Opinion | The Lesson of This Olympics: You Can’t Win if You’re Not OK

The marathoner Molly Seidel has always been a formidable athlete, but her ascent to the Olympic medal podium was not linear. She skipped the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials to check into treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety and disordered eating.

“My head wasn’t in the right place, even though I was running really fast,” the 27-year-old from Wisconsin told me days after winning the bronze medal in the women’s marathon at the Tokyo Olympics. “I just couldn’t keep going the way that I was going.”

Seidel thought her career might be over back in 2016, when she was just 22. Treatment changed everything. She became a better athlete than ever. She qualified for the Olympics last year, in the first marathon she’d ever raced. And when she crossed the finish line last weekend, she screamed with joy. She was the third American woman in history to win an Olympic medal in the marathon.

In a world that rewards constant momentum and toughness, Seidel’s breakthrough was a case study in the value of patience and self care. Despite the conventional wisdom that the career of a professional athlete should be an unbroken upward trajectory to peak performance, Seidel stepped away to prioritize her health, recovered, and came back stronger.

Many of the most storied moments in Olympics history are simplified examples of athletes pushing past pain, injury and mental exhaustion to compete. Who can forget Kerri Strug, the American gymnast who in 1996 vaulted on an injured ankle, then was carried off the mat to receive her medal? But the enduring narrative of this most recent Olympics was athletes choosing to protect their health instead of sacrificing it to compete.

The gymnast Simone Biles was the most prominent example, when she declined to compete after experiencing a bad case of “the twisties.” But top athletes across global competitions this year spoke openly about stepping back from competition to recalibrate. The British cricketer Ben Stokes recently announced an “indefinite break” from the game to prioritize his mental health; the tennis star Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open amid a controversy over her decision to opt out of stressful news conferences; and the British swimmer Adam Peaty celebrated winning two gold medals and one silver medal in Tokyo with the announcement that he’s taking a month off to take care of himself.

Seidel’s Olympic performance vindicates this approach: Giving yourself time to heal and rest is not just the compassionate thing to do for your health. It can also be also the smartest strategy for success. “There’s a very old school idea of this stiff upper lip that says you can do anything you set your mind to,” she told me. “But no. I appreciate that we are becoming a lot more nuanced now with seeing that mental health is physical health. They are directly correlated.”

It’s a powerful lesson in how to handle the natural derailments of life — and it’s one that resonates far beyond any athletic arena. Americans often demonize quitting, and valorize “grit” — a mythical quality that a flurry of books urged parents to instill in children over the last decade.

But how has grit served us, amid the pandemic, as Americans grind themselves to the point of quitting their jobs? We’re seeing burnout and flameout, and what the organizational psychologist Adam Grant has called “languishing.” Olympians, as the canaries for the rest of us in our professional coal mines, are alerting us to the problems of an overly goal-oriented society.

Seidel’s coach, Jon Green, says she does better in races when she’s not pushed to extremes in practice. “Does Molly have grit? Absolutely she does,” Mr. Green told me. “But at the end of the day we approach everything with balance. We make sure we’re taking care of Molly as a person, not just Molly the runner.”

Growing up steeped in the American culture of success at all costs, balance and rest are things I’ve rarely allowed myself to indulge in. As a high school runner at 14, I papered my bedroom with sneaker ads about animals chasing each other down a savanna and assured myself that while I might not be the lion, I definitely would not be the slowest gazelle. I learned to “just do it,” and to never quit.

I thought back recently to a race I ran in college. I’d developed a syndrome that made my shins swell up, but I lined up for a track meet with my team one night anyway. I had already fallen to last place when I couldn’t feel the bottom of my legs anymore, aside from burning. I kept my eyes up and told myself “10 more meters, you can do this” over and over. I fell at the finish, and when I got up, there was blood on my hands and knees where the skin had been. Under the floodlights, I told everyone I was fine, then went to wash myself off alone.

It occurred to me only last year, when I took a long break from running, that this moment of toughness and perseverance, seared in my mind as a point of pride, accomplished nothing. I spent years doing things like that. Why was I so afraid to stop?

Seidel thinks about it differently, she told me: “I don’t think quitting should be seen as giving up. I think it should be seen sometimes as, ‘I’m taking the time to get myself right.’”

This extraordinary Olympics was full of departures from the myths of what it means to succeed: Rather than break their tie with a “jumpoff,” athletes from Italy and Qatar opted to share gold medals in the high jump, then embraced as friends. Biles became a new kind of hero for refusing to risk her safety — and she still cheered at the top of her lungs for her teammates and posed for beaming photos with her silver and bronze medals. The sprinter Allyson Felix showed how another nonlinear path could lead to success: She had a baby two years ago, changed sponsors, started her own shoe company and boldly displayed her cesarean scar in an ad for it — and then came back to take bronze and gold at her fifth Olympics, where she became the most decorated athlete in track and field history.

I’m glad this generation is learning from athletes like these. It was only in my 30s, that I started racing again. I finally realized my body wasn’t something to wrangle into submission. I stopped forcing it. Only then did I get faster than I ever expected.

Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) is a writer and producer in Opinion. She produced the Emmy-nominated Opinion Video series “Equal Play,” which brought widespread reform to women’s sports.

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