Listen to How To!:
This article first appeared in David Epstein’s free newsletter, The Range Report. For more, subscribe here.
Perhaps the biggest story to come out of the 2020 Olympics is Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the gymnastics team and all-around competition. The prioritization of her mental and physical health has been praised as brave, vulnerable, and even heroic. While we don’t yet know if Biles will return to competition, we do know that walking away from any pursuit, especially once you’ve reached the top, can be extremely tricky.
Just prior to the Tokyo Games, David Epstein sat down with Olympic champion, Steve Mesler, on How To! to talk about the loss of identity athletes face upon retirement and why further steps need to be taken to destigmatize mental health in sport.
Subscribe to How To! on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher for the full episode.
In 2009, I wrote an article for Sports Illustrated about a U.S. four-man bobsled team known as the “Night Train” — so named for the sled’s matte black finish. The following year, at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, they won the first U.S. gold in 62 years. They didn’t just win, they dominated. An epic photo of the team — running over the ice, about to pile into the sled beneath gently falling snow — ran on the cover of SI.
In the years since, Steve Mesler, a three-time Olympian and member of that team, became one of my close friends. I’ve been around plenty of world champions during their moments of elation, but my friendship with Steve has given me a window into something more fascinating, more difficult, and more important: the glide descent back to Earth after a life-changing triumph.
With Simone Biles openly (and bravely) discussing mental compartmentalization — a tool that Steve identifies below as crucial in the short-term for athletes, but harmful in the long run — I’ve found my mind returning to my conversations with him.
Five or so years ago, Steve stayed with me while he was in town for work. I took him, and his gold medal, to meet the sports-crazy seven-year-old twin boys who lived next door. Everyone took a turn trying on the medal. When the boys’ father got his turn, he draped the saucer-sized medal over his neck, turned to Steve, and asked: “So, when you got this, was it just like, everything for the rest of your life is fine?” It was a compliment about Steve’s achievement, but also betrayed the gap between perception and reality when it comes to the lives of Olympians.
“If you would have asked me that question before I won gold,” Steve told me, “I would have said, ‘Yes, I’ll be good for the rest of my life.’ Bobsled was my identity, and that was everything that I wanted.” But over the next few years, Steve would struggle with building a new identity. He would also bury two teammates, both of whom struggled with mental health issues, and he would recognize and get help for his own depression.
Today, Steve is thriving. He’s the CEO of Classroom Champions, a growing nonprofit that connects Olympians and Paralympians to classrooms for virtual mentoring; a member of the board of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee; and a girl dad. Amid all the gauzy human interest stories you’re seeing on NBC during the Games (and don’t get me wrong, I love ‘em), I wanted to share a decidedly rarer look at an Olympian’s path.
And, just a warning, there will be discussion of suicide. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
David Epstein: Steve grew up in Buffalo, and at age 11 was a youth national champion in track and field. He later accepted a scholarship to the University of Florida to compete as a decathlete. He had his sights set on the Olympics, but every one of his college seasons ended in injury. When graduation rolled around, he wasn’t sure what to do….
Steve Mesler: I didn’t know anything else other than being an athlete. That was my identity. And I didn’t feel like I’d accomplished the goals I’d set for myself. I didn’t like that feeling. So it was August of 2000, I was sitting on my couch in Gainesville, Florida, two days after I had Tommy John surgery on my elbow, and it was clear my track career was over. I don’t know if it was the painkillers, but I had this little voice in the back of my head — it was the guy who recruited me to Florida, and he always compared me to an athlete he had back in the day who went from track to bobsled. I just laughed it off. But when I was sitting on the couch, I thought, well, maybe I can do it. And literally, I wrote an email to the U.S. Olympic Committee, and said ‘I’m this big, I’m this strong, this fast. Can I do this?’ I got an email back the next day. They’re like, ‘You have to gain some weight, but you’re the right size.’ Of course, my good Jewish mother, her first response was, ‘Go get a job.’ And I said, ‘Just give me a year.’
You can read the actual email Steve wrote if you scroll down here. He survived on odd jobs — substitute teaching, coaching a high school track team, and more — and trained by pushing his roommate’s car up the ramp of a parking garage. The next year, he visited the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista.
I remember showing up and seeing these guys who were just ginormous. Like, massive human beings, and I almost left. But the next day we started doing testing, and I realized I’m faster than almost all these guys, and I’m not that much weaker. Ok, I can do this. And that was the beginning. And then I got invited out to the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center. When I was there, it was four guys to a room. Two normal beds, and a bunk bed, with grown men.
Steve was picked for “USA-3,” i.e. the third-ranked U.S. bobsled team, which meant he would begin representing the country in competition. Most spectators are only aware of bobsled every four years, but between Olympics there’s a World Cup circuit, mostly in Europe.
