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Tokyo Olympics: For Kelly Catlin’s parents, athlete mental health finally takes center stage

Athlete mental health has become the talking point of the 2021 Olympics. For Mark Catlin and Carolyn Emory, it's a topic they know all too well.

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In the months after Olympic cyclist Kelly Catlin died by suicide in March 2019, her parents, Dr. Mark Catlin and Carolyn Emory, moved her possessions into her childhood bedroom at the family farm outside St. Paul, Minnesota. Kelly’s notebooks from her graduate-level mathematics classes went into the room, as did her three violins, her national and world championships medals, and even her training bike from the 2016 Games.

Mark and Carolyn closed the door, sealing away their daughter’s stuff. For two years the room sat untouched as they grieved Kelly’s death and attempted the impossible task of getting on with their lives.

“We’ve avoided the room, we couldn’t go in there — it was too emotional,” Mark Catlin told VeloNews. “If you want to slip back into depression, you walk into that room and you see all of the evidence of her life, and it reminds you of what you’re missing and what you’ve lost.”

Last week Mark and Carolyn finally opened the door to Kelly’s bedroom, and they have begun arranging Kelly’s cycling gear for donation to a local Minnesota historical society. By some coincidence, this project corresponded with the start of the 2021 Olympics, and half a world away, Kelly’s teammates on the U.S. track cycling team have been racing for medals in Tokyo.

Mark and Carolyn, after some discussion, decided to watch the Olympics, knowing full well that — much like the items in Kelly’s bedroom — the Games would trigger those powerful and sorrowful emotions that they’ve spent the past 29 months trying to overcome.

“We watch the races and I still feel excited, but it doesn’t take much for me to wander into a bad place, and think about Kelly and what her life would be. She’d probably be there now,” Mark Catlin said. “I sometimes think I’ve been shunted into an alternative universe of pain. Sometimes I wish I’d wake up in the correct universe where she’s still alive. And then, it doesn’t happen.”

Kelly Catlin’s belongings still sit in her childhood bedroom. Photo: Mark Catlin

The Catlin-Emory family knew that watching the Olympics would unearth these feelings. One element of the Tokyo Games they did not predict, however, was how the Games would elevate the very topic that consumed their lives after Kelly’s death. Kelly Catlin’s suicide sparked off a discussion inside the U.S. cycling scene about athlete mental health, and how elite cyclists often battle depression and anxiety brought about by pressures to win.

Thus far, the 2021 Games has been defined by a global conversation around this topic, and it was thrust into the limelight by multiple-time Olympic champion Simone Biles, who withdrew from several gymnastics events after stating that she was not mentally prepared to compete. The decision, and Biles’s comments that she felt the “weight of the world on her shoulders” and has battled “demons,” has pushed a discussion about mental health into dinnertime conversations across the world.

Athletes from multiple sports, among them tennis phenom Naomi Osaka and swimming great Michael Phelps, have weighed in, the latter sharing his own struggles with anxiety and depression. U.S. media outlets have published dozens of columns on the topic, and across the disparate worlds of sports and psychology, experts are weighing in.

“Fans, reporters, leagues, global organizations like the International Olympic Committee, all form an ecosystem in which too few care about the pain athletes endure — the broken bones, brain injuries and mental health woes,” wrote columnist Kurt Streeter in The New York Times. “So long as they are there for our entertainment, it’s all good.”

And across the globe, there’s been a shift in perception by athletes, coaches, and fans about the heroes who are running, jumping, and pedaling on the television screen. The longstanding stigma against athletes who falter under pressure is beginning to dissipate. Coaches keep their eyes out for signs of frazzled nerves and fried emotions. More national federations and professional teams employ sports psychologists.

In their living room in Minnesota, Mark and Carolyn have followed the global discussion with wide eyes and open minds.

“It’s a different kind of pain,” Carolyn Emory told VeloNews. “And it’s becoming evident how hard it is for them to deal with it.”

Painful memories sparked by the Olympics

The U.S. women’s Team Pursuit squad earned silver in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Watching the Games has prompted Mark and Carolyn to remember scenes from Kelly’s life in the aftermath of the 2016 Olympics. Kelly earned silver in the Team Pursuit that year, her biggest achievement in cycling. The Americans had come into the 2016 Games as the reigning world champions, and the favorites to win gold. So, when they lost the final to Great Britain, some riders on the team saw the result as a disappointment. That wasn’t the case with Kelly.

