In 2014, Sonja Wieck found herself on the podium at the highest level triathlon offers amateur athletes. She took second place in her age group (35–39) at the Ironman World Championship, officially making her one of the world’s top female age-groupers.
Four years later, she found herself passed out in the parking lot of an auto body shop after a debilitating panic attack. She had a thriving coaching business, a loving husband, a beautiful daughter, and the kind of success most endurance athletes can only dream about.
Yet, she wanted to die.
How was it that the sport that had given her so much now left her flat out in a hospital bed? It’s not just her.
Evidence shows elite athletes are 35 percent more likely to suffer a mental health crisis. Wieck believes the stigma associated with mental health and showing perceived weakness in a sport that demands extreme physical toughness is failing athletes.
“I lay there broken for four months. I had to fall apart, examine every aspect of what got me to where I was and decide how to put it all back together again,” she said. “Four months of intensive therapy, and I went from crisis mode to stable. That’s when the work began.”
Her story’s not only about a comeback, though, it’s also a cautionary tale for anyone training at a high level.
A study published in The Lancet looked at the association between physical exercise and mental health in 1.2 million individuals in the U.S. between 2011 and 2015. The initial results were favorable. While subjects reported an average of about 3.5 days of stress, depression, or emotional problems in the last month, those who exercised struggled 1.5 fewer days.
However, that same data analysis found that people who exercised for more than six hours a week struggle with more mental health symptoms, and exercising for more than three hours at a time is associated with worse mental health than not exercising at all.
Wieck believes endurance sports normalize mental health struggles. Coaches tell you to push through the pain. When you hear that message daily, you naturally take it beyond training into other areas of your life. Feeling down after a race? That’s just the post-race blues. Conversations about doubt, fears, and insecurities make you appear weak — something you don’t want your competition to know.
Many athletes in ultra-distance and extreme sports often use exercise as a way to numb their feelings. When you’re training that hard and that frequently, your focus is concentrated on a single goal. There’s little time to think about anything else.
A review in The British Journal of Sports Medicine confirms the stigma, low mental health literacy, negative past experiences with seeking mental health treatment, busy schedules, and hypermasculinity are barriers to elite athletes looking for treatment.
Wieck stood on the podium in Kona and collected the iconic wooden bowl as her prize. When she woke up the next morning, it dawned on her the bowl was empty (literally). So was she. Yet, it’s that experience she wishes everyone could have.
“I hope everyone gets to that moment where they win everything they ever wanted and get to wake up the next morning. You open your eyes and realize you’re the same person before you won. Now what?” she said. That’s when the work begins.
As part of her recovery, she learned to slow down and listen to those things that lit a spark of joy within her. She found herself called once again to adventure. She came across an application to compete in the World’s Toughest Race Eco-Challenge Fiji.
For the first time in a decade, she experienced a race not with the view of trying to win but simply trying to finish. Wieck went from contemplating suicide to completing the World’s Toughest Race, and she finally feels she has a purpose. She’s on a mission to end the stigma of mental health disorders for athletes around the world.
At one point during the grueling challenge, “there were wild orchids on the side of the trail and I would pick them off and stick them in my hair, my muddy hair,” she said. “I tried to find the beauty in the mud.”
Life is just like the mud, especially now with everyone’s world is turned upside down. All major races are canceled. Athletes are left to train on their own or run virtual races to stay competitive.
And we must work to destigmatize the issues hurting athletes. Depression, anxiety, nervousness, and eating disorders are all part of the sticky mud so many of us find ourselves in at times. We need each other to work through the mess.
We can all find beauty in the mud. If only we’ll talk about it.
How to find help:
Talking about how you’re feeling can seem intimidating and scary, especially when your physical body is so strong. However, there are small steps you can take to protect your mental health. Robin Kuik, UT MSSW & MPH Candidate 2019 and Suzanne Potts, LMSW, MPH recommends the following:
- Talk to your family, teammates, coaches or support staff—someone you feel comfortable sharing what’s happening with you.
- Make an appointment with a therapist or trusted medical professional to help you identify sources of stress and manage your symptoms.
- Create a self-care plan to make sure you’re setting aside time from training, academics, and pressures of daily life to do something for yourself each day, such as meditate, practice yoga, take a walk, listen to music or walk your pet.
- Share. If you’re in a place where you can, consider sharing messages of support or retweeting mental health resources for others to see. Use #mentalhealthawarenessmonth or #endthestigma to join the online conversation.
Here are a few resources if you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health crisis: