Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

TrueSport - the athlete support programme run by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) - lived up to its name this week as it staged an extended discussion on Mental Wellness & The Young Athlete. Rarely can so much truth have been spoken by elite athletes.

Noah Lyles, the world 200 metres champion and Tokyo 2020 bronze medallist, Sochi 2014 ice skating bronze medallist Gracie Gold and Deja Young-Craddock, double sprint gold medallist at the Rio 2016 Paralympics and bronze medallist at Tokyo 2020 illuminated the dark underside to sporting success as they recounted their own convoluted experiences.

Before the talking began, I spoke to Lyles - virtually - about his own recent journey in this deeply troubling landscape.

Lyles has been a rocketing sprint talent in recent years, winning three Diamond League titles over 200 metres before he was 23 and moving to fourth on the all-time list with a 2019 clocking of 19.50 seconds shortly before winning the world title.

But when the Dark Ages arrived for sport and society in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic the exuberant and multi-talented Lyles seemed more affected by it than some of his fellow athletes.

In 2020 Lyles spoke publicly about his mental health. "Recently, I decided to get on antidepressant medication," he tweeted. "That was one of the best decisions I have made in a while. Since then I have been able to think without the dark undertone in mind of nothing matters. Thank you God for mental health."

The reaction of American college cross country coach Peter Early to this news was representative of many others: "I doubt anyone would have thought 'Noah Lyles seems depressed'," he tweeted. "Which shows how these things can literally impact anyone. Do not be afraid to ask for help people."

At this year’s Tokyo 2020 Olympics, in an empty stadium, Lyles ran well - but not as well as he could. He took bronze in the 200m, clocking 19.74 behind fellow American Kenny Bednarek, who ran a personal best of 19.68, and Andre De Grasse, who took gold in a Canadian record of 19.62.

Shortly afterwards, at a Eugene Diamond League meeting at which spectators were allowed, Lyles ran 19.52, with his younger brother Josephus coming second in 20.03 ahead of Bednarek.

"Every time I lose I come back stronger 19.52!!!!!!" Lyles tweeted, telling reporters later: "I wasn't really feeling that my mindset was right for today but I feel like five sessions of therapy I was able to let go of what happened in Tokyo and convince myself that I know I'm upset and I know I'm in great shape to run and come out here and be able to put it on the track."

And then he took in the topic to which he had referred in his brief tweet: "I don't think you understand how lifeless it was in Tokyo to have no crowd there. It was dead silent. To come here and see a whole lot of people who love track, it was just amazing to see."

Asked to reflect on his announcement last year, Lyles told insidethegames: "It was pretty straightforward. It wasn’t really an issue of what people think about me.

"It was more a situation where I felt that the anti-depressants worked really well, and I knew that a lot of people were now probably struggling with anxiety and depression, and I just wanted to kind of break a stigma that ‘people don’t have to go on medication’ or ‘medication is a bad idea, it’s for people who are crazy…’”

Turning to his experience of Tokyo, he added: "I definitely feel it affects some athletes more than others. In terms of how it affects me, it wasn’t just not having a crowd, it was definitely not having even my team there. I didn’t have my chiropractor there, it was very hard for me to get in touch with my sports therapist because we were on completely different time zones.

"My mom was not there, my brother wasn’t there, my coach wasn’t even in the Olympic Village, I only got to see him when we were practising, so on top of that, going into an arena that’s basically empty, it’s very anti-climactic.

Noah Lyles, second right, takes bronze in the Tokyo 2020 200 metres final in an empty stadium behind winner Andre De Grasse of Canada and fellow American Kenny Bednarek ©Getty Images
Noah Lyles, second right, takes bronze in the Tokyo 2020 200 metres final in an empty stadium behind winner Andre De Grasse of Canada and fellow American Kenny Bednarek ©Getty Images

"I remember coming back from the Olympics and getting ready for the Diamond League meeting in Oregon, and me and my brother were going to be in the 200, and thinking like, ‘oh yeah, this is cool’, and we were warming up and seeing more fans there than there were at the Olympic Trials.

"And they walk us out onto the track, and I remember the crowd getting hyper and going crazy, and I was like: ‘Oh yeah. I have missed this feeling, This, is, legit what I like to see.’ I could really feel my energy increasing little by little until we actually got up to the blocks and we were setting up.

"And I was thinking I can actually put on a show now. It definitely awakened the showman in me."

Asked if he thinks many other Olympians are on anti-depressants, he replied: "To be honest, I don’t know. A lot of people like to hide their personal lives. That’s not bad, as long as they are getting help for it if they need it. I do believe that everybody deals with mental struggles in one form or another.

"It’s not as easy as ‘I am depressed’ or not. You can be in that very easy medium of you are on the circuit and you are extremely tired through travelling, and you are homesick. That is mental stress right there.

"Last year I was diagnosed with depression. I had just been able to handle it really well. But as we went to lockdown the Black Lives Matter movement started increasing, and every day it seemed like I was seeing another young person dying in the street, followed by a school shooting, followed by me not feeling like I could do anything….

