Its Taken Me Nearly 20 Years to Mentally Recover From Being an Olympian

At my first Olympics Games in Athens in 2004, I was 21—an adult by all standards but a baby of mind and spirit. For some athletes, a certain naivety about the psychological intensity of the Olympics can be helpful. However, when I stepped up to fence against my first opponent, a veteran Italian and former world champion, the pressure rushed in and strangled my nerve.

I had what I now understand was a panic attack. After a few shaky points, my consciousness dislodged itself from my skull, my vision peeling backward from my eyeballs as if I was no longer sitting with my nose pressed against the windshield of reality. I felt like an observer trapped behind an impenetrable psychic buffer. Needless to say, I crashed and burned.

That was my first event, my shot at individual glory; however, our team competition several days later ended somewhat tragically as well. Although I put forward a far more psychologically stable performance, my three teammates and I lost two consecutive matches by a single point. Had we won either, we would have left Athens with a medal. Instead, we ended up in what many elite competitors consider the armpit of athletic results. We finished in fourth.

After the Games, many of my fellow competitors raced to ink the Olympic rings on various parts of their bodies. Most displayed the symbol in full view: the shoulder; the inner bicep; the center of the upper back. Some would say Olympians perform this ritual so they can boast their accomplishments, literally, on their sleeve.

However, not all athletes opted for such public placements. One female athlete told me she’d nestled it along the pelvic groove that slopes southward toward the groin. In those cases, it serves as a future reminder when exiting the shower that, while your current life may lack the adrenaline haze it once had, in the past, you reached the top of the top.

I had initially planned to tattoo the rings after Athens, but when I returned stateside, I hesitated. Then full-out stalled. Yes, I had put in the same blood, sweat, and tears as everyone else. But I didn’t feel that I hadn’t earned the right to inscribe the rings into my body with such permanence. I also worried that it would serve as a reminder of my failure. I’m already in shambles, I thought, why would I wound myself more?

My path back to confidence was hard-fought. When I returned to my junior year in college, I declared my major as psychology to help me identify how I could have fucked things up so bad. Beyond analyzing my experience in Athens for valuable data, I tried to keep it out of my mind. Logically, I understood that getting to the Games in the first place was a remarkable achievement, but the only emotion that came up for me was shame.

I learned to work with it and eventually massaged those nodes of darkness into motivation. Over the next three years, I built a small library of books on peak performance and self-help. And, as the next Olympic qualification season loomed, I began working with a sports psychologist to help me refine the assemblage of tactics I hoped would help prevent the walls of my brain from closing in.

“By the time I arrived in Beijing, my stomach churned with bile and I felt like a nervous wreck.”

However, when I began the official qualification season for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I quickly realized my mental tricks were largely sleight-of-hand. They helped distract me from the inner tension I felt, but were not enough to prevent the old demons from coming for me again. I performed erratically as insomnia began to take hold during my travels to Europe, Africa, and Asia. Throughout entire four-day tournament weekends, I often managed only six or seven hours of sleep.

Somehow, I dragged myself across the finish line, barely capturing the last spot on the team. That I had made it through the grueling qualification process was a boon to my spirits. But I remained so desperate to avenge my Athens experience that, by the time I arrived in Beijing, my stomach churned with bile and I felt like a nervous wreck.

My individual competition ended similarly to the one in Athens. I could not find my psychological footing and lost badly to a teammate in the early rounds. The team competition ushered in a similar feeling of cosmic sameness; however, it appeared that, in contrast to our Grecian experience, the universe was on our side.

We fenced against the same teams as we had four years earlier, although this time we won two consecutive matches by one point, earning us a silver medal. It was supposed to be the greatest moment of my life, and it certainly felt like it for a brief period of time. Yet, I left China wondering why, underneath the over-stimulated mania I had felt from all the fanfare and press, I felt a growing sense of unease.

The year following Beijing brought a revolving door of glittering events. One of my teammates and I donned our medals at so many parties, galas, and fashion shows in New York City that we appeared in Vanity Fair and earned reputations as men about town. I tried, and in most cases, succeeded, at putting on the face of self-assurance; however, it was the moments that I stepped out of the public and into the bedroom that my confident facade came tumbling down.

Sex had never come easily to me. A few stumbling experiences with my first girlfriend left me feeling inadequate in the arena. And, following my teenage years, I developed a form of sexual performance anxiety that manifested itself in a strange game of cat and mouse. I’d go through periods of monkish abstention from sexual activity to a jittery indulgence that would usually result in the same feelings of failure that I had experienced after my abysmal fencing performance in Greece.

The two manifestations of the anxiety I felt—athletic and intimate—were undoubtedly cut from the same cloth. The difference was that, while I took on the former after Athens, I was so ashamed and terrified by the latter that I pushed it out of my head. Naturally, that only made it worse, contributing to a sense of emptiness that I had attempted to fill through my maniacal pursuit of sport.

So, even though Beijing had offered me the redemption story so often celebrated in culture, I still could not gaze upon the five rings and feel that I belonged. When I looked at the other male athletes’ poise, rippling muscles, and most importantly, apparent sexual prowess, I felt othered. The silver medal did not extend to me what I had spent years chasing: the feeling that I was enough.

It wasn’t until several years after I had retired from fencing that I finally confronted the issue head-on. I began opening up to family and friends—notably, my father—and sought professional help. As I began to learn how to reframe all of these past events, from unmitigated disasters to helpful lessons, my bedroom struggles initially loosened their grip, then finally let go.

For me, getting the rings tattooed would be an act of reclamation. So, I scheduled my tattoo appointment for the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics, which corresponded with my first event in 2004. Due to the time change, I was able to stay up late drinking beers as I watched the American fencers compete in the same competition that I had nearly two decades before.

Unfortunately, all of the Americans lost in the early rounds that day, a likely concoction of nerves and bad luck. My pulse rose as I relived what it is like to be in their shoes. Most Olympians feel that the only way to navigate their reality is to hold an unbearable tension. They must believe that they can surmount all odds while also accepting that a single, defining moment can send four years circling down the drain.

It’s these kinds of binaries—victory and defeat, failure and redemption—that lead athletes mentally astray. Yes, things may not go as planned, but no performance is a failure. Every moment has something to teach us about ourselves. And, while my fellow fencers may have struggled in the Tokyo arena, if they cultivate the right perspective, they will later come to understand that out of those gut-wrenching moments came some of the most meaningful opportunities for personal growth.

Honestly, when I think back to Athens and Beijing, a sense of personal ambivalence still hangs in the air. I continue to feel the residual pain from those aching losses. This is why I asked the tattoo artist to make the rings feel hand-drawn, almost distorted. The tattoo is not intentionally bad. But I did want it to look imperfect and rough-around-the-edges, like so many things in our lives that are initially off-putting but later we come to love.

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