Olympian Emily Cook On Mental Illness And Life Transitions: “Talking Is Key”

By Emily Cook, TEAM USA

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and for many of us an opportunity to reflect on and honor those who have struggled. For me, it is a time to remember my teammate and very good friend Jeret “Speedy” Peterson and, in his honor, to look deeply at how we can all support each other.

While a loving, caring, outgoing friend, Jeret battled depression throughout his life. Less than 18 months after winning a silver medal at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games and retiring from competitive sport, Jeret took his life in July of 2011 at the age of 29. This was a devastating time for his family, teammates and friends, but in the spirit of his passion for giving back to others, The Speedy Foundation was founded and today is focused on understanding mental illness, preventing suicide and fighting stigma through education, research and advocacy.

There are so many positive things that come out of sport: perseverance, dedication and an unwillingness to give up among them. But often times this grit, which has been so engrained, can prove challenging, especially after retiring from sport. As an athlete at the Olympic level it’s easy to define yourself by your sport. When you retire, who are you? The challenges of major transition in life can be tough for all of us, not just athletes.

As young gymnasts, my teammates and I would stand in a line, chins held high, tummies tucked in and big smiles on each of our faces. Whether we had just had our best performance, were injured or had trouble at home, we would do everything in our power while at practice and competition to hold this pose. This armor protected us, it kept us strong and resilient and was vital when obstacles got in our way.

As my athletic career progressed through gymnastics, skiing and eventually aerials, I did my best to ensure that this pose became my mantra. Chin high, work hard, smile. A fellow competitor and I used to “joke” that it was time to put on our armor, to turn to stone and be ready for the day. At this point, nothing would get in our way. This is certainly an effective method of focusing only on the competitive task at hand, of controlling emotions when it’s time to perform, and ultimately being successful as an athlete.

What I have learned throughout my athletic career, whether in sport, business or life at home, is that we each have some version of this armor to protect us. At the end of the day, there is always a healthy and appropriate time to let down our guard and be vulnerable: to talk.

At a recent event, I was asked to speak to a group of athletes preparing for the Rio Olympic Games. While I expected the conversation to revolve around preparation, what to expect and how to be successful at the Games, many of the questions seemed to gravitate towards what to do after the Olympics, how to transfer those valuable skills learned through competition to another career and how to navigate the unpredictable world of life after sport. After so many years of being passionate and dedicated to one mission, what is next?

My advice kept coming back to conversation. Keep each other close, talk to those who have made this transition before you, ask questions, be patient with yourself, be willing to be vulnerable. Talk. It can be an incredibly challenging – but also very exciting – time and one that I, personally, have cherished. I am incredibly thankful for those who helped me through this time in my life and hope to be able to provide the same support for other athletes.

The International Olympic Committee, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and U.S. Olympic Committee are working to make the process of retirement from sport an easier transition through a variety of programs. The USOC has implemented the Athlete Career and Education Program, the IOC has a similar one (Athlete Career Program) and USSA is working towards a mission to prepare athletes for a balanced life with their education and mentorship programs.

 

Today, one of The Speedy Foundation’s biggest initiatives is to get people to talk to each other, especially during our more challenging times. The foundation has partnered with Optum Health in Utah and Idaho to provide both Mental Health First Aid and QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) suicide prevention training events, and has recently completed a mental health educational evening at the Park City High School on mental health awareness, with more conversations and educational opportunities to come.

We are making strides, but I certainly think there is more we can all do. Let’s start with talking. In honor of those who were unable to make it through their individual battles with depression and other challenges, let’s all do our best today and everyday to support each other.

Stats:

Every 40 seconds, someone in the world takes their own life, a global tally of more than 800,000 suicides a year, according to a landmark United Nations report on the subject.

The research found that suicide killed more people each year than conflicts and natural catastrophes, accounting for more than half of the world's 1.5 million violent deaths annually, World Health Organization staff told reporters at its presentation in Geneva, Switzerland.

Where to find help:

The Speedy Foundation

National Suicide Prevention Helpline – 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Resources

USOC ACE