Physically and mentally taxed, Olympic hopefuls near the finish

Simone Manuel at a qualifying race for the 50-meter freestyle in Omaha, Neb., June 20, 2021 at the US Olympic trials. (Photo: NYTimes)
Simone Manuel at a qualifying race for the 50-meter freestyle in Omaha, Neb., June 20, 2021 at the US Olympic trials. (Photo: NYTimes)
OREGON, United States — Sam Parsons felt that he was in the best shape of his life when he lined up for the start of the 5,000 meters at the Drake Relays in April. He had used the yearlong Olympic postponement to ramp up his training with the goal of competing for Germany at the Tokyo Games this summer.اضافة اعلان

But as his mileage increased, so, too, did the pressure — the pressure to actually qualify for the Olympics after having invested so much extra time and effort in the pursuit.

“I could feel that tension constantly,” Parsons said. “And I know so many athletes who pushed themselves into an unsafe space just because we all wanted to get to the Olympics so badly. So many people kept their foot on the gas for so long, and you can only give so much.”

For Parsons, the pent-up stress finally surfaced after he faded to a 10th-place finish, a disappointing result for a runner whose dream suddenly seemed in danger of slipping beyond reach. He recalled that as he took his first faltering steps on a cool-down jog, his heart was racing so fast that it felt like it might explode.

He was fortunate, he said, that Jordan Gusman, one of his teammates from Tinman Elite, a running club based in Colorado, was with him. Sensing Parsons might collapse, Gusman held him upright and reassured him that he would be OK. Parsons later learned that he had been having a panic attack.

“That’s a place I never want to be in again,” he said, “and luckily I was able to get help.”

For many Olympic hopefuls, the past year and a half was a period of great uncertainty and mounting anxiety. As athletes like Parsons pressed forward through the pandemic, they grappled with shuttered training facilities, canceled meets and shoestring budgets. There was also the big unknown: whether the Tokyo Games would happen at all.

“I think it’s been a very, very rough 15 months for a whole bunch of athletes,” said Steven Ungerleider, a sports psychologist based in Oregon who serves on the executive board of the International Paralympic Committee.

The strain was especially pronounced for those whose sports are primarily showcased at the Olympics: swimmers and divers, gymnasts and rowers, runners and jumpers. Many are creatures of habit with strict routines and single-minded goals, and the pandemic was the ultimate disruption.

“They’re obsessed with getting up in the morning and eating certain things and getting out for their run and seeing their trainer and talking with their coaches,” Ungerleider said. “So when things were getting a little uncertain, that’s the worst thing that can happen to an elite athlete. It was driving them crazy.”

Athletes are saying so themselves, speaking frankly in interviews and on social media about their mental health, a subject that no longer carries the stigma in sports and in society that it once did.

Simone Manuel, a four-time medalist in swimming at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, cast a spotlight on some of those mental health issues after she placed a distant ninth in the 100-meter freestyle at the US Olympic trials last month, revealing that she had been diagnosed in March with overtraining syndrome. Her symptoms included muscle soreness, weight loss and fatigue. She later qualified for the Olympics in the 50-meter freestyle.

“During this process, I definitely was depressed,” she told reporters. “I isolated myself from my family.”

A host of runners withdrew from the recent US Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon, citing injuries and fatigue. Colleen Quigley, a steeplechaser, said in a social media post that she was stepping away to take a break “both mentally and physically.” Drew Hunter, one of Parsons’ teammates with Tinman Elite, revealed that he had torn the plantar tissue in his foot. And Molly Huddle, one of the most decorated distance runners in American history, scratched because of issues with her left leg.

“It was harder to do anything athletically as far as having access to facilities and treatment, and you wind up compromising in all the things that you were maximizing before,” Huddle said in an interview before the trials. “At the same time, it never felt like we could ever really rest.”

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