I stood at the back of the pack, staring at the lake with distrust and disgust. As the crowd of competitors surged forward, I stood still in knee-deep water, waiting to be the final swimmer.
I pushed forward and started to swim, trying to regulate my breathing and see through the murky water made even browner by so many arms and legs kicking up silt.
I tried some mental repetition to keep my body in control.
One, two, three. Breathe. One, two, three. Breathe.
Right arm, left arm, right arm. Breathe. Left arm, right arm, left arm. Breathe.
I still couldn’t see well and the waves were stronger than the pool I’d trained in and I had no idea how deep this water was and what if I couldn’t finish after all these months of practice.
No variation of my mantra would keep me calm. I felt pressure in my chest. My limbs wouldn’t move. I shifted from horizontal to vertical and started treading water.
A rescue kayaker spied me, paddled over and encouraged me to hang on to the side of the vessel. My breathing was shallow and quick. Tears mingled with lake water. The kayaker spoke, but I didn’t understand her words.
How long could I hold on to this boat?
Another kayaker joined us. He called for my attention, told me to look in his eyes.
“This is not the water you trained in. You can’t see the bottom. But you are going to get horizontal and swim.”
His words broke through my panic, and his confidence buoyed my spirits just enough that I could begin again.
One, two, three. Breathe. All the way to the opposite shore.
I was able to bike and run after, completing a triathlon for the first and only time (so far).
My game day problem started out 100% mental but quickly manifested itself as completely physical, too. For a few minutes, I could do nothing to convince my body to swim.
I was an amateur, a suburban mom trying to stay fit and reach a goal. The stakes were low. I wasn’t expecting to place in the race. No one was watching me. I wasn’t a spokeswoman for the sport. I wasn’t carrying the weight of our country’s hope on my shoulders.
Olympian Simone Biles stepped aside after one rotation in the women’s gymnastics team final this week, citing mental health issues that prevented her from safely competing, and some Americans have the gall to insinuate — or outright state — that she didn’t try hard enough, that she’s a sore loser, that she should toughen up.
Oh, how far we still have to go to understand mental health.
Physical injuries are easier to grasp. A splint or a cast shows the world that something is sprained or broken. We can see a tear or break on a scan, seek intervention, allow time for healing and move forward.
The mind remains more of a mystery. We can’t see it and don’t always recognize related physical symptoms. We know that trauma affects the brain, but the healing process is fuzzy. We know that many mental health conditions can be safely treated with medication and therapy, but we’re often reluctant to talk about these solutions.
I’ve tried to understand the folks who have disparaged Biles, a champion who inspires other athletes, who pushes her body beyond what any other gymnast has achieved, who endured sexual assault at the hands of a team doctor. Are they speaking out of fear? Have they never loved someone who’s struggled with mental health? Have they never struggled themselves?
When we consider what makes Biles one the greatest of all time, after listing her medals and the signature moves that bear her name, we can add that she placed her health and safety above all else. Her courage and leadership extend beyond a balance beam and vault.
We continue to endure COVID-19 conditions and grieve the loss of 4.2 million people worldwide. We’re holding our breath for the end of this pandemic. We owe it to ourselves to pay attention to our full health — physical, emotional and mental — and to continue the conversation long after the Tokyo Games have ended.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].