The Price of Perfection
Date Published: September 24, 2020
As a teenager, figure skater Gracie Gold won two US National titles and an Olympic bronze medal. But then depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder forced her to withdraw from competition and seek treatment.
Gold talks about the pitfalls of pursuing Olympic glory, and how the same qualities that make her an elite athlete also made it hard to spot red flags. “I will just keep going in a way that is admirable until it's destructive,” she says. After a life-threatening mental health crisis in 2017, Gold learned to reject toxic positivity and take a more balanced approach to life. Of her quest for the 2022 Olympics, she says, “This time it's not the fear of failure driving me. It's the pursuit of excellence.”
From the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games, to social isolation and anxiety, the pandemic has taken a toll on elite athletes’ mental health. A recent HBO documentary film, “The Weight of Gold,” spotlights those struggles and features interviews with Gracie Gold, Michael Phelps, Lolo Jones, and other Olympians.
From the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, this is Road to Resilience, a podcast about facing adversity. I'm Jon Earle.
Gracie Gold: 00:09
And they said, "Has anyone ever told you that it is okay to be upset that something happened and that you don't have to--your first instinct doesn't have to be, "How do I make this into something positive?" They were like, "You process trauma and events like a PR person."
My guest today is figure skater Gracie Gold. She's a two-time national champion and an Olympic bronze medalist. Gracie first came onto my radar at the 2014 winter games in Sochi. I was there, working as a country expert for an American broadcaster. Part of my job was to teach our announcers to pronounce Russian names. The hardest was Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, the Russian hockey coach. I'm not even sure I'm saying that one right, to be honest. Anyways, I worked the night shift, and I'd watch hours and hours and hours of sports until my eyes glazed over. But when Gracie Gold stepped onto the ice, I think the entire world sat up straight. She was precise. She was powerful. She was elegant. She was--perfect. But like for so many Olympians, perfection came at a very high price. After the games, depression and an eating disorder forced Gracie to take a break from skating. She went to rehab. And then, using new coping skills, she fought her way back. Today, she has her sights on the next winter games. This summer, she appeared in a new documentary about mental health and Olympic athletes called, "The Weight of Gold." She spoke to me earlier this month from her home outside Philadelphia. Gracie Gold, welcome to Road to Resilience.
Gracie Gold: 01:37
Thank you for having me.
You've been figure skating since you were eight years old. Do you remember the moment when you fell in love with it?
Gracie Gold: 01:45
It was instant. It was the first time that I got on that public session at the birthday party where I started skating. It was an immediate love, and it was unlike any other sport I had come across. And on the way out the door, I grabbed that flyer for the learn-to-skate program. And I had my mom sign me up.
What was it about skating? What grabbed you?
Gracie Gold: 02:10
It was the feeling of gliding and it was that constant movement. I was amazed with how, especially once you build up speed, that you can be totally still and you're still flying. There's no friction. It's just you, skates, blades, ice. Like the feeling of wind. The closest I had experienced would be swimming, that moment when you first dive into the water and right before you break the surface, that's kind of what skating feels like all the time.
How soon after that first time on the ice were you competing?
Gracie Gold: 02:49
Within a year, for sure. Maybe that next summer I was at least doing some very small, very low level, obviously, competitions. I guess you could just say it snowballed.
You've talked about figure skating as having gone from a hobby to a job to an obsession. When did it become unhealthy?
Gracie Gold: 03:11
It is a tricky question to answer and I've gone back and forth on it because there is some level--to compete at the Olympics, to be that good and well-trained at something, it requires some extreme behavior. Your life will be unbalanced because you are literally doing the most. And it was really like the summer of 2016 when it slowly started to get dark. But it was really not skating. It was all the things around skating, and it was the way that I handled the trials and tribulations of both life and skating. I handled those poorly.
What were some of the trials and tribulations that were hard for you to manage?
Gracie Gold: 04:03
So in skating, just as any other sport, there are ups and downs--injuries, coaching changes, and then the biggest one, of course, is not doing well at competitions. That kind of goes without saying that you will come across that. And I did. The 2016 world championships was one of the most traumatic things that had happened to me up to that point. And from the outside that never made any sense to anybody, because I was fourth. I was fourth in the world. But I was fourth in the world again. I was fourth at the Olympics. And then I think I was fourth at worlds, like, three times in a row or something. At least two times in a row. It was--obviously you went back to the drawing board, you tried to do all these things better, to be a better athlete, to be a better competitor, and then you still literally ended up with the same.
Is it correct to think that if you are skating and skating is your life, failure at skating is a failure as a human being. It's just crushing. Is that how it was?
Gracie Gold: 05:10
Yeah, on so many levels that fear of failure, the fear of letting people down, yourself down, but yeah, you devote your life to something--skating--and then it doesn't go well. You're unsuccessful at it. It's like, for what? And then therefore you are a failure. Your life's work is a failure. The sensation of letting all of these people down--that sucks. Letting your country down, to put it lightly, I would say that's a bummer. But it was, like I said, all of the things around the actual skating that made that moment very traumatic.
