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Olympic Medalist Kim Vandenberg Reflects on Mental Health Awareness Month

I’m having anxiety about writing this anxiety story.

Yes, we all know anxiety is irrational, it’s not common sense, it’s rapid fire, it’s uncontrollable, it’s madness and yet it’s affecting millions of people every day and at times, it feels like it ruins my life.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I share my story with the spirit of continuing to erase the stigma around mental disorders, especially within the sports world. Sometimes people assume that high-performing athletes can endure life’s stressors with an ability superior to their peers, but that is simply not the case. In my experience, many elite athletes hide behind a mask of their medal count or their world ranking to prove their strength or their immunity to mental pain and suffering. Physical suffering is a different story, as the best of the best athletes are comfortable with being uncomfortable in training and in competition.

My story is about how I was somehow able to perform in front of the world in swimming at the Olympic Games and numerous international competitions while suffering from anxiety attacks. I would have occasional internal meltdowns — in airplanes, in elevators, in subways, in crowded spaces, walking down the street or randomly in the middle of the night.

When it happens, it hits me like a hurricane, and I want to dance in its chaos. Seemingly from out of nowhere, it feels like the end, it feels like death. It sounds so dramatic and irrational but it’s how people who live with anxiety feel during episodes. It honestly feels like I could die during these moments but I am still alive, and I am writing my story.

Being an elite athlete my entire life, I have been conditioned to push past uncomfortable physical situations during demanding practices and competitions. I’ve raced when I had the stomach flu, vomiting in between races and struggling to stand up. I’ve fainted during blood tests in between workouts at altitude training camps only to return to the pool a few hours later for my next session. I’ve had debilitating back spasms and migraines all in the name of my never-ending love for swimming. All of the suffering and sacrifice was worth it to me since I looked at it as part of the process. I understood painful physical conditions but I couldn’t wrap my head around my mental limitations, my panic attacks.

I’ve been living with anxiety disorder — a medical condition that manifests itself in intense anxiety or panic involving repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear and terror that reach peaks within minutes — to name of few of the symptoms, this is what I experience:

  • Pounding Heart
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Stomach Upset
  • Dizziness
  • Frequent Urination
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Muscle tension

I’ve often wondered, ‘Why is this happening?’ I realize that it is irrational, yet the power anxiety holds over me feels beyond my control.

For example, one of my first episodes was in 2011, and our team was heading to the competition pool for warmups a few days before the start of the Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Decked in Team USA gear, I was in the athlete village packing up my favorite goggles, swimsuit and cap and headed to the bus that would drive us across Guadalajara to the Natatorium.

One of my teammates and I were in the elevator when suddenly, the lights turned off and we stopped abruptly. I fell to the floor, hugged my swim bag and immediately told her ‘I’m having a panic attack’ I knew it wasn’t going to be a fun experience…

Sweating uncontrollably, I couldn’t breathe with my heart racing and my vision blurring. I was sure I was going to pass out. Eventually, the lights turned back on and we finally started to move but I felt like I had just run a marathon.

After that, I was completely exhausted on the bus ride to the pool and I couldn’t stop worrying that I had depleted my energy for my upcoming competition in the days to come. I booked a meeting with our team sports psychologist that day knowing I needed professional help. I knew I had a panic disorder and I knew I couldn’t control it. I had been dealing with anxiety for as long as I can remember and I had to find a way to remedy the issue.

The pressure of performing against the best in the world paired with the international travel to get to and from these competitions were a match made in mental hell but my love for swimming always outweighed the fear of my next anxiety attack. Giving up the sport was never once a thought that crossed my mind. Swimming was a peaceful remedy to my rapid fire mind. I thought I would just have to endure the paralyzing feeling of panic during turbulent flights, crowded elevators, and completely normal activities to get to the next pool.

To this day, my moments of anxiety are still embarrassing for me. I often feel like I am dying. I feel out of control and I feel weak. I hate that I have them and that it feels like I can’t overcome the powerless reaction to irrational situations. Even though over six million Americans suffer from panic attacks each year, I have always felt flawed for this problem. It has taken me years to find courage to start speaking about it to my friends and family without feeling ashamed or guilty in fear that they would think I was weak-minded or complaining.

During the past eight years, I have discovered comfort and glimpses of peace of mind during meditation class, breathwork seminars, and in yoga. I go to therapy and I occasionally call my best friends during moments of extreme anxiety attacks.

I have decided to try and embrace this ‘weakness’ in my mind

I am dedicated to understanding mental illness and I am passionate to start conversations to find solidarity and strength, especially in the sports world. I don’t have the answers but I am still searching. As I’m writing this, it’s midnight and I am listening to Nada Surf’s ‘Where is my Mind:’

Way out in the water

See it swimming.

Olympic medalist swimmer Kimberley Vandenberg is a member of the WSF Digital Contributor Team.