“Little girl, slow down!” a startled member of the ski patrol yelled after me as I sped past him and sailed down the hill.
“But it feels good!” I yelled back at him over my shoulder as I stuck to my course, according to my parents, who remember the incident.
I was 5 years old. From the time my dad first strapped my little boots on skis, when I was just 18 months old, skiing was my safe haven. Throughout my childhood, it was the thing I truly excelled at and could do effortlessly. It was like I told ski patrol that day — it just felt good.
And I was fast. At age 14, I made the United States Telemark Ski Association’s development team, and went on to join the World Cup team. At 16, on my home mountain, Steamboat Springs in Colorado, in front of my family and friends, I won a World Cup race.
Then I quit.
Skiing almost broke me. And I’m far from the only athlete with a story like this. Elite competitors past and present are starting to speak up about a reality that some coaches, doctors and sports associations have ignored or even intentionally covered up: World-class competitive sports can push children and young adults to the breaking point and sometimes beyond. It’s not just a few bad apples; it’s a culture singularly focused upon winning at all costs, a culture that sometimes disregards the mental and physical health of athletes.
The gymnast Simone Biles reignited this conversation at the Tokyo Olympics by showing the strength and grace to know when to step back and not compete. In doing so, she also showed us a path toward healthier sports. Now we — athletes, viewers, teams and sports associations — need to do our part to stop the shaming and better safeguard young athletes’ safety, health and futures.
I wish someone had gathered the courage to do what Biles did when I was still competing, because I sure didn’t. Skiing made me special. “You’re Zoë, the skier,” people would say. So when thoughts of quitting the sport cropped up, I pushed them down. Take away skiing, and poof — there goes special. I would just be Zoë. And who was Zoë without skiing? An awkward, average girl who was too nerdy to be cool, not seen as smart enough to be a nerd and too weird for everything else. So I skied.
Some days competitive skiing brought me so much joy, but some days it brought more pain and danger to my young body and mind than I could handle.
I didn’t feel I had a choice. I was tied down by a sport that was part of my identity, by the expectations of my hometown and by contracts that required me to compete in specific races. I felt there was no space for me to have a bad day, even when skiing on a bad day could mean — and for me did mean — landing on your head after a jump, almost breaking your spine and having chronic back pain for the rest of your life. I started to resent the sport that had once been my escape.
I competed on off days and I competed on dangerous days. The sport started hurting me, physically and mentally. I struggled with a concussion, with a back injury and with keeping up my grades.
Then, in 2014, during my first year of college, came the last straw. I learned that the dates for nationals were during a school week and would force me to miss classes. I reached out to the heads of the U.S. Telemark Ski Association and appealed to them. I told them I couldn’t miss more school. The association’s board of directors unanimously denied me a waiver.
Here’s how I heard the board’s response: You either care about this sport or you don’t. It felt to me like a choice between giving up my life and health for skiing or quitting. So I made the choice: I was out. I chose to violate my contract. I chose to give up my spot on the team. But really, I chose myself. I chose my future and my well-being.
And every day I am glad I did, even if it meant giving up what I thought made me special. I ended up working hard in undergrad, getting healthy and getting into one of the top medical schools in the country. I’m studying now to spend the rest of my life of helping others get healthy too.
I will be forever grateful that I was able to represent my country on the world stage, and to win a World Cup race for the United States. But what if there had been a Simone Biles a decade earlier? What if I had felt empowered to make the choices I needed to make to get healthy sooner? I could have kept my love for competing. I could have kept racing.
Simone Biles is leading a necessary cultural shift toward acknowledging that mental health is physical health. We must now broaden our definition of sports medicine to include mental health. Every stakeholder in a young athlete’s career — from coaches to spectators, teams and organizations — needs to recognize that mental health should be afforded the same time, rehabilitation and therapy as any other injury.
Now is the time to take Biles’s example and start a conversation about changing the structures, demands and expectations that make top young athletes risk their physical and mental health to represent their countries.
Zoë Ruhl is a women’s health advocate and a third-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. She competed as part of the United States Telemark Ski Team from 2009 to 2014.
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