Gracie said there was personal stuff going on in her life, which, combined with the feeling that her career, her everything, was stalling, drove her depression. But even as she unraveled, she kept training. Elite athletes are nothing if not persistent. It's part of what makes them great. But it can be a shallow resilience, hiding problems under the surface. As an elite athlete, you're trained to power through.
Gracie Gold: 06:14
Correct. Just forge ahead, persevere, be resilient. I will just keep going in a way that is admirable until it's destructive. So when it came to my life burning down essentially in front of me, I just focused on what I could control, which is like the physical condition I was in. So things like eating disorders flourish in chaotic environments where--and it's the only thing that you can control. That's like a recipe for disaster. But my ED was psyched about it, so--
Who was psyched about it?
Gracie Gold: 06:59
Oh, my ED. My eating disorder. [laughs] Yeah, she was psyched. But yeah, like you said, I just kept going forward and I just figured something, just something would give.
Three years after the Olympics, she hit rock bottom. It was winter in Michigan. Dark and cold. Gracie could barely leave the house. She'd stay up for days, then sleep for 24 hours. She binge-ate and covered the mirrors to hide her changing reflection. Days when she brushed her hair and teeth--those were good days. She was just 21 years old. You were having suicidal thoughts?
Gracie Gold: 07:42
So I don't really identify with being actively suicidal. Like I didn't have any plans or anything like that, but I was aware that--I was like, "You know what would solve all of these problems? If I wasn't here anymore." And I had some sort of morbid curiosity in just seeing how bad things could get or just like what would be the end of this story.
When Gracie did finally open up to somebody, their advice made her feel even more alone.
Gracie Gold: 08:14
And I did have this heart-to-heart with this person, where I actually really told this person everything that was wrong. And she told me, she was like, "Okay, well, here's a quote: If you want to be happy, be happy." That was so upsetting because I no longer felt like telling someone what was actually wrong. Because what that told me is even someone who saw me every day didn't get it, or I was being just dramatic, so I felt so unseen by that that I no longer wanted to open up.
Fortunately, that summer, Gracie tried again. And this time, the response was exactly what she needed.
Gracie Gold: 08:57
They were like, "Oh, my God, this is some really heavy trauma." And they were like, "We recommend," they didn't say "we recommend," they said, "We would like to help you get help." Which is different because it's really easy to look at someone and be like, "They're insane. And they should do something about it," than to actually take that person's hand and be like, "You are not living your life the way that you want to or that you could, and there are enough things here that are preventing you from being your best self and your happiest self. And we would like to help you find your feet again. And we would like to walk with you as we find someone who's trained to get you through this." It was that offering of the hand and sitting with me in the dark as we like found our way. It simultaneously made me feel not alone. I felt like somebody cared. I felt validated. And I felt for the first time in a long time, maybe the most powerful emotion of all those was hope. I felt hope. And I felt like I could trust somebody. And it was the beginning of everything.
Gracie went to rehab. There, her skating bubble burst.
Gracie Gold: 10:23
It was this wild experience that--it was the first time I'd seen life outside of a rink. And it was kind of beautiful and extraordinary and, like, messed up. And, for example, my first day, I get in really late at night. And then I wake up in the morning. I'm kind of looking for the bathroom. My roommate busts open the door. She is totally naked. And she was like, "Oh, hey girl! What's up?" I was like, "Hi." Like grabs her clothes and puts them on, and she's like--oh, she holds out a pack of cigarettes and she's like, "I'm gonna go for a smoke. Do you want one?" I was like, "What is happening?"
At rehab she encountered the idea of toxic positivity. It's when there's such an emphasis on always being so positive, that there's no space for sadness or anger or grief. For Gracie, it was a revelation.
Gracie Gold: 11:22
Toxic positivity is something that I grew up around. And I was just so sick of people telling me to just "look on the bright side" all the time. Or, "It could be worse." I used to get that all the time. Or, "You're Gracie Gold, what do you have to complain about?" But yeah, that toxic positivity--it was the first time that an adult, like my therapist or a psychiatrist, people that were trained to call you on your BS. And they said, they were like, "Has anyone ever told you that it is okay to be upset that something happened? And that your first instinct doesn't have to be, "How do I make this into something positive?" And they were like, "You process trauma and events like a PR person." Literally, they were like, "It's like you're already writing the narrative on how this is going to be." When they're like, "You can just say, 'That sucks. This hurt me. This changed me as a person.'" Could be for better for worse, but the fact that it changed you--there are moments like that. And that was extraordinary to me. And I never encountered it in 21 years, 22 years of being alive.
We on the podcast, we talk a lot about reframing thoughts and being optimistic. And I hope we strike the right balance between being real and, as you said, validating that some experiences suck. They're just painful.
Gracie Gold: 13:04
But even the way that you framed--you acknowledged that it was painful. And then it's like that moment of then how do you process that pain so that it doesn't destroy you? And that it doesn't--because you meet people that just stay stuck in that moment of pain, where they never moved on in their entire life to the point where it's almost--their personality is their suffering. Which is like a shame, and it also makes them unbearable to be around. But a lot of the toxic positivity misses that moment of "this is painful" and then accepting that there's a lot of potential for it to change.