What you see on television every four years, that is reality, but for 16 days. Then there’s the rest of the time, more than 1,400 days between Olympics where you’re living like you’re in college again, at best. But in retrospect, it was awesome. That’s actually the stuff I miss most. I miss getting in the truck after a race in Winterberg, Germany, and knowing the autobahns so well that I could get from Winterberg to Altenberg, which is six hours away, without a map. And I learned to speak German, because, well, the offseason for a bobsledder is not a lot of brain exercise. One of my proudest moments was after we won gold, getting to do an interview with a German broadcaster, and doing it in German.
Steve thrived within the structure of bobsled training.
I excelled at executing a plan. And luckily coach Stu McMillan was very good at allowing me to be part of building the plan. But the structure and the rigor…I mean, one of the things I miss the most about sport is you get to wake up every day and get better, and you know how to get better. When you enter what an athlete would call the “real world,” there aren’t those lines drawn for you. It can be really hard to tell how do you get better. In sport, and especially at that level, you know if you eat that extra egg, you get six extra grams of protein. If you get six extra grams of protein on a daily basis, you’re going to get better. If you finish the last rep of the last set, you’re going to get better. If you can sleep that extra hour, you’re going to get better. So every single thing you’re doing for 24 hours a day is focused on that goal. I’m not even exaggerating. And then there are three other guys who are focused on that exact same goal, and there’s no questioning what the priorities are.
Now I run an organization, and yes everybody’s striving to make Classroom Champions better, but ultimately that’s not their number one goal in life. They have family, they have mortgage payments, they have things they do for recreation. Classroom Champions is hopefully in the top few priorities, but it’s one of many. When I was training for bobsled, I had one goal. I appreciate that even more now that I can look back on it. You know, over the three Olympics I competed in, most of the guys were single a lot of the time because ultimately, who wants to be in a relationship with someone where you’re not the priority? And when we were competing, nobody else could be the priority. You don’t really get that much in life in general, four people all going after one goal, unquestioned. That’s a really amazing environment to be in.
At the 2006 Torino Games, Steve was on a sled favored to medal, but they choked and came up empty. Then in 2010, the Night Train team was one of the stories of the Games, not only because of their commanding win, but because driver Steve Holcomb had an amazing personal story of driving while nearly going blind from a degenerative condition. The team was also, quite simply, joyful. The goofy “Holcy Dance,” (with Mesler singing), did the rounds on TV — here with Stephen Colbert. Steve Mesler was the oldest team member, and the only one who retired right after winning gold. As the euphoria receded, he took stock of what he’d learned.
I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to businesses, and there are things I learned in sport that transfer to the rest of the world, but there are a lot of things that don’t. Obviously, putting 500 pounds on your back and squatting doesn’t. That sets you up for winning the Olympics, but not for health or the rest of your life. And there are mental things like that. For example, compartmentalizing is a fantastic tool when you’re an athlete, just blocking everything out that isn’t in line with one goal. But it’s terrible for other aspects of your life; it’s terrible for relationships. And I think we’re not doing our athletes today much justice by not teaching them that some of these things are short-term great, and long-term bad.
Just search “Simone Biles compartmentalize” to see how frequently it comes up in relation to the gymnastics GOAT — from her and others around her. Steve’s compartmentalization included blocking out thoughts about post-gold-medal life.
That would have been almost like sacrilege. Anything that wasn’t the goal was a distraction. I remember being back in Buffalo a few months after we won, and this guy saying to me, “What’s it like to write the first line of your obituary at the age of 31?” And, oh wow, you know, hopefully you’ve got 50 or 60 years of life left in you, but you’re never going to do anything that big ever again. And that hits you for sure.
One of Steve’s Olympian friends who struggled after his own triumph was aerial skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson. Peterson was one of the darlings of the Vancouver Games thanks to his patented “Hurricane” maneuver of three flips and five twists.
I remember watching Speedy win the Olympic medal that he’d strove for, and wanted for his whole career. He’d been through his ups and downs, and in February of 2010, he wins his silver medal. In July of 2011, he phones the police and lets them know where they can find his body. And he walks out into the woods in the mountains with a shotgun and…. So, you know, here’s Speedy in 2010, winning a medal, and a year later he’s dead. Speedy had that joyful side, and he also had a darker side. You know, our experiences were pretty similar in that we both reached our goals. Pavle Jovanovic, who was on my team in 2006, he had the opposite experience.
The 2006 team was the one that was favored, but then didn’t perform well at the Games. So despite being one of the best bobsled pushers in the world for years, Jovanovic’s career ended without an Olympic medal.
I learned a lot of my best training habits from Pavle. In the evenings, he’d stretch every night, religiously. He’d do a thousand crunches religiously. And I get a phone call last spring, and his brother found him dead [by suicide] in their shop.
