A sad tale of pressure and suicide by 23 years of age
There is an article in today's Washington Post and it's a hard read about a young Olympian, Kelly Catlin, who at just 23 ended her own life, a tragic tale of obsession, hard parenting and... well, just sadness.
We think of pro athletes as some of the luckiest people in the world and acknowledging or trying to understand their depression, alienation and isolation to many is not easy, or even worth trying.
These thoughts were in my head too when I heard about Rohan Dennis at the Tour, after reading all these articles and comments basically scolding and chiding him for dropping out. We should give the guy a break. We have no idea what was going on in his head but from the safety of their keyboards people criticised him heavily, putting aside, no doubt in many cases, memories and thoughts of their own dark days.
Thinking about my own first 'career' as a racer, a very big reason for me stopping at 18 was because I knew that even if I could have made it, I knew I didn't want that kind of life. I couldn't see myself either keeping up the constant training I'd been doing since I was 15 for another 5 or 10 years for one thing, and neither did I want to be judged by such a stark definition of failure and success - or being a loser or a winner. Though for so many athletes and fans too, that's all there is to it, it really shouldn't be that way.
Sure, hey it's great you won the Tour or the Olympics or Wimbledon, but truly defining yourself by that measuring stick - as Kelly did - is almost a certain path to unfulfillment. There are many parents, coaches (and, as a result, the kids themselves) out there just going too far with this obsession with winning, risking psychological trauma to these little people who are simply unequipped to deal with the stress and unwilling to talk about it as they know it will be deemed a weakness of character.
During my second 'career', I came back to cycling at 36 and enjoyed just about every single moment of it, older then of course and also in a perpetual state of amazement that I was traveling the world and racing. I sensed that the younger guys I raced with in many cases just couldn't fully appreciate it. I saw first hand guys on my own teams that were borderline depressed if not in a deep state of depression, full of vitriol at not having 'made it' - at having to race with the likes of me, the old guy with the idiot smile on his face most of the time.
One guy in particular looked at the rest of us on the team like we were dirt. Literally. He didn't bother to contain his disdain. He wasn't dealing with other human beings, but - in his eyes - losers. There was something more to it though. When he did soften slightly later in the season, it was obvious that he was almost totally lacking in social skills, as though all those years of training and dreaming of the World Tour - and the isolation that comes with that level of dedication - had sucked the personality out of him.
I could see he was not in a good place, but any friendliness I displayed towards him was still often treated as weakness on my part. He was a textbook mess of an athlete.
When I quit my last Continental team it wasn't because I was slowing down. If anything, I was getting better, finally getting the hang of those things they calI 'tactics'. I quit because, for one thing, I was bored of the team politics, both amongst my teammates and the management. The other reason was that, despite not having won a tour nor a stage at UCI Asia Tour level, which had been a goal when I started out, by the time I packed it in I'd done way more than I ever imagined when I started racing again, and whether I was winning 4 stages a year or none, that was never going to define my idea of me.
In others eyes it might have, but not in mine.
The underlying thread for me in athletic pursuits is that all the hard work should not only make you stronger in your chosen sport but also should be complimenting your life outside your sport, enriching all of your experiences and not leading to any major imbalance or neglect in the other spheres, such as family, friends and work. If you can do that and still win, awesome. If you can do that and get top ten without wrecking your head, great. If the goal is just to not get dropped, heck that's cool too.
I realise that top level sport - especially cycling - attracts people who 'succeed' precisely because they do have the ability to dedicate themselves to the point of obsession, people prone both to self-sacrifice and selfishness, yet there are very few of them that escape the 2 or even 3 decades of obsession unscathed.
In the case of Kelly Catlin, unfortunately her path seemed to have been determined long before she made her breakthrough.