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The big Olympic letdown: Simone Biles shined a light on mental health issues in Tokyo, but what happens afterward?

Post-Olympics letdown could be more acute because of short turnaround to Beijing 2022 in February.

(Gregory Bull | AP) Simone Biles, of the United States, waits for her turn to perform during the artistic gymnastics women's final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Tokyo.

As a pistol shooter, Lexi Lagan’s greatest weapon may be her mind.

The sport requires intense focus, precision and mental fortitude. To properly train for the Tokyo Olympics, then, the University of Utah graduate in pre-law physics felt like she needed to conduct some research. She needed to know what kind of emotions she should expect to experience as a competitor at the Games and afterward.

So, she flipped on HBO and watched “The Weight of Gold,” a documentary examining the mental health challenges often faced by Olympians. And she thought she understood.

It wasn’t until she flew back to her home, that she really got it.

“There’s a bunch of athletes that talked about what it feels like coming home from the Olympics, and kind of you’ve had these all these years of building up to this two-week span,” she said, “and really, when you break it down, it comes down to just a few moments in this entire lifetime of preparation and then it’s all done. And you either won or you lost and then you’re supposed to move on like nothing really happened, and it’s weird. It’s a very weird feeling.”

The dousing of the Olympic flame during the Closing Ceremony in Tokyo on Sunday symbolizes the end of the Games and the beginning of a state of limbo for most, if not all, of the 11,000 Olympians who competed in Japan over the past two-and-a-half weeks. Widely known as post-Olympics letdown, it isn’t a new phenomenon. But in an Olympics where mental health has dominated conversations, more attention is being paid not just to the pressures athletes endure while at the Games, but to the strange reality they’ll face once they return home.

“We need support,” Michael Phelps, whose own struggles with depression were at the center of “The Weight of Gold,” said in an NBC interview with Mike Tirico earlier this week. “We need to be able to find a safe place.”

Slowly, inroads are being made to give athletes more resources.

INCREASED AWARENESS

Tokyo marked the first Games in which the International Olympic Committee issued guidelines and provided education for athletes and coaches on how to recognize and seek treatment for mental health issues. In October, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) hired a director of mental health services, Jessica Bartley, to coordinate its psychologists, sports psychophysiologists and medical officers. It placed four mental health professionals — a psychologist, two psychiatrists and a social worker — on the ground in Tokyo and also embedded psychologists with its teams. Athletes have access to a 24-7 hotline during and after the Olympics.

Team USA athletes will be offered other post-Games resources as well. During a media summit in April, Barkley said the USOPC was setting up a retreat for athletes to attend post-Olympics. The idea was to give them a place to share their struggles in assimilating back to everyday life. The retreat has since been changed to a set of virtual workshops that will begin Oct. 1 along with a few in-person events. That change, Barkley said, was made to make the sessions more accessible to more athletes.

“We’re trying to focus on the post-Games blues now,” Barkley said. “And to start to normalize that, to start to talk about what it looks like, what it might look like, what might be different.”

Because they’re so focused on getting to the Olympics and what they want to achieve once they get there, athletes often are not willing to think about what happens afterward. That is also changing, however, as more athletes open up about their own post-event emotions.

“One of the big upsides of this recent attention on the — I’ll call it the big letdown — is that it’s now starting to get normalized and more athletes are talking about it,” said Sean McCann, a senior sports psychologist for the USOPC. “It’s more in the public eye, which has helped the athletes talk about it more.”

That’s largely due to some of the most recognizable Olympians opening up about their struggles.

Phelps appeared to live a charmed life as the most decorated Olympian in history with 28 medals. Yet he revealed in 2018 that he fell into a depression following the 2012 Games in London and contemplated suicide. Earlier this year, tennis star Naomi Osaka spoke about her mental health issues. Breakout swimming star Caleb Dressel told the world this “has been a really tough year” while tearing up after winning his second gold medal in Japan. And, of course, the subject of mental health has become central to the Tokyo Olympics since USA gymnast Simone Biles, the face of Team USA this summer, bowed out of several competitions, including the team final, because she “was struggling with some things.”

“I have to put my pride aside. I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” she said. “That’s why I decided to take a step back.”

SHIFT IN THE CONVERSATION

Summer Sanders has noticed a shift in the conversations around the mental health of athletes — namely, that they’re happening. Sanders, who now lives in Park City, became the poster child of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona at age 19 when she won four medals in swimming. Back then, talking about mental health was taboo, she said.

“Are you kidding?” she said. “We didn’t talk about that.”

She did write a paper on it while she was at Stanford, however, as well as one about the pressures of being a media darling. She said they were scoffed at.

It’s no laughing matter now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier on athletes.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brandi Chastain, Dan Cnossen, and Summer Sanders in front of a 180 degree 8K LED dome at the Cosm Experience Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 30, 2021.

This Olympics, in particular, could be especially draining on participants. All the things that made the Tokyo Games unusual — delaying the Olympics a year for the first time in history, holding them amid an active pandemic, barring fans — could affect how athletes feel when they arrive home and the excitement fades and the training regime lightens.

For some of the higher-profile athletes, the fade will be dramatic. With a short runway before the Winter Olympics in Beijing next February, fans and sponsors alike will quickly be turning their attention in that direction and away from the stars of the Summer Games.

“In six months, we’re going to have new Olympic heroes,” Sanders said. “It’s a good thing to have, but we’re going to be flooded with Olympic heroes. Where does everybody fit into that piece?”

She said some will want to enter the workforce, but because they are Olympic athletes, they may feel they can’t start at the bottom. When their skills consist mostly of running, jumping or swimming, they may have to. But Sanders, who co-hosts the CBS Sports Net talk show “We Need to Talk,” said the work ethic that got them to the Games most likely will quickly move them up the ladder as well.

Another option? With Paris just three years away, many Olympians will reset their sights on those Games, including several who might have otherwise retired. That could create a glut of athletes vying for a limited number of spots in 2024. Already, Barkley said, the USOPC is planning to increase its outreach to serve athletes who don’t qualify and who have to face their Olympics letdown before the Games even begin.

MOVING FORWARD

Lagan said she will be among those aiming for Paris.

She competed in the 10- and 25-meter women’s sport pistol events and the 10-meter pistol mixed event in Japan. She had hopes of bringing back a medal, but breaking her stabilizing foot a month before competition began didn’t do her any favors. She did, however, have a strong finish in the 25-meter event and that has given her momentum as she looks toward the national championships in October, the world championships next year and Paris just a hop and skip after that.

Setting that goal has given her purpose and helped ease the transition back to the real world, she said. But Lagan still has her emotional moments. She’ll soon lose the healthcare the USOPC paid for when she was an active Olympian. Furthermore, she’s not sure if her sport will receive any funding leading up to the next Games (trying to win a medal to justify the sport’s funding added considerable stress to the USA pistol team, she said).

“There’s definitely still a lot of those lingering emotions of excitement and looking forward to the next competition,” Lagan said. “And then there’s also those moments, you know, sometimes where you’re like, ‘But I really thought I was going to win a medal.’ So, yeah, there’s the ups and the downs still.”

She gets through them, she said, with support from her family, her coach, her USA Shooting friends and her sports psychologist.

That’s just what Olympians should do, Sanders advised, no matter if they’re stepping away from their sport or gearing up for another go-round. They should surround themselves with people who know them as someone other than an athlete.

“It comes back to being grounded, remembering who you are, who cheers for you, what drives you, why you do it,” she said. “And then you move on to your next journey if you’re ready to leave your sport. And that’s what you hold onto, that’s what made you an Olympian.”

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