The perfect storm

Trigger warning: this post references suicide and self harm.

On March 7, 2019, Kelly Caitlin died by suicide. This opened up a whirlwind of emotions for me, as I’m sure it did for many people. I never met her personally, but she was a well known force across multiple communities I’m involved with, but more over, I see myself and my struggles in her stories.

Most articles first mention Kelly’s multiple World Track Cycling titles, podium at the Rio Olympics, and  graduate studies at Stanford. The news traveled slowly in comparison to other cycling news and other celebrity deaths. It trickled out instead of flooding, and for me, this speaks to the problem. We spend our lives putting people in boxes, calling them athlete, student, employee, parent etc. but rarely do we take the time to really look at the holistic pressures that make up the complexities of that individual’s life. Most of us compartmentalize them into the arena we choose to operate in and, I dare say, we forget about everything else.

A Washington Post article mentions this was Kelly’s second attempt since January. Kelly’s own article in Velo news on balance equates life to juggling knives that mostly get dropped but don’t hit her. National level athletes have, what is supposed to be, a team of support around them. Only that isn’t the case. It’s more a team of specialized mechanics working on the body and engine of a car but refusing to address that the fuel lines are leaking. You can make the car more efficient, aerodynamic, make slow upgrades to a bigger engine, but at the end of the day if you never fix the leaky fuel lines, the car isn’t ever going to run quite right. Maybe that’s ok for a while, you lose a little bit of gas but you get where you need to go. But as Kelly and many before her have shown us, those holes get bigger, and eventually your fuel line breaks.

This is a problem. North American society looks at our Olympians, Paralympians, and National Team athletes as having made it. Lucky them to have made it to the place with funding and support to make the podium, the tier of athletics where they get to represent their country. As amazingly surreal and wonderful as it is to be in that place, it’s also really lonely and challenging, not to mention mentally draining. The cold hard truth of such a privileged opportunity is it isn’t a place of ease with an abundance of funding and support for all athletes. If it were, many of our female (and para) athletes wouldn’t be holding down second and third jobs just to sustain themselves a financially adequate livelihood. They wouldn’t be stressing themselves in school trying to get degrees while simultaneously training and working; they wouldn’t have to see therapists on the side because the mental health coaching provided is for performance based issues not other mental health barriers (ie. anxiety, depression). They also wouldn’t be battling sexual harassment from within the community.Talk about under valuing athletes as a whole complete humans.

As an athlete, you are pushed to do better, wow coaches and spectators, and hit the podium. Failing to do so can lead to funding cuts, a support cut or all out severance, and/or a complete removal from the roster. Like it or not that’s the game, and athletes are disposable because there is always someone eager, younger, with potential waiting to step in. It’s a cut-throat world to live in where showing weakness is not ideal, which leads to another part of the problem; crashes happen, and so do concussions (aka brain injuries). Unfortunately, these things impair your ability to make sound and healthy decisions on your well being. Cycling has come a long way with post-concussion protocol for National Team athletes -at least in Canada-, but there is still work to be done. Why? Because concussions are tricky, each one is different, and they can come with lasting knock on effects. We know numerous athletes who have lied on their post-concussion physiological testing so that they can get back to training sooner. Why lie? Because brain injuries impair your judgement, and we are already thinking that too much time off means a drop in fitness, means missing the podium on the next race, means missing selection for the one after that, and so on. These people have been wired to perform, that’s why they are so good at it, but it’s also why concussions are tricky because a little becomes a lot very quickly. The coaches aren’t about to force that time off if they don’t have to. If they are told “good to compete” then the athlete is good to compete, never mind the headache and feelings of off balance, the test put them in “normal” range. In fact the athlete probably won’t be pulled from the next race. In the case of Kelly, despite having a concussion in December that led to ongoing sensitivity and noticeable personality change, Kelly’s name remained on the start list for Worlds in February until Kelly removed it. To me, this speaks to a systemic failing. I can only speculate on her private circumstances; however, with multiple experts around reviewing and assessing every move, this decision shouldn’t have been left in the hands of an athlete who was noticeably affected by injury.

In understanding what lead up to this and other tragedies unfolding, we have mental health issues and a brain injury, which is already a recipe for potential disaster. Add on top of all of this, a sport built from the ground up with decades of only men being given the privilege to play, the image of the ideal athlete as being the person who doesn’t say “I can’t” and who puts the results before their own mental health. With all of this in mind, you have a recipe for the perfect storm. We can not guarantee that this was part of the problem in the case of Kelly, but it is surely part of the problem in the case of many elite females athletes across all bodies of sport.

We participate in sport because we love it. We are pulled to it, but it can also be the very thing that pulls us apart. As athletes we rely on our coaching team to help us walk the razors edge between training the right amount and training as a form of punishment -this too is an overlooked type of self harm- or training to the point of unraveling. Unfortunately, accolades are often handed out by one’s ability to suffer, which for someone who self-harms, is encouraging a very damaging behaviour. This needs to change.

Funded sport teams have the means to address mental health from a bigger lens than sport performance and race readiness; they have the means to support their athletes struggles rather than leaving them in the breeze to fight for themselves. They have a position from which they can advocate for equality too, but we don’t often see teams stepping up, and this needs to change.

The undoing of a person is never from a singular thing, its a culmination of things over a period of time that potentially get dismissed. Until things start to change, our bright lights are going to keep going out.

2 thoughts on “The perfect storm”

  1. Erin,
    Thanks for writing this. I hadn’t seen anyone writing about the structural/organizational issues in Canadian elite sport, in the context of this tragedy, so it’s good to see this perspective get published.
    Do you have any suggestions as to what an outsider who isn’t involved in competitive sport can do to try and encourage systemic change? It’s not as if there’s too much voting with dollars/feet that can be done. Is it a matter of writing one’s MP, or the Minister of Sport? Applying to boards of directors?
    Interested in your thoughts.

    BTW – you’re probably on top of it – but it never hurts to have a reminder: Take some mental recovery time for yourself, too.

    1. Thanks so much.
      Honestly I have been thinking a lot about what individuals not involved with competative sport can do. I think the more ways people are advocating for a holistic view of mental health the better. Advocating to sport Canada and the provincial sport minister is a good way to do that. Joining board with local governing body (for any sport honestly because we all need work here) is also a really great way to have your voice heard.

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