering from bulimia when she was a teenager and the beginning of college. But since she kept on winning, she was able to dodge bullets and seem that everything was going well even though she was a mess on the inside.
She retired after the 2000 Olympics and later had a daughter, and that is where mental health issues that she was having came to the forefront as she was diagnosed as bipolar not long after giving birth. After being put on some different medication, of which hyper sexuality was a side effect, and looking for the high that sports gave her, she ended up embarking on a career as a high class call girl in Vegas. She continued on this path for months, balancing a “normal” life in Wisconsin with Vegas until she was outed by a sensationalist online magazine and her story became national headlines. A big theme of her recovery was having no shame at her mental illness and the path that she had took.
One thing that struck me that I admired so much from the book was her honesty. She was so forthright, in the most refreshing way, especially on a subject that as women we are told to be shameful about: sex and sexuality, while at the same time admirably conquering the stigma of mental illness. A mom being a high class escort, based on the narrative given to us by society, would be something to gloss over, or make excuses for, and/or not be completely truthful about, as it is embedded in shame. I realized reading the book, through her honesty, how so much of what we don’t talk about in society is linked to shame. It was somewhat of a life changing realization that I’ll save for another blog, but I admired how detailed she was in describing everything that she went through, both as an athlete and later on in her life in Vegas.
But as the timing is interesting with the Olympics and elite sport in all of its glorification at the forefront, I think its a conversation that is a positive one to talk about what drives athletes. Because for anyone that has taken their sport to the highest level, you know that it is all consuming. It’s a stress that always is over you from morning to night. What to eat, how to recover, did I have a good training or a bad training, is that little niggle injury going to prevent me from playing this weekend, and oh my gosh if I don’t play am I going to lose my spot? ….For lack of a better way to say it, elite sports can be an absolute mind fuck and it takes stopping to realize the space in just your brain that your sport takes up, let alone what the realities of life look like. Quite simply for people that have bigger demons that they don’t know how to slay, elite sports provides the perfect distraction.
The book grabbed me because I think we don’t talk enough about the dark side of elite sport. That for some of us, sport is an escape from some deeper issues in our life. Once sport is taken away, that gaping hole is exposed and some of us fall deep into it, sometimes for years wandering aimlessly trying to unravel what our intense training and competing allowed us to ignore for so many years. For coaches also, I think its important to realize that for some athletes, sport is an escape from some heavy, hard shit that is going on. Where winning and losing, competing and accomplishing take the forefront of the message of importance and affirmation in elite sport, for some, it is the only safe space that allows a respite from the madness of everything we don’t know how to cope with otherwise. A place where the joy and happiness that is provided goes so much deeper and has a far more long lasting effect than winning and losing.
On that point, I have to say, I was incredibly blessed with adults that through my childhood and teenage years made sport the happiest time in my day, and perhaps why so many of the friends that I grew up with, flocked to that space like bees to honey.
I cried at points in the book because I related. For me, soccer always was tied in with my Mum’s MS and the higher I climbed in the sport, the deeper I was running from everything that I didn’t know how to cope with because of it. There is no playbook that you get when you’re six years old and you know your Mum is sick and there’s stress in your family. The playbook that you don’t get also doesn’t tell you about what to do when you’re 10 years old and see your Mum getting hurt by insensitive assholes that don’t know she has a disease and make comments because they mistake her lack of coordination with being drunk. Or watching her bravely have to cope with moving from a cane to a walker, and into a wheelchair. Or hearing about her falling in the house and lying with a broken hip for hours because she doesn’t want to bother anyone and would rather try and get up herself. And before you’re even old enough for high school starting to worry not just for your Mum, but for your Dad whose anxiety is palpable and saturates your whole family.
It’s overwhelming, as no one tells you how to cope with emotions and situations that you have no tools to navigate. The feelings of helplessness and shame are suffocating because while you feel all of this, you don’t want to make anyone else feel any worse by actually admitting you feel this way.
We gloss this shit up in society and we don’t talk about the pain that so many people and families are going through in so many different situations. Family illness, divorce, abuse, abandonment, the list goes on and on. These situations are a gas that motors some of the highest accomplishing athletes, but it a fleeting fuel that when it is taken away causes cars to fly off the road. And we hear those stories of struggling former athletes every day. We discard their struggle with a thought of “how sad that is”, before focusing our attention on the current big star.
