Team USA athletes discuss mental health, effects of the pandemic in Beijing 2022 preparations

Paralympian Andrew Kurka says “I am an adaptive athlete, so I will adapt and I will overcome. It is a disadvantage, but it’s the same disadvantage that the other countries have.”

KURKA Andrew, LW12-1, USA, Giant Slalom at the WPAS_2019 Alpine Skiing World Cup, La Molina, Spain
KURKA Andrew, LW12-1, USA, Giant Slalom at the WPAS_2019 Alpine Skiing World Cup, La Molina, Spain

Media organizations around the world had the opportunity to speak with top Team USA athletes this week at the 2022 Team USA Media Summit. Mental health and the effects of the pandemic featured prominently among the topics discussed at the summit.

Becca Hamilton, a one-time Olympian in curling, perhaps best summed up the attitude that many athletes displayed during the summit, saying, “honestly, our main focus is just on the Games; doing whatever we can to make sure we’re prepared for the trials and moving forward is kind of what we’re focused on.”

When asked about the effects of the pandemic and the cancellation of test events, Ryan Cochran-Siegle, a 2018 Olympian in alpine skiing, said “it seems like the whole Covid protocol is the same as last year, so we’ve gone through a whole season of it and kind of understand what’s required of us; staying in our bubbles and obviously doing our best upkeeping with our hygiene, and doing whatever we can.

“It’s a new world, especially in the world of sport in how you handle that. I think it’s nice having gone through it last year, and having that experience. It is what it is. We all have to work through it.”

One-time Paralympian Thomas Walsh echoed Cochran-Siegle’s sentiments, commenting, “Yeah, we’re going into uncharted territories for the [Paralympic] Games in this condition, for winter specifically.”

He continued, “I know me, [Andrew] Kurka, and Ryan have really traveled the world through a lot of this pandemic when it was safe and allowed, but having that experience in the practice of wearing a mask in certain training areas, and spending a lot of time with your teammates and your coaching staff extensively during this time will actually help us when we get to the Games; when we’re put in maybe even a more secure bubble.”

Andrew Kurka, a gold medalist in the downhill at the PyeongChang Paralympics, put it even more eloquently, stating, “I am an adaptive athlete, so I will adapt and I will overcome. It is a disadvantage, but it’s the same disadvantage that the other countries have. I rely on my coaching staff, my equipment, and my team to help get us through it. I have faith that we go in just as prepared and just as ready as the other teams.

He added, “You know, it’s something that we have to deal with in today’s current world; it’s a pandemic, it’s unhealthy, but we need to do our best to stay safe. We are still going to do our best to win, and so that’s what I’m going to do.”

Much of the discussion at the summit centered around mental health, with both journalists and athletes alike focusing on the topic.

Curling generic (WCF/Celine Stucki)
Curling generic (WCF/Celine Stucki)

Olympic hopeful curler Jamie Sinclair, stated, “the biggest thing that the pandemic impacted as far as my training goes was my sports psychology training. Everything was shut down, and I was stuck at home.”

“I have a little home gym, but it’s not nearly as nice as what I’m used to at the training house. I spent a lot of time virtually meeting with my sports psychologist, and working on that aspect of the game.”

She concluded, “in a lot of ways, it’s still underrated how important this aspect is for top performance. I think that probably got the most amount of my attention during the pandemic when everything else was shut down.”

Matt Hamilton, a member of the men’s curling team that won the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics, expanded on the importance of sports psychology later in the summit, saying, “sports psychology in our sport is massive because it’s such a mental game. It’s a long game, the ten end games can be up to three hours long, so trying to keep that mental focus can be really challenging.”

He added, “Carly [a sports psychologist working with Matt’s team], made herself very available to us during Covid, which obviously a lot of people were struggling with some mental health issues.”

“Me, personally, I’m very much a social butterfly, so not having the ability to see people and be around people; I definitely dipped a little bit. I got a little bit anxious, and I’ve never really felt anxious about anything before. Carly was a great kind of crutch to lean on, and get some good feedback on how to deal with some of those things.”

Olympic hopeful in figure skating, Mariah Bell, was asked for her thoughts on the debate within the International Skating Union (ISU) about raising the minimum age for competition due to mental health concerns. She responded, “to be completely transparent, I didn’t know that was something that was being talked about. I think that regardless of age, mental health is a huge piece of all athletes, so I don’t think that it would be a bad thing.”

Bell, who is 25, continued, “regardless of how old you are, I think some people can manage things better at a younger age, some people can manage it better at an older age; it’s completely individual, but mental health is a huge piece of athletes. It is really cool that the ISU is sort of speaking on that topic and kind of throwing some ideas out there to help combat any issues that might be arising with mental health.”

When asked later about dealing with the “bigness” of everything going on in the world currently, Bell added, “the biggest thing for me is keeping things in perspective.”