Michael Phelps narrates and provides commentary in the “Weight of Gold” documentary. Photo by HBO

In an HBO documentary premiering Wednesday, Michael Phelps and several other United States Olympic athletes discuss the challenges of reaching the Summer or Winter Games and then coping with the aftermath. As recounted in “The Weight of Gold,” though, the toughest challenges were frequently more mental than physical, with the greatest obstacles emerging not from other countries but from the American athletes’ own national organization.

Phelps, the 35-year-old former swimmer who is the most decorated athlete in Olympics history, has discussed his mental health issues in the past. In “The Weight of Gold,” he provides both narration and commentary, as the documentary presents several areas in which Olympic athletes struggle to find their psychological footing.

POST-OLYMPICS DEPRESSION

As Phelps, former freestyle skier Jeremy Bloom and figure skating silver medalist Sasha Cohen describe it, there was simply nothing like being at the Games. It “completely blew my mind,” as Cohen puts it, but as with so many highs, it came with “an incredible crash,” Shaun White shares.

“Now what? Where did everybody go?” White, a three-time gold medalist in snowboarding, says he would inevitably wonder when he returned from the Olympics. That led to a feeling of “dramatic emptiness.”

The ability of Olympic athletes to “hyper focus” is an asset that can also intensify the kinds of negative emotions that are common to most people, says Katie Uhlaender, a four-time Olympian in skeleton. “When you’ve spent all of this time, and it ends,” she adds, “it would be really hard not to become depressed.”

Two-time gold medalist Apolo Ohno, who won eight medals in short-track speedskating, says he knows of no Olympic programs to help athletes transition to a post-athletic career world. Also lamenting a lack of such help is Lolo Jones, who competed in both the Summer and Winter Games as a hurdler and a bobsledder.

“I’ve given my blood, sweat and tears, I’ve given my talent,” Jones says, “and all I am asking is that after it’s all said and done, someone can help me mentally get through this.”

Saying 80% or more go through some kind of post-Olympics depression, Phelps asks, “If your whole life was built around one race, one event, one performance, how does that sustain everything that comes afterward?”

“Who was I, outside of the swimming pool?” Phelps wonders.

THE ‘CONVEYOR BELT’

When an athlete is on the way up or at the top, he or she has every reason to feel like the next big thing or, with any luck, the current big thing. The realizations, though, that he or she is being fast replaced by the new next big thing, and that Olympic achievements are quickly receding into the past, can be painful and disorienting.

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Bode Miller said it was a challenge knowing there was always someone coming along to replace him was tough “from an ego standpoint.” Christophe Ena/Associated Press

Bode Miller, a six-time medalist in Alpine skiing over three Olympics, says he became keenly aware that his sport would not miss him. Knowing that there is always someone coming along to replace him was tough “from an ego standpoint.”

Some of the most memorable quotes in “The Weight of Gold” are delivered by Gracie Gold, a 2014 bronze medalist in figure skating who took time off from the sport in 2017 to attend to personal issues.

Gold, now 24 and attempting a comeback, says the experience of moving through the national program was akin to a “conveyor belt – they just have new athletes from every sport coming all the time.”

LACK OF FUNDING

Jones says she was “living off $7,000 a year” while trying to chase her Olympic dreams.

She recounts one episode when she was working in a gym as a track race of hers came on TV, leading to some confused looks.

Phelps notes that while he was “fortunate” to garner a slew of sponsorships, a less prominent member of the U.S. swimming team would have to make do with a stipend of $1,700 a month. “If that’s the only thing you have,” he says, “it’s almost impossible”

“The whole thought that going to the Olympics, and especially if you win a medal, sets you up for life, is such (expletive),” declares Gold.

LACK OF ATTENTION TO MENTAL ISSUES

Compounding the athletes’ challenges in coping with what Gold describes as the possible “side effects” of becoming an Olympian – including “an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation” – was what they perceived to be a glaring lack of concern for their mental well-being on the part of coaches and Team USA administrators.

Phelps says no one cared how athletes were feeling inside. “As long as we were performing,” he tells the camera, “I don’t think anything else really mattered.”

Part of the problem came from the athletes themselves, as Cohen explains, but even that tied into the culture of reaching the Olympics. “This is war. … You need to show the world that you are strong,” she says, noting that admitting mental health is a personal issue seems “so fundamentally at odds with being a competitor.”

Phelps agrees, describing Olympians as “definitely a group who want to keep their pain out of sight.”

“I think we all seem like something’s fine until we get to that one breaking point,” Gold says, “where either we’re fortunate enough for somebody to see us, or we’re not lucky, and we die.”

Phelps lists the names of U.S. Olympic athletes who took their lives in the past decade, such as aerial skier and silver medalist Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, rifle competitor Stephen Scherer, cycling silver medalist Kelly Catlin and judoka Jack Hatton.

The “news that may have hit the hardest,” he says, was death of bobsledding gold and silver medalist Steven Holcomb.

His 2017 death, recounted toward the end of “Weight of Gold,” may also come as a bit of a shock to viewers unfamiliar with his story, given that he is seen throughout talking to the camera about his struggles with mental health. No one, though, was as deeply affected as Uhlaender, a close friend of Holcomb’s who found his body at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y. It was later determined that he had a large amount of alcohol and sleeping pills in his system in what his family believes was an accidental death.

Uhlaender is shown tearing up at the memory of the tragic discovery of Holcomb’s body. “How did I not do something sooner?” she cries.

Other athletes featured in the documentary, including Phelps, Gold, Jones and David Boudia, a four-time medalist who won gold in 2012, share that they also considered suicide at various points.

The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee announced in April that it formed a Mental Health Taskforce to help support its athletes, but to some in the documentary, that’s too little, too late.

“I don’t think that they’re maliciously ignoring our well-being, I just don’t know that they realize it’s, like, a full crisis yet,” Gold says. “How many more dead Olympians do they need before they realize that there might be an epidemic here?”


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