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Katherine Nye opens up on training, living and competing with a mental health condition 

The American weightlifter discusses her mental health, training for the Games in her garage, and misconceptions of strength and physique in an exclusive interview with Olympics.com and the Olympic Channel podcast.
By Will Imbo

The painful diagnosis changed everything for Katherine Nye.

Everything.

In the summer of 2019, after a disastrous performance at the Junior Pan American Championships in which she failed to complete any of her lifts, the U.S. weightlifter was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder - a mental health condition that involves periods of depression and periods of elevated mood, called hypomania) and mild attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Ever since then the rising star has been going about her life in a different way in which she prioritises her mental and physical health.

“It’s very important to me as a bipolar person to not only talk about depression, anxiety, all those kind of things, but also things that maybe don't affect as many people. Conditions like borderline personality disorder and dissociative personality disorder, which aren’t as common. People have these ideas about these conditions that are often misconstrued by society, and the media is very guilty of this." - Katherine Nye to Olympics.com

A few months after she received her diagnosis, Nye, at 20 years old, became the youngest U.S. woman to win a world championship after claiming the gold in the women's 71kg division at the 2019 World Championships (she also set a junior world record in the snatch at the competition with a monster 112kg lift).

She was even named the International Weightlifting Federation's Best Woman Lifter of 2019.

Now 22, Nye is preparing for her first Olympic Games in Tokyo, where she will compete in the women’s 76kg division. Ahead of the 2021 U.S. National Championships, the former gymnast spoke with Olympics.com and the Olympic Channel podcast to discuss her goals for the Games, her mental health, body image in sports, and much more.

Below is a transcript of that interview, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Olympics.com (OC): You’re a few weeks away from competing at your very first Olympic Games. How are you feeling at the moment?

Katherine Nye (KN): My teammates and I talk about it quite a bit. I train with two other Olympians on the team, and we talk about how after waiting so long, and training so hard for four years and then adding another year due to the pandemic, it’s surreal that it’s finally happening. So now we’re training super hard so we can put our best foot forward [at the Games]. I’m just trying to enjoy everything and soak it all in; I plan on going for another Olympics, but it’ll never be like this one. I’m starting to get nerves; it’s insane that I’m getting competition nerves for the Olympics and not just another competition. So it’s all coming together and I’m really trying to enjoy it.

OC: Your journey over the past couple of years has been remarkable, and in April 2021, you officially qualified for the Tokyo Olympics after winning silver at the Pan American Championships. Can you share what was going through your mind in that moment you knew you had booked your spot for the Games?

KN: I think for me and for most weightlifters, we didn’t have an exact moment; it was more of a collection of moments over 18 months (with 12 more months added on after that). It was a really long process, and every single competition that we did for about two years was really important for Olympic qualification. So I didn’t have one do-or-die moment; I had several. So every single competition was a step forward and it was exciting because it [the Olympics] was a step closer. And then we finally got to the end, and I had my last meet in Argentina in 2019. And when I got off the stage there and knew I had pretty much locked in my spot, it felt so nice to take a deep breath and not have to feel like I’m fighting for my life every day!

And that was just a great feeling and a great honour. And I was very lucky to have qualified that early because I didn't have to sit around waiting for a whole year. I did have some anxieties about if they were going to change the qualification system entirely, so I was a little worried about that. But the current system stayed in place, so I was safe. So while there was an extra year of training and it was still hard, knowing I was most likely still going to the Olympics was a very secure feeling that a lot of people didn't have. So I'm thankful for that.

OC: You’re featured in an incredible article on ESPN in which you discuss how your diagnosis changed your life, and how you first started experiencing issues with your mental health in high school. Can you share what you were going through at that time?

KN: Most of my childhood was consumed by gymnastics, so I think when I decided to leave that sport and just kind of start my life over, it was definitely a shock to me socially, emotionally, mentally, and physically. Everything changed for me in the blink of an eye. Like the people I spent all my days with, I never saw them really again. And I just had all this free time and a lack of passion, really. And I feel that having too much free time — most of the time — doesn’t lead to good things.

So I definitely needed something to keep me busy, and thankfully I found CrossFit and later weightlifting that would fill that time. It was a hard time, and I still struggle. It wasn’t just a situational mental illness; I think it was the start of it. And I’ve been struggling with it ever since, but I’ve gotten older and better and I understand my symptoms more now. I’ve improved, and living with something [like a mental health condition], you just learn to cope and how to deal with it and it gets better.

OC: In recent years more and more athletes such as yourself are sharing their stories with regards to mental health. But do you think more needs to be done to shed more light on what people may be going through?

KN: I think mental health is getting a lot more attention, which is great, but I do think it often stops at the ‘popular’ mental health issues. A lot of people fight depression, anxiety, ADHD, and these things definitely need to be talked about — there is nothing wrong with that. But I feel like the conversation often stops there, and a lot of people don't even understand something as simple as OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder], for example. A lot of people think people with OCD like to be neat, or that labelling someone with a personality disorder is almost an insult against people that might not have the most desirable personality traits, but that’s not how it works. These things are very complicated, and you might not even know who has these things because they cope with them; they put a mask on and they present themselves as functioning, mentally healthy people.

