Champions of Life, Hope and Mental Health
Speech given on June 29, 2013
Normally when I speak I speak from the heart, but given the gravity of today’s topic I hope you’ll forgive me for speaking from the mind…and a prepared speech.
In six months the world will turn its eyes to Socchi, Russia for the 2014 Winter Games. Every country will cheer its champions as they compete for Olympic gold. But as amazing as those athletes are, I want to talk about a group of champions who do not receive the same publicity or fame, but are just as deserving of it.
I hope we are all aware that mental health is an issue that affects millions of people around the globe. It is estimated that 1 in 4 American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. Nearly 10% of Americans 18 and older have a mood disorder. In any given year 15 million Americans have a major depressive disorder. So if you struggle with mental illness, you are not alone.
The truth is that I am well aware of the challenges of mental illness, because it is a battle that I nearly lost. I am lucky to be involved in bobsled, but I would be lying if I said that things were always golden. I started the sport in January of 1997, won my first race a month later (thankfully the medals got bigger) and I continued in the sport for over fourteen years until recently I found myself coaching some of the first Paralympic bobsled athletes in the world.
Even so, in Junior High I began to struggle with near-crippling anxiety and bouts of crushing depression. Some days I wondered how I could go on. Being a little less wise back then, I hid my battles from the world and chose to focus on being a successful athlete, a good student, a productive member of the community and just a good person.
But I could only run from my struggles for so long. Several years ago I hit the bottom. Feeling that my problems were irreparable and that my life would not be missed, I stuck a large knife in my bedpost and told God he had one week to give me a reason to live or I was going to use the knife on myself.
Some of you have been there. Some of you have lost loved ones because they were there. And some of us here today may be in that situation in the future. It is my hope that when those difficult times come we will remember the following story.
Four years ago my four-man bobsled team and I were preparing our sled at the top of the Park City track. Eventually it came our turn to take the ice, so we pulled the sled to the starting line, called out our cadence and took off in the Push Start, where we sprint down the first 50-meters of the track.
We quickly loaded into our seats and being the driver I took over. The ice was perfect and we were just flying down the course. Turn after turn went amazingly and I felt that we were on track for a very fast run…until we hit Turn Eleven.
We were a hair too high in the exit and the next thing I knew we were upside down. I tucked into the sled and waited for the crash to end. After about twenty seconds we were at the bottom of the track, the lowest point on the course, when the medical staff and track workers rushed in to grab the sled, make sure we were ok and help us get back on our feet.
Now…I do not pretend to understand what your lowest points may be in this life, nor do I want to sound like your “crashes”, your struggles are not real nor painful. What I do want you to learn from my story is that there will always be people in our lives who love us and who will gladly rush in to make sure we are ok and help us get back on our feet.
For some of us, that may be a loving parent or spouse, caring friends, teachers or perhaps a religious leader, a coach or just someone you meet along the way. On the other hand, I hope we all take away from this event today, and share with others, that there are a multitude of supportive professionals, volunteers and organizations that will gladly rush in to help those struggling with mental health.
After our bobsled crash, a metaphor for when my mental health crashed, but after the crash because of the way our sled was pushed against the side of the track I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t help myself. All I could do was slip my hand up between the sled’s body and the track and immediately someone grabbed it and helped pull me out of the sled and onto my feet.
If you ever feel like your life has crashed, that you are stuck and can’t get out, please love yourself enough to reach up, to reach out and say, “I need help.”
Don’t give up. Don’t quit the race of life. Better days are always around the next turn. If you need help from your teammates, ask for it. If you need professional coaches who truly want to help, find them and never think less of yourself for it. Anyone who has the courage to say, “I’m struggling” deserves a gold medal to honor their heroic efforts to get help and find the happiness they deserve. After my own face-to-face boxing match with suicide I decided to found an organization called The Athlete Outreach Project. Our main focus is to use sport to inspire others and make a difference in the community. I bring this up because it was in some of my darkest moments that I wrote down The Project’s motto, “There is always hope.”
I can say that because I have been there. I have wondered if I could be healthy again. I have made that drive to the Emergency Room because I knew I needed help. I have feared for my future in quiet moments. But even when I wondered if there was any reason left to live, I always found hope, love and support. It is in those dark moments that I would challenge you to remember the Olympic torch, a symbol that signifies the light of spirit and life.
In your most difficult times, I say light a flame of hope within your heart. Borrow light if you need to for a time, but never let your inner Olympic torch go out. You are too amazing and have far too much potential. The world would not be better without your light in it so don’t ever believe the lie that it would be.
To those of you who have lost loved ones to suicide. I can only imagine how much your loss must weigh on your heart, but I would invite you to use your experience to help others, to become a teammate for those who may have lost someone to suicide. Become a volunteer or an advocate with the live saving groups that have organized this event. Sometimes a shoulder to cry on and having someone say, “I am sorry for your pain, let me help” can be the most healing and powerful medicine.
My friends, each of us has incredible worth, amazing potential and unbelievable power for good. The official Olympic motto consists of three Latin words: Citius, Altius, Fortius which translates to, “swifter, higher, stronger.” May we all strive to live that motto, but also to always look for others who may need help along the way.
I hope that we can all remember that one gold-medal principle that I forgot for a time: every life is worth living, every life is worth saving. There is always hope.