In a lengthy instagram post after Jovanovic passed, Steve wrote: “What happens when the person who is best known as being 150% focused or nothing– finds the nothing becoming what they become 150% focused on?”
Pavle and Speedy had very different experiences, and they wound up with the same result. I had a similar experience to Speedy, and I wound up with depression. It was delayed for me, and I think part of the delay was that in bobsled, you’ve got 20 guys, you know, knocking on the door all the time to take your spot, and vulnerability is a bad thing. Those guys will smell blood and come for your job. So I learned how to be the best in the world by not showing vulnerability. And that is about one of the most unhealthy habits you can have. For me, I think it was a toxic combination of being used to an environment where vulnerability was bad, maybe being more susceptible to depression with multiple head traumas through the sport of bobsled, and also just the pressures of life, and trying to succeed. Growing a nonprofit, and also the pressure of being on the Olympic and Paralympic Committee board and taking a lot of heat for things going on there. So it was a different evolution for me than for other athletes, but one of the biggest realizations for me is that, whether you have that success like Speedy or myself, or you miss it, like Pavle, either way you still end up losing this thing that you were pursuing, and that really was your identity.
In addition to Speedy and Pavle, in 2017, Night Train driver Steve Holcomb was found dead at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid. A toxicology report found that he had alcohol and sleeping pills in his system. Holcomb was a five-time world champion and had an Olympic gold and two silvers; he had also long struggled with mental health.
I’m 42 now, and I have physically buried two teammates. I slid with six different guys at the Olympics, and buried two of them. Another former teammate and roommate survived a suicide attempt. That’s not the kind of batting average you want. That will change your perspective on how to approach mental health, because I don’t want that for my family, and I don’t want that for my friends, or old teammates.
As a USOPC board member, Steve is hoping to make it easier for athletes to open up about their mental health, just as they would a physical ailment, and to get help. He’s talking about this publicly because he wants to normalize the conversation.
I’m starting to talk to other athletes about, you know, some of the behaviors that you have are good for your sport, but not good for other parts of your life. And ultimately, I’m starting to recognize that it’s almost like you’ve got to go through the stages of grief, because you’re experiencing loss even when you win. Because I had this thing in my life, this pursuit of being the best in the world. I had these people in my life who are all going after the same thing, and then we accomplished it, which is fantastic. But nothing replaces that journey and camaraderie. That part of me is gone now. Whether it’s a win or a loss, the outcome is only a moment in time. February 27, 2010, that was the day I won a gold medal, but from June 1990 until February 2010 was the pursuit. And so you tell me which one you think is going to be easier to get over, the thing that happened in one day, whether you won or lost, or the thing that was 20 years?
Steve used to view depression with the same “suck it up” stigma that a lot of people do, so he was reluctant to get help. Once he began thinking of it as a physical ailment — like many others he’d had treated over the years — it became easier for him to seek solutions. From there, he had two personal revelations: that being vulnerable could be a strength in his new life, and that excessive compartmentalizing — i.e. blocking out everything but an immediate work goal — could undermine his long-term life goals and relationships.
Everything in life is a skill, and you’ve got to learn when to use it and when not to use it. And the problem for us athletes is we’re pretty pigheaded and we became the best in the world at using certain skills, so of course we assume those same skills are going to help us be successful in every other aspect of life. And sometimes that’s true, and sometimes it’s not. And as soon as I was able to understand that, and admit that to myself, boy oh boy, I got through my depression pretty quickly.
Now my hope is that, 20 years from now, some other 42-year-old bobsledder doesn’t have to talk about the handful of friends they’ve had to bury. And, you know, that’s not a very high bar. But, ultimately, it’s really tough because you’re talking about people who are the most obsessive, focused individuals on the planet. And whether you’re an Olympian, or an entrepreneur, or just somebody who’s really trying to be better or one of the best people in their field, those mindsets are basically the same.
That’s where my conversation with Steve ended, and it left me thinking about my own experience with books. Both of my books grew organically out of long-held interests — the balance of nature and nurture in sports; how broad or specialized to be. They were both commercially successful beyond my expectations, and yet, the grieving period that Steve described resonates. I’m grateful for those successes, but it’s still true that, in each case, my overwhelming feeling after publication was one of missing the learning (albeit not the work hours!). One reason I started a newsletter just before Range came out was so that I’d have a place to humor (and share) my curiosity in the absence of a book project. Perhaps, as any project that’s important to us comes to a close — whether we succeeded or not — we should be thinking about how to preserve the bits of the process that we love.
Subscribe to How To! on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher
To hear David’s whole conversation with Steve, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! wherever you get your podcasts.
This article first appeared in David Epstein’s free newsletter, The Range Report. For more, subscribe here.