A new HBO documentary in the U.S., 'Weight of Gold,' is addressing mental health issues for athletes head-on. ‘This documentary is necessary,’ says figure skater Gracie Gold.
A two-time national champion in the U.S. and a bronze medalist in the figure skating team event at Sochi 2014, American Gracie Gold continues to be outspoken about the issue that nearly derailed her career entirely in 2017: Mental health.
“Just because you're an Olympian or someone who's really successful in whatever they do doesn't give you immunity against mental health issues,” Gold, 24, told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview. “It's not a reflection of character or how strong you are. There's no Olympic medal for who can suffer in silence the longest.”
Gold is featured in a new documentary from HBO titled 'The Weight of Gold' which is narrated (and produced) by all-time swimming great Michael Phelps, and features personal insights and stories of other great Olympians, including Sasha Cohen, Shaun White, Bode Miller and the late Steve Holcomb.
The documentary addresses mental health head on, and calls for more attention – both systematically and publicly – to be brought to the issue of mental health, particularly for Olympians.
“I felt like this documentary was really necessary for the skating community, for the Olympic community, for just the sport community (as a whole),” said Gold. “There hasn’t been (a documentary) that has talked about the underbelly and the dark side and some of the real low points that we as athletes face.”
Since receiving treatment for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder in 2017, Gold has returned to skating. She was met with a standing ovation at January’s U.S. Championships, where she finished 12th.
Gold has made mental health a talking point throughout her comeback, speaking at the 2019 International Athlete Forum hosted by the IOC and appearing on the Olympic Channel podcast. “At first I didn’t want to come out about (mental health) because of the stigma, which made me feel like I was the only one who wasn’t strong enough,” she said during the Forum. “But I got hundreds and hundreds of responses from athletes at all levels and in all sports, saying ‘me too.’”
Mental health was then included in the athlete education programme for the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lausanne 2020, which included a Chat with Champions' discussion around mental well-being.
Mental health conditions were identified as the biggest challenge faced during the COVID-19 pandemic in a survey conducted by the IOC among more than 4,000 athletes.
In response, the IOC launched a series of webinars, including one with Dr. Claudia Reardon, a member of the IOC Mental Health Working Group.
Here, Gold speaks ahead of the 'Weight of Gold release', set for 29 July in the U.S. The transcript below has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Olympic Channel: Gracie, thank you for your time. First off, why did you want to be part of this documentary, Weight of Gold?
Gracie Gold: As soon as I was asked to do it, I immediately said yes because it was right up my alley in so many ways.
I felt, when I looked back to the beginning of my struggles, there were like low points where I was depressed or feeling really anxious. I'm struggling with like X, Y and Z. And it was oftentimes met with, ‘But what do you have to be sad about?’ Or, ‘Look at all the things that you have accomplished. How could you not be confident or not believe in yourself?’
I feel like a lot of times Olympians can be seen like Michael Phelps, as in the documentary. Michael, for a lot of us, is a superhero. He's a real-life superhero from how physically strong he is to what he has accomplished on the Olympic stage. And he still has mental health issues. It's not a reflection of character or how strong you are.
OC: How can sport as a whole be better about mental health? You participated in the forum with the IOC last year, but what other steps are needed?
Gold: I felt like it was necessary to share my story. (We need to) normalize mental health issues and to normalize them among successful people, driven people. Because a lot of times I feel like some of the early signs are seen as behavioral. But I felt I needed to speak out because especially the skating community, not a lot of people had (done so), or not in an in-depth kind of way. Maybe the most being with eating disorders, but, even with that, sometimes I felt like we were just dipping our toes in the water… not really getting to the root of it.
There is more to these stories as far as how they develop. A lot of athletes in figure skating end up retiring probably before their time because of mental health issues. (The narrative) was seen as, ‘They just couldn't hack it.’ Or, ‘They just didn't have what it takes.’ How many times have you heard that? Yeah, some people don't, for sure, but how many of those cases were something traumatic? Some sort of let down or a messed-up coach or situation. And then the mental health fallout and they received no help. How many times was that the case? Because I feel like if you look back, it's more than we talk about.
OC: In the documentary you phrase it as ‘side effects’ to chasing an Olympic dream. It’s a powerful way of thinking about it.
Gold: I tried to frame it in a way that pursuing the Olympic dream was a medication. You know, these are the potential benefits. But they have to tell you these are the other things that can happen, too. Just as with a lot of medications, even if you know that there are potentially dangerous side effects, there are really valid reasons to take it and to do it. And I'm not saying that I would not have pursued the Olympics… figure skating has brought me so many gifts, it’s changed my life for the better in so many ways. But the side effects.
