I am a person who has participated in the Olympics.
But please don’t call me an Olympian.
I am a person who has survived cancer twice.
But please don’t call me a cancer survivor.
I am a manic-depressive stay-at-home dad, husband, and author.
But please don’t call me a person with bipolar disorder.
Watching these Olympics has sent me into a PTSD near-depression, because – twelve years after I marched as “runner-up flag bearer” immediately behind the flag leading the contingent of the 2004 US Olympic Team into Opening Ceremonies in Athens – I still don’t know who I am.
I have one, and only one regret in life:
I was too ashamed of my 11th-place result to sit with my family at the medal ceremony. Eleventh place. One place better than smack-dab in the middle of the twenty-five of the world’s best competing in the men’s heavyweight class of sailing.
How does that feel?
Well. The best way I know how to illustrate it is the awkward silence after I tell people that I was eleventh at the Olympics when they ask how I did. It’s very similar to the one I sometimes get when I say I’m just out of the mental hospital. It’s deafening. As if both were what my sons would call an “epic fail.”
You’d think that twelve years later, after therapy, manic breakdowns, depressions, world championship victories, and starting a family, that I’d be able to move on.
I thought I had, until this most recent Olympics started a little over two weeks ago. I’ve been a complete wreck. This is rather embarrassing.
I blame it on the Achievement Model of self worth.
There’s an excellent article in the Atlantic titled “The Dark Side of Going for Gold: After the Olympics, both Winners and Losers are Prone to Emotional Crashes.”
“We’re taught we can push through anything … and we’re always told to not ask for help.”
Even Michael Phelps needed help. In an interview just before Rio, we learned that “the most decorated Olympian of all time, revealed that he suffered a crisis of identity two years ago, which led him to consider ending his life…”
I entered a vortex at age five in which I remain at age forty-six. The force holding me together my whole life has been my Achievements.
The Achievement Model says that Good Results = (identity, praise, and self worth). Of course this means that Failure = (questioning of identity, ignominy, and self loathing).
The Olympians who didn’t win medals in Rio are likely to be reminded by their friends and family over the next few weeks of Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic Creed:
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
My experience is that those words simply made me even more ashamed of my shameful feelings about my result.
Please, count the number of interviews with non-gold-medalists over the next few weeks, and let me know if Monsieur C’s ditty rings a little hollow in today’s NBC-our-athletes-are-commodities environment.
If the Olympic Creed doesn’t do it for people, there’s always Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
While I like this one better than Coubertin’s, it still presents a problem. We only assign people the place of daring greatly when we can conceptualize the opponent, see the struggles, and imagine ourselves facing them.
The silent struggle to find purpose and meaning which bypass or transcend Achievement is perhaps the loftiest of all.
Maybe one day the fact that it is so woo-woo and unsung will make it all the sweeter, though I’m not yet sure how.
Until then, I have to survive.
I am not a cold and timid soul even if I never step into another arena.
The core of this article was originally published the day of the Rio Closing Ceremonies.
Many people responded with support, but a subtext running through the responses was the hope to “fix it.”
Shame is uncomfortable, and the idea that I could feel so much shame – “But you’re an Olympian! Most people only dream of that!”- made some people uncomfortable.
I was asked if I “knew why I was there in the first place?” The perfect question. Here is the answer:
Yes. I do. I was there because it was a childhood dream.
I was there because I grew up with privilege and support and a love of sport.
I was there because I competed in three Olympic Trials before 2004, placing 8th, 5th, and 2nd.
I was there because I didn’t take no for an answer when the IOC told me I could not compete if I used my post-testicular-cancer-twice replacement testosterone medication.
I was there because I took my psychiatric medications with enough dedication and commitment to not derail my life completely, despite the challenges to the heart and soul which taking them present.
I was there because my family contributed financially to my training after I got the Finn in May 2003 with only 9 months to go until the Trials.
I was there because I dominated the US Trials, winning half the races and not needing to sail the last race. I was there because I earned it…
The article maybe should have said “disappointed with my performance,” not “disappointed with the result.” At the end of the day, I was ashamed of losing my cool when the IOC called at 5:30am the morning of the first race and told me that I had to have another testosterone blood test at a place far from the water, not close to the boats, when the plan was to do the test at the boat park. I was ashamed of not keeping my cool when I rounded the first mark 4th and dropped to the teens not realizing how fast the wind was going left. I was ashamed because part of my wiring and my upbringing and my karma just work that way. The same thing that makes it very hard for me to brush things off and move on, got me there.
I was there because I am a champion who didn’t give up. But, I was ashamed of the time there, because I wasn’t “Present.” I wasn’t, really, There.
My shame is very real. I need you to know that.
Now then. That’s all smoke and mirrors. I actually didn’t answer your question. So I will now:
I was there because my entire self worth depended on it.
I was there because my life depended on it.