Gold-medal winning bobsled driver Holcomb talks about his battles with depression, blindness
George Frey, Getty Images, Brant Feldman
PARK CITY — When Steve Holcomb heard that Olympic silver medalist Jeret "Speedy" Peterson had killed himself, he was as surprised as anyone else.
But unlike most of those who struggled to reconcile the aerial skier's gregarious personality with the fact that depression had driven the 29-year-old to shoot himself on a starry summer night at a lonely canyon campground, Holcomb understood what might compel a person, even a seemingly successful professional athlete, to end his own life.
The bobsledder, who won a gold medal in the 2010 Olympics, understood because he'd battled similar demons when he tried to end his own suffering four years earlier.
Athletes are, by definition, strong.
Showing any kind of frailty — physical or mental — could mean losing even the chance to compete.
"I didn't want to show weakness," said Holcomb of why he was hesitant to ask for help dealing with his depression. "Sports is incredibly competitive, and politics are always there. You can't afford to have anybody doubt you in anyway."
The perception of athletes as superhuman exacerbates the stigma already associated with a disease like depression. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than a quarter of the population suffers from a diagnosable mental illness. About 6.7 percent of U.S. adults will struggle with depression at some point in their lives — many for multiple years.
Athletes are usually fiercely independent and resourceful, which can make the helpless, hopeless feelings that accompany depression even more isolating.
"There is also a pride factor," he said. "I thought, 'I don't need anybody's help; I can do this.' There are things you don't want people to know because you think they will hold it against you … I couldn't imagine being in a competition and saying, 'Hey, I'm depressed.' It would not be beneficial; People wouldn't embrace it. To me, when I was going through it, it was best not to say anything."
Those fears are often unintentionally confirmed when depressed individuals express their sadness and fear and are told "to just cheer up."
"There is definitely a misconception about what depression is," said Holcomb. "I had a few friends who knew I was kind of down and depressed and they would tell me, 'Just cheer up; it will get better.' It's not just a matter of me saying, 'I'm not going to be depressed.' It's a chemical imbalance."
Holcomb's battle with depression began even before he was diagnosed in 2002 with keratoconus, a degenerative eye disease that would eventually leave him blind. But the illness deepened the inexplicable desperation he felt.
"The (diagnosis) started sending me into a deeper spiral," he said. "I was finally starting to get better as a push athlete, coming into my own in the sport, and now it was just going to end."
The graduate of Park City's Winter Sports High School had just switched to bobsled after training as an alpine skier for two years.
Despite his worsening eyesight, the Eagle Scout and former member of the U.S. Army's World Class Athlete Program continued to compete as a push athlete for the U.S. bobsled team. He moved into the driver's seat in 2001, which only intensified the overwhelming guilt he felt about his worsening vision.
Instead of seeking help, Holcomb, who was "the life of the party" as a teen, became more and more withdrawn. Finally, in 2005, he sought help and was diagnosed with depression.
"I started working on things with someone who helps a lot of athletes," he said, adding that depression among athletes is common because of the extremes created by constant competition. "It started around 2004, at least that's when it started taking a toll on my everyday life."
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