How to manage those? It’s not talked about enough. There is nothing in place for when those side effects happen – if they're not physical. It's just like, ‘Oh, you should see somebody about that.’ Or ‘Why are you sad? You're Gracie Gold.’ I got that a lot. Yes, I'm grateful for all of these things that have happened, they are incredible (but) I'm also clinically depressed. Like, how does that add up?
Those struggles are part of the journey, but you do not have to struggle alone. There is an Olympics for so many sports, but there is not an Olympic medal for who can suffer in silence the longest. --Gracie Gold, 2014 Olympic bronze medallist, figure skating team event
OC: Are we rounding the corner? This documentary, the IOC forum… last week Nathan Adrian spoke about mental health with one year to go to Tokyo. Is the culture around athlete’s mental health improving?
Gold: I think starting to round the corner, maybe. A lot of it starts with awareness. (Depending on) whatever mental health issue you’re dealing with, they don’t always present in stereotypical ways
Everyone is really understanding of depression when it's crying your eyes out or not getting out of bed, not eating, feeling really sad. But when it presents as an aggression or like a really short fuse or an emotional roller coaster… those kinds of things we need more awareness about.
For me, when I wasn't working out as much, it was seen as me being lazy. Or when I stopped doing my hair every day perfectly for training… (those actions) are seen as very behavioral as opposed to, ‘What's causing Gracie not to work out as much as she used to?’ ‘What's causing her to be disheveled? Why is she even later than normal?’ Like why is she literally a hot mess?
The red flags can look different for different people.
I'll feel really content when there's as much and as many things and resources available for athletes, when our brain kind of breaks as when we break our ankle. When those two things are equal, I'll feel like we've really like rounded that curve.
OC: We’re in a really unique time right now with COVID-19 and the social distancing we’re doing in the midst of a pandemic. How have you been handling that from a mental health standpoint?
Gold: Some days it… feels like I'm stuck in the mud, like I’m under water.
With a lot of my really close friends, my support system, I’m really honest with them as far as my red flags. I’ve shared with them, ‘OK, if you see this, this and this, that means I'm heading down a path of not being OK.’ (They) check in with me, or just calling me out… asking me questions.
(Sometimes) I don’t feel like interacting with other humans. Which is, again, is normal. But if it's… longer than two weeks and I'm really not that busy, it’s time to check in: ‘Where are you? You went dark on us. Time to come back to the land of the living.’
(I’ve had) those honest conversations with the people around me and am doing the same for them. What are my behaviours telling me? Is it a one-time thing or is there something going on? Having that support with the people closest to me has been really impactful.
I started to get a little stir crazy. But more recently, (I’ve had) the realization that this is gonna be the new normal for a while. Which at first was upsetting for a lot of people, but I was like, ‘OK. This is like just how it's gonna be.’ It was like, ‘This is the new normal. There's absolutely nothing I can do about it (that’s) in my control.’ All I can do are the proper protocols for preventing the spread.
I did think, ‘This is going to be forever and I'm never gonna skate again. That's how it really was. But in reality, I have to just try to do things that are productive, even if they seem small. Yes, there have been some challenging nights.
OC: It’s challenged people in so many ways that they never expected, anticipated. Do you feel especially vulnerable because of what you’ve been through?
Gold: I think it's really hard for all of us. I'm relatively a homebody, but I like the option of being able to go someplace if I choose to.
The rinks are open again, but (before they were) it was really hard because my entire life, like six days a week, I was working out in some capacity and skating. And then you had your one day off.
I fell really quickly into that cycle of waking up at or 1pm. And I was like, ‘Oh, dear, this is a bad time to start my day.’ And then falling asleep at like 4am after watching Netflix the entire day. I started to feel like a goblin. I was like, oh, this is really not good. And it was stressing me out how little I was doing because in normal life, I just try to do the most all the time.
(Through quarantine), the most turbulence has come from an eating disorder standpoint for sure. Because if you are stuck at home all day watching TV, for people that are more prone to bingeing, or bingeing and purging, that's a really bad scenario.
OC: The eating disorder piece of it is what you struggled with through the depression and anxiety, right?
Gold: It’s a battle. What first goes down is your mood. I was suddenly very cranky. And then I wasn't sleeping that well. Being an athlete and being one that has had eating disorder struggles in the past, managing that was tricky because it was kind of an unprecedented situation, not like a lot of reading to do on it.
