I’m writing this column on St. Valentine’s Day, the day nine years ago when Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winner Marco Pantani died at age 34 from a cocaine overdose after being in and out of a deep depression for several years. Italian legend Felice Gimondi, one of his mentors and a consultant with Bianchi, whose bikes Pantani raced on, said at the time: “For years, Marco was in the eye of the cycling storm after being world No, 1. He then withdrew into himself. He was alone.”
Two months before Pantani’s death one of his peers, Spanish climber José-Maria Jiménez, died of a heart attack at 32 in a Madrid psychiatric hospital after a long struggle with depression and an apparent cocaine addiction. His erstwhile teammate, Spanish great Miguel Induráin, alluded to Jiménez’s depression in saying, “When things were going well, they went really well, but when things went bad, they went very bad.”
Competitive cyclists spend thousands of dollars on getting help with their physical training from professional coaches, but rarely do they think about spending a cent on their mental health. It’s only when things start to go wrong that, perhaps due to over-training or not recovering quickly from an injury or illness, they might think about getting help.
One cyclist who knows how deep a depressed athlete can sink after physical setbacks is Canadian Clara Hughes, who has just retired from racing after two decades in which she earned Olympic medals in both cycling and speed-skating. This past week she gave interviews as a spokesperson for Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” campaign, which is focused on supporting mental-health-related programs and research. “I want to eradicate stigma around mental illness in Canada,” Hughes told the Toronto Star. “I hope my story can help.”
She said that her mental-health problems began after medaling in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Feeling isolated and fixated on training, Hughes put on weight and would cry every day. She trained even harder, but she felt even worse. “The hole was dug and I was piling the dirt on top of myself,” she said. It wasn’t until her doctor raised the subject of depression that Hughes reached out to friends and family, and then got the professional she needed before starting to feel better.
There was a similar trend with Brad Wiggins, the reigning Tour champion, following his winning a first set of Olympic medals, in track racing, at the 2004 Athens Games. “I thought I was ‘it’ after winning those medals,” he said at the time, “so for a while I was going to parties and enjoying it, but once that started wearing off I found I wasn’t looking forward to racing my bike. I just sat around drinking all day.”
Wiggins said he would go to his local pub and steadily get through a dozen pints of beer by the end of the day. “I though I was enjoying myself,” he said, “but I look back and think, what a horrible place to have been.” He said he only stopped the drinking when shocked back to reality by the birth of his son in 2005, but he remained disillusioned with his pro cycling career. “It was a job,” he said. “I just went through the motions and went home again.”
Today, Wiggins is leader of Team Sky, where one of the most valued staff members is Dr. Steve Peters, the team psychiatrist and head of medicine. After winning the Tour last year, Wiggins thanked Peters for “opening my eyes on how to approach my worries and fears, and for simply being the world expert on common sense.” Peters’s work has helped not only the pro team riders in recent years but also the British national team cyclists that have taken 16 Olympic gold medals in the past decade. Sky team boss Sir Dave Brailsford says that Peters is “the best appointment I’ve ever made.”
Depression is a common mental disease that affects more than 20 million people in North America at any one time. American sports medical expert Dr Chad Asplund wrote in 2004 that “athletes at the highest levels may experience failure or a decline in performance for the first time, and they may not have the skills to cope with these changes.”
He added, “Depression is often triggered by loss, and athletes may experience many forms of loss [including] transition from sport to life-after-sport [where] the lack of coping skills leads to low self-esteem, diminished sense of self-worth, and ultimately…depression.” This can explain the depression suffered by Pantani and Jimenez after their careers fell to pieces (partly due to drug use), and also Hughes’s current state of mind.
Talking about her feelings after quitting elite-level sport at age 40, Hughes wrote in a blog last month: “Somehow I thought after quitting sport that life would be a little easier. [But] thoughts of unrepeatable negativity scream out loud when I sit with myself too long. And now these shouts of abuse are beginning to follow me into time spent with others. For some reason I thought these verbal cues were a result of trying to be better at something. That something was sport [which] is now gone. Now it’s just me. No pressure, no expectations, no need to be fast, good, strong or to even improve. Yet I can’t let go of this idea that I always need to be more than I am. And it is eating me alive.”
She added, “In some ways, life as a former athlete is like that of an addict. The comparison is quite normal to make of life as it was before with big goals, big dreams and big focus. In retrospect, it seems easier, but in reality it was torture. Just like the thought of a drink, a hit or a bet must seem like it would sooth the void, this comparison leads to melancholy because life will never be the same.”
In next week’s column, I will look at other aspects of mental health in pro cycling, including the sometimes overwhelming pressure to succeed and depression that can lead to suicide.
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