It’s very important to me as a bipolar person to not only talk about depression, anxiety, all those kind of things, but also things that maybe don't affect as many people. Conditions like borderline personality disorder and dissociative personality disorder, which aren’t as common. People have these ideas about these conditions that are often misconstrued by society, and the media is very guilty of this. For example, I’ve seen a lot of movies that portray people in certain ways that can be really harmful to an entire community of people that suffer with that mental health issue. I’ve seen it time and time again, and I think it can be really harmful to have these conversations that don't stem from real-life experiences and not just one person that's a celebrity or a movie or a fictional story, because that can be really harmful and it can make people out to be something they're not. So raising awareness about mental health conditions and making them ‘human’ is very important to me. I believe that we should lift people up who are struggling instead of judging them.

OC: Weightlifting and Olympic weightlifting in particular is renowned for making people feel strong and empowered. How does training and competing in the sport make you feel?

KN: Weightlifting is unique in a lot of ways. People think that it’s just about raw strength and whoever’s the strongest, and while I think that anyone can get super strong through weightlifting, it’s more about who puts in the work, who focuses on technique, mobility, body awareness and how to save a lift — things like that. 

Weightlifting is very technically tedious. Of course, we’re also working hard to get strong, which is the ‘grind’ part of the sport where it’s not pretty and it’s really hard on our bodies. And then there are days when you’re working on technique, and you want to slam your face into a wall because the technique just isn’t working out the way you want it to. Weightlifting is very technically tedious, but it’s also very multifaceted; I feel as if people don’t see the sport in the same way.

When you’re in a competition, and you’re going for the heaviest lift(s) of your life, your technique has to be perfect and you have to hope that your strength is where it needs to be. And when you do make a big lift on stage, it is just the most empowering to feeling to know that not only are you strong and powerful and one of the best in the world, but you have also refined your technique to the point of near perfection. And those moments are what make weightlifting the best sport in the world to me.

OC: You have plenty of videos on your Instagram page of you training in your home gym, with the Olympic rings on the wall. Tell us more about this awesome setup!

KN: Some family members helped me and my husband convert our little one-car garage into a gym in early 2020, before covid. We just kind of put that gym together and made it usable for me to train in for the 2020 Olympics. When covid rolled around, I had a lot of free time on my hands just like everyone else, and I was trying to do something with the wall in my garage because it was empty and it [the garage] looked empty. So I decided to put the rings up there as a daily reminder of what I worked so hard for and what I'm working towards. Above the rings I’ve put all my important medals to remind me of how far I’ve come come. So those things help sometimes when I’m squatting and I’m staring at it, and I think to myself, “You better not mess up because you’re training for something kind of important here.”

OC: How important has your husband been in your journey?

KN: My husband has been incredibly helpful. I think that I didn't even realise how bad my mental health had become until he became really worried and insisted on me doing something about it. So he was incredibly helpful with regards to those next steps on how to get help, and was incredibly supportive and always made sure I was OK first and foremost. And it's nice to have someone that has no ulterior motive other than to be there for you. It’s really important to have a support system, because you can go to the therapist and get your medicine and whatnot, but when it comes down to it, you need someone to be there for you when you need them, and Noah has been that person for me.

OC: In April you shared a post detailing your jump in weight classes from 63kg to 76kg, and the corresponding impact it had on your relationship with your body. Have you experienced any negative stigma with regards to your physique?

KN: Circling back to what I was saying about pop culture and media, we often see these big, muscular, strong men that are often doping, and I think that becomes our vision of what strength looks like. But when it comes down to it, size doesn't necessarily mean strength. It’s an important subject that I like to talk about because sometimes people are surprised that I'm a weightlifter, simply because I’m not some huge woman with defined muscles. It’s important to remember that weightlifting and lifting weights in general is for everyone, and it’s good for everyone. We need to remember that people’s appearances aren’t what defines them.

I think weightlifting is a testament to that because we have people of all shapes and sizes on our team, which is pretty cool. I don’t think there are a lot of other sports that have a 49kg athlete and a 140kg athlete competing in the same discipline — that’s very cool. I think it shows that weightlifting is for everyone and everyone has their place in it.

OC: Let’s talk about the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo. What are your main goals for the competition?

KN: First and foremost, I want to feel like I did everything I could have done and I put my best effort out there. My second goal is to get a medal, and my third goal is to make it [the medal] gold.

I just want to represent the U.S. to the best of my ability, and wherever that lands me, that's where it'll land me. That's not to say I wouldn't be disappointed if I didn't achieve some of the goals I want to achieve, but like I said, you can't be mad at your best — there’s only so much you can do. So hopefully my best is the best.