“I thought she’d be disappointed with silver because everybody expected them to win the Olympics,” Mark Catlin said. “She was satisfied. They’d given their all and did their best and they were beaten by a better team in the moment. She was happy with it.”

Mark and Carolyn had traveled to Rio de Janeiro and surprised Kelly at the Olympic finals. In the weeks after the race, she took every opportunity to show the medal and speak to supporters. One invitation came from an elementary school in St. Peter, Minnesota, a small town 80 miles away. Kelly rode her bicycle to the school with her medal in tow to give a presentation to schoolchildren. It was March, and the conditions were snowy and freezing.

“There was a picture taken with the kids and she was just beaming with happiness,” Mark Catlin said. “I think she enjoyed the recognition.”

Kelly Catlin
Kelly Catlin enjoyed meeting kids at local schools to talk about her Olympic experience. Photo courtesy Mark Catlin

After a few months, however, Kelly struggled with a question that many Olympians face after their time in the spotlight — what comes next? The buildup to the Olympics requires years of intense focus and drive, and the two-week competition packs in a lifetime’s worth of emotional highs and lows. Kelly was like many athletes who felt a letdown after the initial high. She moved to California to begin work on her Master’s degree at Stanford University, and she jumped back into intense training blocks for the world championships and the pro road season.

But her motivation on the bike ebbed and flowed as she scored big results, suffered setbacks, and battled injuries. As 2017 wore on, Mark Catlin said Kelly’s attitude toward the Olympic movement soured.

“She had talked about 2020 and 2024 and maybe 2028 being her last Olympics because it would be in the United States,” Mark Catlin said. “It was quite a shock to have her come home with a new attitude. She seemed to be extremely cynical about the Olympic movement and the meaning of it all.”

What changed inside Kelly Catlin’s mind and heart about the Olympic dream? It’s a question that Mark and Carolyn will likely ponder for the rest of their lives, and there are unfortunately no clear answers. Kelly was often isolated at Stanford, and she left her support structure behind to pursue her degree. Her competition schedule meant she often missed class, and had to make sacrifices in both her academic and intellectual pursuits.

“She was constantly having to be the cyclist and the student,” Carolyn Emory said. “It wasn’t easy. Her coach had to be her proctor for her exam at a race in Germany.”

Mark Catlin has attributed Kelly’s death to several factors, among them repeated head injuries suffered during training crashes, and physical and mental exhaustion from overtraining. He also believes Kelly’s intense drive for perfection in school and sports contributed to her suicide. When injuries kept her from achieving her best, she saw suicide as the only way out, he said.

Catlin (right) at the 2018 UCI world championships, where she won bronze in the Individual Pursuit. Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

“It was like if she couldn’t succeed, then her life was over,” Mark Catlin said. “If she couldn’t contribute to the Olympic team, then she felt the noble thing was to do the warrior thing and die.”

No matter the reasons, both Mark and Carolyn believe their daughter simply had too few resources within her immediate grasp to help her gain a healthy perspective on her drive for success. Family and friends couldn’t break through her stoic facade. Phone calls to prevention hotlines and support networks proved useless. As Kelly Catlin battled with her demons, she lacked the resources to help her realize that perfection wasn’t the only option.

A silent topic becomes mainstream

In August 2020, Michael Phelps discussed his struggles with depression in the documentary he co-produced, titled “The Weight of Gold,” which explored the link between Olympic athletes and suicide. The documentary referenced Catlin, along with other Olympians who took their own lives: bobsledders Steve Holcomb and Pavle Jovanovic, and skier Jeret Peterson. The documentary addressed the stigma that athletes have historically faced in opening up about their struggles with mental health.

This stigma may be disappearing. Throughout the 2021 Olympics, more athletes have addressed the pressure to win, and anxiety that comes with it, on social media. After his disappointing run in the skateboarding finals, U.S. skateboarder Nyjah Huston admitted that pressure and expectation had presented a major challenge.