I managed pretty well because I tried to be really aware of it and really open with it. I told myself, ‘OK, this is a bad environment for someone who has struggled with eating disorders, someone who is used to being crazy busy as a coping mechanism. When a lot of those (mechanisms) are taken away, I really had to focus in and actually structure my eating more than I normally do to make sure that I was eating properly and at the right times and the right ways.
OC: One aspect of Weight of Gold is the whole idea of how much we value winning gold… or winning a medal at all. The different between being first and fourth literally changes someone’s life. Have you re-calibrated what ‘achievement’ or ‘success’ mean to you over the years?
Gold: I was always very competitive and most competitive with myself. A perfectionist… as a child it was almost overwhelming.
Being a competitive figure skater, those traits are really good because I was competing with myself to do my best. And I didn't accept anything less.
However, though, slippery slope, because it (could become) harmful and not productive, just like running into the same wall, that approach of, ‘It has to be perfect.’
I've really tried to get out of that habit. So even if it wasn't 100 percent, if it was 85 percent of my best, still saying, ‘OK, today, today's a B-plus day. And what were the wins for today? Or what were the wins for this event?
Sometimes having the name ‘Gracie Gold’ was unfortunate. When it came to skating, because gold is (the ideal) and then anything else is like… That's something that plagued me for a long time. I've been able to let go of it a bit. ‘Gold gets gold’ was a headline, but oftentimes it was, ‘Gold settles for silver.’ Oh, I didn't know that's being second in the United States was settling.
I've really been able to let go of that and those kinds of unnecessary things, which has been really good for my mental health.
OC: I’m sure I’m guilty of some of those headlines… ‘Gold settles for silver.’ It’s catchy, but it’s not thinking about you as a person. Or, in turn, your mental health.
Gold: Getting rid of the ignorance around mental health and the stigma and the ways that, like little things can sometimes make a big difference, I think is really it's a big part of it all It's gonna be a huge part of rounding that curve.
OC: Looping back to documentary, why was it important to be included in this group of athletes? Michael Phelps, Shaun White, Sasha Cohen, Katie Uhlaender, the late Steve Holcomb… that’s quite the group.
Gold: I think it’s really impactful because it has so many different Olympians from a variety of sports (and) we all had our own journeys. And yet we can all speak about this problem and how it's really not talked about.
Everyone wants to talk about the Olympics, (but) nobody wants to talk about what happens after the Olympics. Nobody wants to talk about when the Olympics doesn't go according to plan things like this. So I felt like it was really important and I was really blown away with how we all had similar things to say and that it wasn't sport-specific, or to do with your gender or age. That was really powerful.
And also the feeling of, ‘I'm not alone. I'm not the one with the issue, I'm not broken here.’ We've all had these struggles and there is a sense of companionship. Knowing, ‘Oh, you're like me? Let's talk about it for real.’
That sense of community and knowing that you're not alone is really, really powerful.
OC: You’ve worked so hard to find happiness again in your life. And happiness in skating. How do you create that for yourself each and every day?
Gold: My favorite part of skating was always the training leading up to whatever the (competition) was, and then going and competing. That whole process. Now, it really is (still) my favourite part. Intentionally, I make sure that it's still my favourite part.
One thing I did let go of a lot is the opinions that other people had because I really fell (into a pattern where) it was important how others perceived me, because that's the sport that we live in. But it's really only important how the panel of judges sees that one moment. It's not a lifelong thing. I used to feel like I needed to be the hottest person at the grocery store. Why?
But I realized that version of me that other people created in their minds is not my responsibility. Which was a big kind of eye-opening concept and statement for me, because I used to feel like, ‘That's what Gracie Gold would do.’ But I am Gracie Gold. We are the same person.
Letting go of it, you know, letting go of some of those things and there's still more work to do there. But, one bomb drop at a time. That’s my interaction with the media and my fans these days.
OC: What is your message to athletes out there – Olympians or not – who might be struggling with something mentally, emotionally and are scared to speak up? Or feel like they can’t?
Gold: My message to any athlete that is struggling or is feeling that there's something going on is I encourage you guys to speak out because your struggles are valid, you’re valid. And you matter. Those struggles are part of the journey, but you do not have to struggle alone. There is an Olympics for so many sports, but there is not an Olympic medal for who can suffer in silence the longest. I encourage you to reach out and to speak out so that you can live your best and most free life.
OC: Beautifully said. Thank you, Gracie. Thank you for your time.