"Even practice was hard, and you weren’t getting that energy out. Nobody was really happy, everything was really stressful. That definitely took me over the edge in terms of how much I could handle."

So is the mental discipline that elite performers have in common of any help in such situations?

World 200m champion Noah Lyles shared his personal experience of mental health issues at last week's TrueSport discussion organised by USADA ©TrueSport
World 200m champion Noah Lyles shared his personal experience of mental health issues at last week's TrueSport discussion organised by USADA ©TrueSport

"It’s definitely a separate thing," Lyles said. "You can definitely be in a very strong depressed state and somebody can come up to you and be like, listing off all your achievements, saying you are such and such a person, the fastest person in the world, had the most fastest times, three Diamond Leagues, world champion…and all you are hearing is ‘nothing, nothing, nothing…’

"It’s like none of that is important, none of that gives you joy, none of that is likeable. It’s literally like, ‘why are you telling me this thing? I don’t care about this.’

"So having achievement when you are in a depressed state is pointless.  Everything just kind of feels pointless.

"This is definitely a newer feeling. I’ve had situations where it was similar. When I was in high school, whenever it became cold during the winter months I struggled a lot with - I would call it seasonal depression. It would come on very strong.

"I would be a lot more aggressive towards people. I wouldn’t want to talk to anybody. All I would want to do was run. I didn’t want to be in school. I didn’t want to be around people. I only wanted to train, and get out, and do it again."

His statement last year evoked a widespread reaction.

"A lot of people have talked to me about it on quite a few platforms and even in person," he said. "People were like, I saw your interview and it was very heart-moving."

Lyles and his brother have since established the Lyles Brothers Sports Foundation to "empower youth through the advancement of health and wellness in the community."

"Through the Foundation we were doing a lot of talks around the East Coast, and I remember when my mom was telling me, ‘oh, remember when we talked here? One of the parents got their child into therapy and said they are doing a lot better…’

"So just little things like that are really nice. I get a lot of parents of children, asking me how I got through. And I tell them I had a great support system."

In her opening remarks before the session in which the three athletes were involved, Dr Jennifer Royer, TrueSport’s education director, made clear the severity of the situation with regard to mental health among young Americans.

"We are seeing challenges for people’s health, people’s mental wellbeing, that is on a scale we have never seen before," she said.

"We have an opportunity as leaders in this space to take a step forward….we are willing to say to young people - it’s OK to raise your hand and say ‘I am struggling with this’.

"Because just like we would recognise a physical difficulty... we need to do the same for their mental and emotional wellbeing. And this is the moment to do it…

"The timing couldn’t be better for this discussion. The Surgeon General recently put out a mental health advisory acknowledging that something like one in three high school students in America has prolonged, sustained feelings of sadness and hopelessness. That is a staggering statistic.

"If you have multiple children in your own home, there’s a solid chance, better than average, that one of them is dealing with some of these type of challenges."

Young-Craddock, who won gold in the T46 100 and 200 metres at the Rio 2016 Paralympics and earned T47 100m bronze at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, recounted a sequence of events that had the nadir of a suicide attempt in May 2016.

"I didn’t start my pro career until 2015," she said. "I was a full-time student, I was pre-medication at the time. And I was struggling. I went to my first World Championships, went through it, and then I was behind in classes, I was behind in everything -  training, everything.

"In 2016 the trials for the Rio Paralympics came along and I told my coach I was struggling and I needed help. And there was a reaction like “everything seems fine, you’re a professional athlete, you’re a full-time student, books are paid for, everything is paid for, so I don’t understand what you are struggling with.’

"And unfortunately I had a suicide attempt in May 2016. And I struggled. It was hard. I ended up being admitted for about 72 hours and stayed an extra two days at the institution.

"I got help that I needed and I realised that I had an option. I had the option to either just sit back and let that engulf me, or I had an option to get better. And that’s what I did.

"I ended up going to Rio in 2016 and did great there and in 2017 I decided to come out with my story because I needed to be the person I needed when I was struggling. I wanted to be able to help prevent what was going on, and I always said if I could save a life that would mean more to me than a medal."

Gold’s decision to open up about her own mental health struggles - including her treatment for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder - created huge ripples within the world of ice skating.

She also recalled how she had suicidal thoughts after moving alone to Michigan in 2017 after finishing fourth for a third consecutive time at the 2016 World Championships and isolating herself in her apartment.

She has since returned to skating having redefined her goals, seeking a healthier approach to the sport as she seeks to qualify for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

Noah Lyles and double Paralympic sprint champion Deja Young-Craddock look on as Gracie Gold recounts her experience at the TrueSport discussion about athletes and mental health issues ©TrueSport
Noah Lyles and double Paralympic sprint champion Deja Young-Craddock look on as Gracie Gold recounts her experience at the TrueSport discussion about athletes and mental health issues ©TrueSport

Recalling her 2016 World Championships disappointment, Gold said: "I had built it up to be just the most important thing I could ever do in life - to win these World Championships.