“I’ve had a lot of high moments in my career over the years but I’ve also had some very low ones and It’s something I’ve always mentally battled and tried to be better at,” Huston wrote. “I’m human and dealing with all the pressure and [expectations] really isn’t easy at times..”

Top cyclists have also used social media to open up about their triumphs and their disappointments. In a lengthy post-race post after finishing 5th place in the Olympics individual time trial, U.S. cyclist Amber Neben acknowledged her disappointment, and referenced her religious faith for providing her guidance throughout the Olympic experience.

Mountain biker Kate Courtney, who rode to 15th in the women’s cross-country race, acknowledged friends and family for helping her through the process.

“I had a tough and disappointing ride yesterday in my first Olympic Games,” Courtney wrote. “It wasn’t the performance I had hoped or worked so hard for and, while I know my support team is disappointed alongside me and not in me, I can’t help but feel the weight of my own disappointment in not being able to put together a race worthy of their efforts. No matter the result, I am proud to have represented my country and crossed the finish line as an Olympian.”

These messages could be a sign that athletes are becoming more cognizant of the internal and external pressures that weight on them during big competitions like the Olympics. And it could be a sign that athletes are also realizing that the pressure they put on themselves to succeed often has its roots in societal pressures to win. Haley Batten, who rode to ninth place in the cross-country race, said she spent ample time in the lead up to the Games separating her own motivation to perform, from the societal pressure to win that has been there her entire life.

“I’m always trying to decide how I want to handle the pressure, and why I want a medal,” Batten said. “I have to separate my values from what society wants in me, and I have to clarify what those goals actually mean to me, in order to make this personally meaningful to me. And I need to have values beyond my result that allow me to be OK with things in case I don’t get a medal.”

Batten said she was initially disappointed by her 9th place finish, but as the hours wore on, her perception changed dramatically. She reveled in the thrilling ride on the challenging course, and she remembered those friends and family who helped her get to Tokyo.

“I just try to know why I put pressure on myself,” Batten said. “I think that part of life is understanding how we define success.”

Neben, who represented the U.S. at the 2008, 2012, and 2021 Olympics, said it’s taken her years to understand the difference between internal and external pressure. Neben has come to rely on her religious faith to help her manage the stresses of pro cycling. But she’s also learned important psychological lessons about self-identity that she says helped her separate her results from her perception of herself.

“If your identity is just in sport, then failure perhaps means that when you fail, you, yourself are a failure. That’s not my take on it,” Neben said. “Cycling is what I do, but it’s not who I am. So, when I’ve failed, or dealt with failure, I can look at myself and the result and separate the two. Failure can then become a learning tool.”

That realization helped Neben get beyond the biggest setback of her career, which happened when she was not selected to represent the U.S. at the 2016 Games. Had that setback occurred earlier in her career, Neben does not know if she would have had the mental skills required to process the disappointment. But in 2016, Neben simply saw the non-selection for what it was: Just another chapter in her longer career and life.

“By then I had developed skills that allowed me to see the bigger picture,” Neben said. “My career wasn’t made or broken on one selection.”

Of course, developing that perspective around setback and failure has taken time and experience — Neben is 46 now, and she’s been racing for 20 years. Still, Neben hopes that athletes who have developed the skills to manage the stresses of competition will now keep an eye out for those athletes who have not.

“My hope is that the next generation recognizes that the hard things we have to go through are what develop the core characteristics inside of us,” Neben said. “Instead of being afraid of these moments when they come, being able to embrace them and work through them is the goal.”

It’s a shift that Mark Catlin and Carolyn Emory also hope is on the horizon. Because, long after Kelly’s bikes and jerseys have been moved from her bedroom into a museum, athletes will still face the intense psychological pressures that Kelly did at the end of her life. Perhaps the lasting impact of Kelly Catlin life and death could be a rethinking of how young elite athletes view enormous goals, like qualifying for the Olympics, or earning an Olympic medal, or even just finishing the local race. No matter if they accomplish this, or if they fall short, Mark Catlin and Carolyn Emory simply want athletes to realize that the outcome is just one moment in time.

“Give our athletes the space and allow them to not succeed,” Mark Catlin said. “If you don’t succeed it’s not a disgrace or the end of things. The Olympics doesn’t have to be the ultimate goal in life.”

If you or anyone you know may be thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).