Former Swimmer Emily Klueh on Why Olympic Athletes Need Mental Health Support
The former Team USA swimmer is headed to Tokyo as a mental health officer for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, helping elite athletes care for their minds as well as they care for their bodies.
Why did you become a mental health officer?
When I was an athlete, I struggled a lot with anxiety, body image, disordered eating patterns, and confidence. And all of those things affected my performance, the way I viewed myself socially, and how I interacted with people. When I started seeing a therapist, we worked on building confidence in who I was. That was really the turning point for my sport career. It gave me a belief system in myself, which is what I needed. We often forget that athletes have their own internal struggles. There's a lot of failure. And sometimes those get overlooked in the process of being great and working toward success. Being somebody who's been in that position, I wanted to be a resource for those who feel similarly.
Are you excited to work with Paralympians?
Yes, there are two mental health officers going to the Olympics and two to the Paralympics. I'm going to the Paralympics. I find the resiliency and strength in what Paralympic athletes are able to do and overcome and the tenacity that they have really admirable. I'm really looking forward to working with them.
So what does your job entail?
If an athlete doesn't perform the way they want to and they're experiencing failure or hardship, mental health officers serve as an external source that they can talk to in that moment. If there are any crisis situations that arise while at the Games, we're the first point of contact. I also work with athletes to manage what's called post-Olympic drop, or post-Olympic depression. It's pretty common because so often we identify ourselves as our sport instead of more than our sport. And at any type of major championship, that's intensified significantly. My job is to help the athletes move forward in their lives after the Games end.
How has the pandemic changed the role you'll play in helping the athletes at the Paralympics?
This year is going to be different because there won't just be disappointment in a performance, but also with COVID, we don't know if families are going to be able to go. So we have to be that support system. There's a lot of unpredictability and things we can't really plan for.
What's your favorite initiative that you've worked on since joining the team?
We're currently working on a mental health registry. This would provide a broad network of mental health professionals that athletes can utilize across all 50 states. So our athletes can connect with somebody in the state where they train and get the immediate support and care that they need to continue training at a high level. We have lots of athletes who struggle with mental illness. But that doesn't have to take them out of their sport; it doesn't have to take them away from what they're trying to accomplish.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
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