"They were being held in Boston, where I was born and where I qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and the US women had had a nine-year long medal drought, and - was I going to break that?  

"I had won the short programme. And I cracked under that pressure. That was the first time I felt that I really didn’t deliver when there was a lot of pressure on me and that was hard.

"I couldn’t get back into training. I wasn’t excited for the next season. The light had kind of gone out with me and I wasn’t, for the first time, obsessed with skating.

"I just felt like a piece was missing and I didn’t know what to do with that and I was invalidated a lot because I guess a lot of people thought I was just making a big stink out of being in fourth place, like, ‘oh do you know how many people wish they could make fourth place, Gracie?’

"But I didn’t know at the time that that was going to start this like downward spiral, so to speak. And by the next fall, after a terrible season, I ended up in a mental health facility for 45 days.

"I was severely depressed. I had almost became a little agoraphobic - even leaving my apartment to do anything. I remember distinctly looking out of the window and thinking: ‘does the world really need more of me? It seems like everyone is fine out there without me.’ I wasn’t skating, wasn’t training. I wasn’t really doing a lot.

"I had a lot of suicidal ideation and I ended up in a treatment facility and I guess what started my passion for mental health issues was when I went to put out a press release on my mental health issues - there was a little bit of pushback and some people thought ‘oh what if you said you were injured?’

"Because that’s palatable in the sports world, because if an Olympian is physically injured it’s the best doctors, best treatment in the world, everyone rushes to your aid. But if it is mental issues - and not just for athletes - then people tend to take a step back.

"People invalidate it, and say like ‘what do you have to be depressed about? What do you have to be depressed about? You are an Olympian, you have all this stuff going for you….’  

"My story made a huge impact in the skating world because no one had ever really come forward on such a scale and I just realised the lack of knowledge or understanding or resources available for Olympic or elite athletes with mental health issues.

"There is everything you could ever want for any injury. But as soon as there is something wrong in your brain, people are floundering.

Gracie Gold of the United States en route to Olympic bronze in the Sochi 2014 figure skating competition ©Getty Images
Gracie Gold of the United States en route to Olympic bronze in the Sochi 2014 figure skating competition ©Getty Images

"Figure skating has unique pressures. One of the big ones that started when I was quite young is that there is an aesthetic component to figure skating. It is a lean body sport and there is a certain look to a figure skater.

"Everyone can close their eyes and picture what does an Olympic figure skater look like? There’s not a lot of variety or diversity, typically, in that mental image.

"And when I was at middle school and high school and going through puberty that’s a difficult time to have a bunch of people commenting on what your body looks like and trying to cut weight during those years.

"It wasn’t just pressure about doing well, it was about how I looked while I was doing it. Because in figure skating the whole design is to do the hardest things possible while making it look effortless, in a very small dress, in front of millions of people, while you are in high school or college so…Yikes! Looking back that’s where some of the extra pressure came from.

"People can be comfortable with depression if it manifests in the way they understand it. So everyone is really supportive of depression if it's after some sort of event that they perceive is tragic enough, and if it’s like crying, with mascara running down in the shower.

"But if it's like your feelings of depression are manifested in being what's perceived as laziness, or under-achieveing, or irritability, or temper, suddenly no one is comfortable because it starts affecting their relationship with you. They don't get it.

"It's no longer comfortable and it becomes clear that we live in a world that doesn’t really understand mental health.

"So the people that took the time to think ‘is this super-high-achieving Olympic athlete actually just suddenly becoming lazy or is something else going on? Are these symptoms of something else?

"And the ones that were able to think about that were the ones that helped me the most, because they saw through some of the superficial symptoms and I felt safe talking with them because they weren’t yelling at me or picking on me or just suddenly saying I am just super-lazy out of nowhere."

Recalling the growing pressure he felt in 2020, Lyles said: "When the Olympics got postponed - now you are like: ‘Shoot!’ I had kind of built every year off of a last year base. And not having that base any more means I am almost starting from scratch.

“And you are waiting for those times you were hitting last year. And you’re like, two years ago or last year I was at this point, and now I’m not even close, and you are like – ‘is it going to come? Am I going to hit it? This is scary! It’s like, Hey God, if you want to stop joking around now we can start!’

"I got back to a point where I was running really fast again, and I knew I was going to PR and everything, and we were at the Olympics. And it didn’t hit.

"And I was really hurt. I am still very hurt. But after letting go of the pressures of people bragging about me on social media, expecting me to do things when they want to, having to go do a whole bunch of press releases and everybody saying ‘oh, you are going to be the next Usain Bolt’, knowing that in two years they are going to be calling some other kid the next Usain Bolt - was able to re-solidify myself as the fastest man in the event.

"That was a lot of pressure that I couldn’t even understand when I was in it, how much it was actually affecting me."