The writing of this month’s column comes on the heels of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and so many of the awe-inspiring displays of athleticism are still fresh in my mind. From U.S. swimmer Lydia Jacoby’s unexpected gold-medal win in the 100-meter breaststroke to the U.S. track-and-field team’s Games-closing wins in the 4 x 400-meter relays for both the women and the men, the global event captured my family’s attention.
My daughters cartwheeled and leaped across our living room as we tuned in to gymnastics. When we visited pools, they practiced their synchronized jumps while I revisited the freestyle stroke. My husband, meanwhile, began researching the rules of rugby while keeping tabs on weightlifting.
We also watched with concern when celebrated gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s team competition, citing mental-health issues that could put her at physical risk should she try to perform some of the sport’s most difficult moves. And when swimmer Caeleb Dressel — this issue’s cover person — became emotional upon seeing his family back home on a screen after winning his first individual gold, I cried, too. “It’s a really tough year,” the two-time Olympian and seven-time gold medalist said. “It’s really hard, so to have the results show up . . . I’m happy.” (Read his cover profile here.)
It can seem, from a distance, that these athletes are invincible, so highly trained that nothing can affect them. Yet they, too, are vulnerable to life’s circumstances and pressures. The fact that more athletes, celebrities, and high-profile leaders are talking openly about their mental-health challenges offers a sense of relatability and connection. Our common humanity is undeniable.
Importantly, these people are challenging the stigma that has, for much too long, been assigned to the topic of mental health. With psychological crises on the rise across many segments of the population over the past decade — and growing throughout the pandemic — it’s imperative that we normalize conversations about and compassion for these issues.
On a recent Saturday, after a somewhat challenging morning, our 8-year-old expressed that she “just couldn’t get happy” that day. We used it as an opportunity to talk about mental well-being, about the many factors that contribute to it, and about what she could do to feel better, if not happy. A little later, she grabbed her Good Night Yoga book to help “relax and move her body.”
Thankfully, as her generation grows up, they are more frequently hearing terms like “inner strength” and “emotional agility” (the latter, coined by psychologist Susan David, PhD, refers to the ability to manage our thoughts and feelings). And they’re regularly seeing all sorts of people demonstrate feats of greatness that aren’t limited to physicality: They’re the result of emotional and mental strength, too.
Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, Caeleb Dressel — they may be well known for their athleticism, but they have shown remarkable courage in these other areas, setting powerful examples for all of us. More of that, please.
A final note: This issue marks the last for our esteemed copy chief, the master of words, phrases, and style, Steve Waryan, who is retiring after 20 years with Experience Life. Since the first issue, he has been dedicated to this work, and there aren’t adequate words to express how grateful I am for his commitment to excellence and for his love and care for our team and this project. Steve, you have been (and always will be) a mentor, a trusted colleague, and most important, a dear friend. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all of it. — JM