Can you share with us some of the coping strategies that you've learned in the last few years that have been really effective for you?
Gracie Gold: 14:10
I have found--I don't want to say "productive" art therapy, but as far as like, I really like interior design and I really like DIY projects. So like "Bob the Builder" kind of vibes, but that has been a really good outlet. And then that feeling of accomplishing a task, even though, you know, that seems really childish and simple, it releases feel-good chemicals in our brain no matter how simple it is. And then exercise has always been a big one. And it's also one of the very few outlets and coping mechanisms that I have for when I'm feeling angry. I didn't understand how to handle my anger for a really long time. So just suppressed it. I just pushed it down further and further, but exercise--and I discovered it more via weight loss. I'm sorry, weightlifting. Because I was more of a cardio person. And if you're mad on the elliptical, it's just not the right vibe. Like you can't "elliptical out" your anger. It's not really the right feeling for that, right? That's ridiculous. And I was never one for hot yoga, that didn't work for me as far as anger, because anger is a powerful emotion. And it's not a bad one. It has some gifts. And one of its main gifts is strength and power. So if I'm feeling angry and I'm having that rush of strength and power, I hit the gym. I get some weight on my back. I get under some heavy weight and I found that to be a very healthy, non-destructive coping mechanism.
You've worked your way back to competing at the elite level. And I know you've had a mantra through this period: trust the process. What does that mean to you, trust the process?
Gracie Gold: 16:18
So I skate in Aston, Pennsylvania, and the largest big city is Philly. So Philly loves their sports. And I've recently, over the past two years, fallen in love with basketball. And the 76ers--their brand slogan, that's why I'm always like, I didn't make this up, is "trust the process." And that's kind of how it started. And then two of my coaches are Eastern European, and it blew their minds. They were like, "Yeah, trust the process, trust the work that we're doing." We kind of did, like, "Trust the process," and then whoever--like, I say it to one of my coaches, then they say, "work the process" back, or vice versa. But, yeah, just trusting that process, working that process, and just trusting yourself as well, that the process that you have set up is a good one. And the right one for you.
You were one of the few athletes who appear in the film who's still training for the Olympics. What's driving you, first of all, and how is it different than last time?
Gracie Gold: 17:31
Well it's different than last time, so to speak, because I really pretty much did everything that you could do in skating. Like the Olympic medal, check, national champion, you know, we had checked a lot of boxes. And so this time it's not this feeling of, like, I have to or I'm a failure. It's not the fear of failure driving me or the fear of letting other people down. But it's more that pursuit of excellence. And then following my love of the sport to the highest place where you can do it, and the biggest stage for skating.
I understand you teach skating as well.
Gracie Gold: 18:19
And I'm sure you've had students come up to you and say, "Gracie, I want to be in the Olympics some day." What advice do you give them?
Gracie Gold: 18:27
I talk a lot about finding your why and making sure that you have an answer, that you have intentions, especially when it comes to the sport. Like, why am I training today? A lot of people are, like, "What am I doing today?" But typically you know what you're doing that day, but trying to find the why behind it is, at least in my opinion, more impactful and especially for me, helps with motivation. Where it's like, "What do I have to do today? Ugh, laundry." As opposed to, "Why, after this call, am I going to do my laundry?" So instead of just saying, "Ugh," I'm going to say, "Because you need to have clean skating clothes for tomorrow." So suddenly there's an important thing here. And so when it comes to skating, that's what I tell the kids. I'm like, "Why are you--why are we having this lesson right now? Why are you at this seminar? Why are you pursuing the Olympics?"
Gracie, the last question I want to ask you is, do you have any final thoughts that you'd like to leave listeners with?
Gracie Gold: 19:37
I have found that trauma and unfortunate things--these will happen to anybody. There will be traumatic events that almost kill you, emotionally or in some cases, I'm sure, physically. So acknowledge that pain and let it change you for the better, because it can. And that oftentimes happiness is closer than you think. A long evening spent with really good people that you can be real with--like, real people--can maybe not change your whole life, but it is very, very healing. And that no matter how terrible your life is going, I've done a lot of healing in those moments.
Gracie Gold, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast. It's been such a pleasure.
Gracie Gold: 20:38
Thank you for having me.
That's all for this episode of Road to Resilience. If you enjoyed the conversation, please rate and review on Apple Podcasts and tell a friend about us. Thanks. The film about Olympians and mental health is called "The Weight of Gold." It features Michael Phelps, Lolo Jones, and Apollo Ohno. It's really good. It's streaming on HBO. Trust me, you'll never look at the Olympics the same way again. Thanks again to Gracie and her team for making this episode happen. Road to Resilience is a production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. It's made by Katie Ullman, Nicci Hudson and me, Jon Earle. Our executive producer is Lucia Lee. From all of us here, thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.