An Olympic Mind

Updated: Oct 20

Our minds are arguably the most powerful tools that we have, so it comes as no surprise that mental health is a significant factor that contributes to our overall health. Without taking care of our minds, we are not always able to take care of our bodies or of other people in our lives. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “in any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness.” More specifically, in youth, it was also reported that “10-20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder.”

Bell Let’s Talk week in a program that runs in Canada that promotes mental health awareness in January. According to their website, their creation in 2010 arose because “numbers spoke volumes about the urgent need for action. Millions of Canadians, including leading personalities, engaged in an open discussion about mental illness, offering new ideas and hope for those who struggle, with numbers growing every year.” Collingwood held a mental health awareness week in the last week of January to recognise Bell Let’s Talk week and the message it represents. This year, I was lucky enough to talk to one of Collingwood’s most notable alumni, Emily Overholt.

Emily has been candid about her mental health journey in recent years. After the truly once-in-a-lifetime experience of winning a bronze medal for Canada in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Emily found returning to back to normal life difficult. Yet she had been contending with her mental health prior to this — when she had been juggling the stresses of being a high school student and training for Nationals and the Olympics.

She graduated from Collingwood School in 2016 after having been a lifer. Some of her most treasured memories from her times at Collingwood included her experiences at prom and graduation, and the events surrounding these special times. Mr Waterhouse, her Head of House, told me without hesitation that Emily was adored by her teachers at Collingwood and was a dedicated student who worked diligently to succeed at school despite her rigorous swimming schedule. During her time at Collingwood, Mr Speirs told me, she won seven gold medals at the BC High School Championships — three in Grade Eleven and four in Grade Twelve. She then went on to win a Bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics in Rio at eighteen years old after having competed in the Nationals.

Emily dedicated much of her time to swimming during high school and does not particularly remember any other clubs she participated in at Collingwood. She was often training for hours every day both in the pool and out, and currently estimates that she trains for 22 hours a week amongst her university studies. Adding the normal stresses of high school academics onto that, she had a lot on her plate. When asked about when she thought that the Olympics could be an attainable goal, Emily replied that she first started thinking of competing in 2014. She had always aspired to become an Olympian, inspired by Michael Phelps when she was younger. The first step that she took was to compete in the Nationals, and then she went to the Olympics to represent Canada in the summer of 2016.

She explained that while she found it to be exhilarating to be at the Olympics, it was difficult to return back to normal life. Not only was she returning from the Olympics, but she was returning back to start her first year at university — a transition for any student. Her struggle with mental health first started when she was contending with the stress of training for the Olympics, as well as maintaining her schoolwork. Emily felt that she was almost balancing too much, and felt the stress of being perfect — especially in swimming. These problems only amplified once she returned from Rio.

Throughout our interview, Emily emphasised the importance of maintaining a healthy balance and connecting with others to talk about mental health. Taking care of the basics such as eating and sleeping well were self-care techniques that she pointed out are simple but essential. She told me that she wished more people knew that it is challenging to tell if someone is contending with their mental health from outward appearances and that it is important we look out for one another.

Yet even as we strive to help one another, she brought up an excellent point. She said that we “don’t have to be a therapist for others,” but should try to give them resources to help and be there to listen. She said that it is so important that we reach out to others despite the fact that it can be daunting. Reaching out, Emily asserted, is the best thing that you can do and the first step you can take to address mental health. At a certain point, this can include seeking out professional help. To broach the topic of mental health into more every-day conversations, Emily advised that people talk to others and learn the correct terms to use when referring to mental health.

In terms of advice for managing the stresses of high school, Emily learned from experience that it is essential to be organised in schoolwork and homework, as this can set you up for success. She advised that young athletes who aspire to pursue a sport professionally should talk to their coaches, work hard, and push themselves by dedicating themselves to sport.

When asked about her mental health throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Emily acknowledged how much uncertainty there is at the moment. For instance, she is waiting to hear about whether she will be able to compete in the upcoming Olympics due to the uncertainty which coincides with the coronavirus pandemic. Emily said that she has continued to use her coping mechanisms such as maintaining a balance and reaching out to others during this time. This has been while she has been pursuing online classes, and was not able to train in pools until a few weeks ago because of the current restrictions.

Emily is currently pursuing a degree in Kinesiology at UBC and has aspirations of becoming a social worker. I thank her for her time and openness in explaining her mental health journey to me, and I wish her all the best, wherever the future takes her!

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