Sadly, for many of us, our light has been dimmed - by ourself or others. By the lies we believe about our worth. By the "should's" and "have to's" that rule our lives. By the fear of not being good enough. By the fear of failing. By the fear of not being accepted.
When I began swimming at the age of 6, I never dreamed of going to the Olympics. In fact, I was the worst on my team. In the span of just 11 years, I went from worst on my team to the best in the world. I was featured in Vogue, interviewed on The Today Show, and asked to speak around the world. As a favorite to win gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I was celebrated as "the next great American distance swimmer."
On the outside, everything looked bright and shiny. On the inside, I was crumbling. Like a pressure cooker without a release valve, I felt like I was going to explode. I did not know how to handle the spotlight. As a natural introvert, it felt too bright.
Moreover, the perfectionism and drive that led to so much success was now eating away at me. My passion was replaced with fear and anxiety. I never felt good enough. I beat myself up over every little mistake I made - even if I won or went a best time. This perfectionistic mentality was echoed, and even championed, by those around me.
No pain, no gain. Try harder. Do more. Be more.
I was battling anxiety attacks and overwhelmed by stress. I became so worried about what my competition was doing that I lost sight of what had made me successful.
In 2008, a party of 400 people gathered to send me off to the Beijing Olympics where I was favored to win gold.
I failed to medal.
Only two people waited to greet me at the airport when I returned empty handed.
Four years later, I failed again; this time when a flu bug stole my strength and the medal that had promised to redeem me at the London Olympics.
In a few short years, I went from everyone's "Golden Girl" to believing I was a two-time Olympic failure.
You know how you hear about so many athletes being broken and burnt out as a result of their careers? Maybe you've experienced it firsthand. It may be emotional, psychological, financial or physical. For me it was three out of the four.
I drove myself to burnout trying to earn my self-worth and confidence. Years of pounding the yardage, under-recovering, over-stressing, and trying to silence anxiety that left me on the floor in the corner unable to breathe resulted in adrenal fatigue, hormonal imbalances, gut issues, and depression. My body and mind clearly needed attention and healing.
I lived in the prison of destructive narratives, anxiety, and fear for too long. I was unraveling.
In my experience, transformation is a process. Those who want to tell you it's a quick pill, a button to push, or done in "5 Easy Steps" either A) haven't done the real work and/or B) have done the work but are trying to sell you something and don't want to break it to you that transformation - healing - is a process.
To heal physically, I had to start on the inside. I met with a therapist and pastor regularly. I explored my faith, positive psychology, trauma, shame, and holistic health (I continue exploring all of those!). I read, listened, watched, and asked "experts" a lot of questions.
Most significantly, I created space to do the work. I journaled, doubled-down on meditation, and asked many questions. I resisted the desire to rush the process - "I'm fine. This is good.", opting instead to be "in the middle". I learned that there is no true finish line.
Five years ago, I began working with performers at all levels of competition in private coaching and group trainings.
Sadly, I consistently heard performers share stories of "overwhelming pressure", secret anxiety attacks, lack of confidence, coaching abuses, feelings of being "absolutely miserable but unable to quit", and feeling "weak for asking for help" and "just so burnt out".
In a recent session discussing mental health an athlete said, "So many of us are depressed. It is definitely over half of us but that's just the way it is these days."
But it doesn't have to be!
I imagine performers not just loving sport when they are young and things are "easy" but throughout their entire career.
I imagine performers playing not to prove who they think they should be but as a means to express who they were created to be.
I imagine performers caring not just for their physical health but also their mental and emotional.
I imagine performers believing strength lies not in the weight room but in using their voice.
I imagine performers measuring success not by perfection but by the heart and effort demonstrated in the process.
I imagine performers celebrated not as one-dimensional performers but as whole, thriving people.