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Olympic athlete on the mental game: ‘One hurdle at a time’

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​​Simone Biles is shining a bright light on the mental health challenges of professional and Olympic athletes.

A day before pulling out of the gymnastics team final at the Tokyo Olympics this week, she said on Instagram: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.” And on Wednesday the four-time Olympic gold medalist withdrew from the individual all-around competition.

In a statement, U.S.A. Gymnastics said that after further medical evaluation, Biles was withdrawing from the individual all-around competition to “focus on her mental health.”

Of course, though she might be the most well-known, Biles isn’t the only Olympic athlete struggling under the pressure to perform on the world stage.

“I really struggled for the first time in my life with depression during the pandemic, and got into therapy and then got my mental coach,” Olympic heptathlon athlete Annie Kunz, told Yahoo Finance. “The mental game...is so tough.”

Mental toughness is required of any athlete hoping to medal at the Olympics. For heptathletes, the competition is especially grueling. The event takes place over two days and includes seven running, jumping, and throwing events: 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 meters, long jump, javelin, and 800 meters.

Olympic athlete Annie Kunz of the U.S. competes in the Women's Heptathlon Shot Put at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, on October 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Olympic athlete Annie Kunz of the U.S. competes in the Women's Heptathlon Shot Put at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, on October 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Pursuing the Olympic dream

Kunz learned to develop the mental fortitude to keep pursuing her Olympic dream after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed.

“Going through the pandemic and being out there alone, finding parks to train completely by myself, with no coach for the first time, you really learn a lot about yourself and how to push yourself, and develop strength in those moments,” said Kunz. “I think it’s made me the athlete that I am today.”

Kunz says her biggest challenge has been financial. “I’m an unsponsored athlete, and so I don’t have Nike or Adidas helping me out,” said Kunz. “I’ve worked part-time jobs here and there over the years. I was doing lash extensions out of my apartment for a year. I’ve just done small stuff here and there.”

Family support has been critical for Kunz, whose father Terry Kunz played in the NFL and won a Super Bowl in 1977. “My parents have been amazing. My boyfriend helps me out a lot, and then I’m at a residence program in Chula Vista,” said Kunz referring to the track and field Olympic training site in California.

“It’s like dorm living for a bunch of almost-30-year-olds. So we live down there and we have a dining hall, and we don’t pay rent, and they cover our insurance,” Kunz said. “So I have some things that help me with those expenses. But financially, it’s just been a really, really big struggle the last four-and-a-half years.”

Kunz competes on Aug. 4-5. “With seven different events, there’s so many things that can happen, and you can really get lost in what has just happened or what your anxieties [are] of what might be coming,” said Kunz, who will be following her father’s advice during competition. “He’s really encouraged me to just be present in that moment, one hurdle at a time.”

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