The irony is that while some kids go down the path of drugs and destruction, clearly flying off the road as young people, other ones go the route of accomplishment in elite sport. The pain of what we have experienced is just as real, but it’s just manifesting in a way that has everyone patting us on the back, telling us how great we are doing, which is confusing because their praise amidst our pain, makes us feel like empty frauds.
What they don’t realize is that on the inside we’re no different than the druggie on the side of the street shooting themselves up, or the alcoholic knocking back shot after shot of vodka. We’re all just trying to numb the pain.
Except we’re the soccer player alone at the park hammering the ball against the wall again and again and again, the track athlete pushing herself to complete lap after lap, or the hockey player firing puck after puck. The pain is driving us, pushing us, making us hope that our big dreams will make something make sense or our exhaustion in chasing our goals will make all the pain and sadness we don’t know how to cope with just go away.
The honesty that Suzy shared her story with, was refreshing and that connection with shame so poignant because for me, I couldn’t be honest with how the sadness, the uncertainty, the anger of all of it made me feel because of the heavy shame I felt attached to it. For me, all those emotions drove me, and soccer was a safe space where I could pour all the emotion that I didn’t know where to put anywhere else. It took getting away from the sport, to start unravelling it.
And in talking to other friends that were high performing athletes, its something that I know I am not unique with. The conversation for me started about 12 years ago with a good friend who I had played with growing up. Who had gone on to be an All-American and a National Champion, but who shortly after giving up her sport, developed an eating disorder that almost killed her and landed her in the hospital for a year.
It was there that she had a chance to unravel the fact that sports and achievement was her respite from her schizophrenic mother who had left her in foster care for a year as a 9 year old, and who caused her chaos throughout her childhood and teenage years, isolating her from a father that was reaching out desperately to connect with her. The irony was that me, one of her good friends had no idea. She was a straight A student, captain of the marching band, one of the top athletes I knew, and one of the most positive, funny, happy people I hung out with. No one ever suspecting a thing until the rock that had carried her through her tumultuous childhood disappeared (she’s now one of the healthiest people I know on the inside and the out). We marveled in retrospect of how so many of our elite athlete friends were struggling with something that drove our competitive spirit. And how sports were such a happy space for us that when we saw each other we were too busy laughing and enjoying each other’s company to ever discuss what the realities of our home lives were.
Another friend that was a national team member and a very well decorated athlete and after her parents divorced at a young age and quickly re-married other people, she was left bouncing around without a real home, and she too found her respite in sport, focusing all her energy on excellence within soccer. Despite being at her peak she walked away from a starting position on a national team about to qualify for a major competition because she recognized and listened to the emptiness she felt on the inside despite having everyone around her think she was crazy for walking away. She too went through a dark time working through things before emerging on the other side as one of the most genuine, authentic, inspiring people that I know.
This is not to say that everyone pursuing sport at the highest level has some deep dark story that is driving them. I honestly can say I am so happy for those that see sport for what it is, which is an endeavor that is fun, that is about pursuing excellence and being the best version of yourself that you possibly can be. Some people are just wickedly competitive or driven by excellence, and those are both beautiful things.
But I do think there is a place that we need to address and be aware of what motivates athletes, especially those with the intense drive that is required to reach the top, and make sure that athletes are as psychologically and physically as healthy as possible as they pursue their sport to the highest level. I think if there is this awareness, that we will have far fewer stories of athletes that fall into deep holes of depression and sadness when their sport is replaced by the realities of “real life,” when what they have been running from, has the time and space to wrap their arms around them.
And I think in society, in sport, we’d all be so better off if we took Suzy Favor Hamilton’s lesson and replaced shame with honesty and also recognized sport for what it is, an amazing opportunity to challenge ourselves and be the best version that we can possibly be. Commercial entities such as the Olympics have something to gain in a compelling storyline that paints winning and losing as meaning everything when in reality in both the Olympics and in life, what is most important and fulfilling, is the sense of community, integrity, and the pursuit of excellence that sport provides.