My First Olympics and Its Unbearable Mental Toll

Why I finally tattooed the five rings symbol I never thought I deserved.

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As the conversation rages about Olympians and Mental Health, I’m thought I would share an excerpt from a new piece I wrote for Men’s Health about my own journey. (You can also jump straight into the full piece here).

The Olympics are no doubt an achievement of a lifetime, but for many athletes, the intense pressure takes its toll. That was certainly the case for me after my first Games in Athens and my second Games in Beijing.

I’ve done nearly 20 years of work course-correcting the unhelpful habits and thought patterns brought on by a maniacal pursuit of sport. Recently I commemorated that journey by finally getting a tattoo that I never thought I deserved.

At my first Olympics Games in Athens in 2004, I was 21—an adult by all standards but a baby of mind and spirit. For some athletes, a certain naivety about the psychological intensity of the Olympics can be helpful. However, when I stepped up to fence against my first opponent, a veteran Italian and former world champion, the pressure rushed in and strangled my nerve. 

I had what I now understand was a panic attack. After a few shaky points, my consciousness dislodged itself from my skull, my vision peeling backward from my eyeballs as if I was no longer sitting with my nose pressed against the windshield of reality. I felt like an observer trapped behind an impenetrable psychic buffer. Needless to say, I crashed and burned. 

That was my first event, my shot at individual glory; however, our team competition several days later ended somewhat tragically as well. Although I put forward a far more psychologically stable performance, my three teammates and I lost two consecutive matches by a single point. Had we won either, we would have left Athens with a medal. Instead, we ended up in what many elite competitors consider the armpit of athletic results. We finished in fourth.

After the Games, many of my fellow competitors raced to ink the Olympic rings on various parts of their bodies. Most displayed the symbol in full view: the shoulder; the inner bicep; the center of the upper back. Some would say Olympians perform this ritual so they can boast their accomplishments, literally, on their sleeve.

However, not all athletes opted for such public placements. One female athlete told me she’d nestled it along the pelvic groove that slopes southward toward the groin. In those cases, it serves as a future reminder when exiting the shower that, while your current life may lack the adrenaline haze it once had, in the past, you reached the top of the top. 

I had initially planned to tattoo the rings after Athens, but when I returned stateside, I hesitated. Then full-out stalled. Yes, I had put in the same blood, sweat, and tears as everyone else. But I didn’t feel that I hadn’t earned the right to inscribe the rings into my body with such permanence. I also worried that it would serve as a reminder of my failure. I'm already in shambles, I thought, why would I wound myself more?

Read the rest on

Department of Links

  • Better for You Than Porn: Why Men Are Reading Romance Novels — Esquire’s Adrienne Westenfeld wrote a really nice piece about this ever-important topic. I was honored to have the opportunity to share my thoughts! — Esquire

  • Among the Spiritual Bros — This is a great piece by Thomas Page-McBee on another rising men’s work organization called Sacred Sons. The question posed in the subtitle says everything: “How much genuine change can shirtless drumming circles, ancestral rituals and father archetypes really bring about?” — GQ

  • Remaking Manhood In the Age of Trump — You may recall my enlightening interview with writer and speaker Mark Greene. He’s back again with another book about the damaging effects of domination-based masculinity and its harmful effect in the age of Trump. Greene’s an intellectual agitator in the best possible way. His writing (and prolific tweeting) constantly pushes me to reexamine aspects about manhood that I never thought I would. This book will be no different. — Amazon

  • The Debate around one Olympic Fencer and Sexual Assault — It pains me to share some laundry from my own backyard. A fabulously reported piece by Buzzfeed dives into the controversy around fencer Alex Hadzic who was permitted to travel to the Games despite multiple accusations of impropriety from female fencers. He had been banned temporarily before the Games; however, a SafeSport arbitration judge (SafeSport is the independent organization investigating sexual misconduct within the Olympic movement) lifted that ban until a full review could be conducted, allowing him to travel to Tokyo. afeSport must fulfill its mission to keep athletes safe while ensuring that the adjudication process is fair. However, it’s baffling to me that the temporary ban was lifted by a judge, in part, because accusations were not recent. The arbitration process appears to have discounted the multiple efforts reported to have been made over the years to elicit definitive action. This should be yet another shocking signal that the protection of athletes is paramount & SafeSport needs to do more. I should add that USA Fencing has imposed strict safety precautions (he did not travel with other athletes and will not stay in the village). But still…His event begins tonight; however, as a substitute athlete, he is not guaranteed to fence. The world will certainly be watching to see what happens. — Buzzfeed

  • My psychologist had never seen a black man with self-harm scars — More brilliant work by Imam Amrani at the Guardian. She talks to writer and artist Derek Owusu about the black community and stigmas around mental health — The Guardian.

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