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EUGENE, Ore. – Sam Parsons felt he was in the best shape of his life when he started the 5000 meters with the Drake Relays in April. He had used the one-year postponement of the Olympics to increase his training with the aim of competing for Germany at the Games in Tokyo this summer.
But as his mileage went up, so did the pressure – the pressure to actually qualify for the Olympics after putting so much extra time and effort into the pursuit.
“I could feel that tension all the time,” said Parsons. “And I know so many athletes who have pushed themselves into an unsafe room just because we all wanted to go to the Olympics so badly. So many people have been on the gas for so long and you can only give so much. “
For Parsons, the pent-up stress finally surfaced after fading to 10th place, a disappointing result for a runner whose dream suddenly seemed out of reach. He remembered his heart racing so fast it felt like it was going to explode as he took his first faltering steps as he cooled down.
He was lucky, he said, that Jordan Gusman, one of his teammates from Tinman Elite, a Colorado-based running club, was with him. Sensing that Parsons might collapse, Gusman held him upright and assured him that he would be fine. Parsons later learned that he was having a panic attack.
“This is a place I never want to be again,” he said, “and luckily I was able to get help.”
For many Olympic hopefuls, the last year and a half has been a time of great uncertainty and growing fear. As athletes like Parsons struggled through the pandemic, they struggled with closed training facilities, canceled meetings, and tight budgets. There was also the great unknown: whether the games in Tokyo would take place at all.
“I think it’s been a very, very tough 15 months for a number of athletes,” said Steven Ungerleider, an Oregon sports psychologist who serves on the board of the International Paralympic Committee.
The stress was particularly pronounced for those whose sports are mainly presented 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 has been the ultimate disruption.
“They are obsessed with getting up in the morning and eating certain things and going for a run, seeing their trainer and talking to their trainers,” said Ungerleider. “When things got a little unsafe, that’s the worst that can happen to a top athlete. It drove her crazy. “
Athletes say that themselves, speaking openly in interviews and on social media about their mental health, a topic that is no longer as stigmatized in sport and in society as it used to be.
Simone Manuel, a four-time swimming medalist at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, has put some of these mental health issues in the spotlight after finishing a distant ninth place in the US Olympics last month in the 100m freestyle that she was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome in March. Her symptoms included sore muscles, weight loss, and fatigue. She later qualified for the 50 meter freestyle Olympic Games.
“I was definitely depressed during this process,” she told reporters. “I have isolated myself from my family.”
After pitching his third U.S. Olympic team last week, gymnast Sam Mikulak spoke about how he fell into depression after the Tokyo Games were postponed. For so long he has linked his self-esteem to his athletic achievements. He sought help from psychologists to find more balance in his life.
“I’m just happy to be out here,” he said.
A multitude of runners withdrew from the recent U.S. Olympic track and field tests in Eugene, Oregon, citing injuries and fatigue. Colleen Quigley, an obstacle runner, said on a social media post that she is pulling back to take a break “both mentally and physically.” Drew Hunter, one of Parsons’ teammates at Tinman Elite, announced that he had torn the plantar tissue in his foot. And Molly Huddle, one of the most decorated distance runners in American history, scratched her left leg with problems.
“It was harder to do sports, to get access to facilities and treatments, and you compromise on all the things that you have previously maximized,” said Huddle in an interview before the trials. “At the same time, we never had the feeling that we could ever really rest.”
Even those who persevered said it was a time like no other. Emily Sisson, who won the women’s 10,000 meters in the trials, said in a recent interview that the fact that she can’t race very much at the height of the pandemic brings her own challenges.
Basics of the Summer Olympics
“You train for a while without a big end goal,” she said. “That also affects your annual income. There is no prize money, no performance fees – all of that. “
Before his panic attack, Parsons never thought he would be so vulnerable to the stresses of his job. He meditated daily. He studied mindfulness. He thought he was doing everything right to keep his balance, he said. But the Olympic postponement strangely created an all-consuming sense of urgency.
“You push and push and push,” he said, “because it’s that extra layer of ‘I have to do this now’.”
Parsons also struggled with a chronic Achilles tendon injury – “Imagine dribbling a deflated basketball,” he said – while maintaining his high mileage. Five years after the Olympic cycle, he couldn’t take a long break, even after overexerting his calves in February and dropping out of the indoor season.
“If the Olympics are postponed, you will have all that energy stuck in traffic and you feel like you have to carry it around and keep it going for another year,” said Parsons. “It has definitely taken its toll and I think that has drawn more and more people to dark places.”
An All American in North Carolina, Parsons stumbled upon this dark place at the Drake Relays in Iowa, a season opening meeting he highlighted as a chance to measure his fitness. When his race didn’t go as planned and he was in poor health, he knew he had to make changes.
He met with Mareike Dottschadis, a sports psychologist who helped him redefine his approach. Parsons accepted the beauty of the simple experiment.
“It’s a privilege to go that far,” he said, “and to have the help and talent to put me in that 1 percent position where I could represent my country.”
Parsons recovered with a solid race in May and then traveled to Europe ahead of the German Championships in early June to secure a spot at the Olympics. (Parsons grew up in Delaware, but his mother is German and he has dual citizenship.)
On the morning of his race, he confided to Dottschadis that his Achilles was still bothering him. But he had trained for months despite the pain and thought the adrenaline of the race would help him get through it. Dottschadis asked him to imagine the worst-case scenario.
“I would only get out,” Parsons said to her, “if my body wouldn’t let me finish.”
After pulling away from the field with another runner, Parsons tried to accelerate a little more than a lap before the end for a final sprint – and felt a pain in his calf. With a torn hamstring, he hobbled off the track.
“Everyone who was watching the race thought, ‘Why didn’t you just jog a lap and still get silver?'” Said Parsons. “Well, I couldn’t jog.”
But because he had processed the worst possible result that morning, Parsons was able to cope with the reality that his Olympic dream was coming true.
“I can tell myself that I literally gave everything I could until my body broke,” he said. “That’s consolation.”
Parsons was in Eugene last week to assist some of his teammates in the U.S. lawsuit after a friend persuaded him to come out.
“I was still throwing a little pity party for myself,” Parsons said, “and he just said, ‘Honestly, Sam, nobody cares what’s wrong with your injury because there are a lot of other people who are through the … exactly the same.’ It was probably something I had to hear. “
Relegated to the role of spectator, Parsons was off his crutches as he began to look forward to the next year’s World Championships. He said he had months to properly build his body. He plans to apply all of the tough lessons he’s learned.
Juliet Macur and Karen Crouse contributed to the coverage.