Three winter sports athletes and the coping mechanisms they use to manage their mental wellbeing

On World Mental Health Day, reveals universal wellbeing tips from Winter Olympians Lindsey Vonn, Patrick Chan and Gus Kenworthy.

By Jo Gunston
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

After a Summer Olympics in which mental health was brought to the fore, particularly by artistic gymnast Simone Biles who withdrew from five event finals to protect her physical and mental wellbeing after she struggled with an aerial awareness issue called the 'twisties', the winter sports athletes are now stepping up and keeping the dialogue open.

So looks at three winter Olympians – past and present – to see how they manage their own mental wellbeing.

Lindsey Vonn and her furry friends

Lindsey Vonn - 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games
Picture by 2010 Getty Images

It took more than a decade for now-retired alpine skiing legend, Lindsey Vonn, to speak openly of her depression, an illness that runs in her family.

The three-time Olympic medallist, who started on the World Cup circuit aged just 16 in 2000, only began to open up about dealing with her depression in 2012, revealing that she had been taking anti-depressants to manage her symptoms.

As well as medication, Vonn also sees a therapist, something she believes everyone should do, but an additional coping mechanism for the soon-to-be 37-year-old is her furry friends.

While recovering from a knee injury that caused her to miss the Sochi Games in 2014, Vonn adopted one of her dogs, Leo. She also famously brought another, Lucy, with her as a travelling companion at competitions at the end of her career, including to the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018.

"I think dogs give you a level of unconditional love and support that you don't, unfortunately, get from humans," Vonn told USA Today Sports. "Lucy doesn't know that I ski race. She doesn't care. She's just happy every time I walk through the door. For me, that always gave me a sense of peace and stability. And it grounded me, because it made me keep everything in perspective.

“We should all take mental health seriously and do our best every day to make sure we're taking care of it," said Vonn, who also spoke on the International Athletes' Forum panel in May, which was opened by the chair of the IOC Athletes Commission Kirsty Coventry.

Gus Kenworthy on asking for help

Gus Kenworthy
Picture by 2014 Getty Images

In April 2020, in the midst of the global pandemic, freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy posted a lengthy caption on Instagram apologising for being ‘MIA’ – missing in action – from social media for a six-week period. He was struggling to manage his depression during the lockdown phase, he said, but he took to the platform to acknowledge that many people were also going through it and offered advice to his not inconsiderable one million followers to do something he acknowledged he personally had always struggled to do: ask for help.

“In school, in sports and in life I've always hated asking for help because I've wanted to seem strong, brave, tough, self-assured, etc but I've realised that sometimes you just need help and when you do you need to ask for it. It's literally what friends are for. Swallow your pride and text a friend saying "I'm feeling really down, can you talk?" It will help.”

The British-born America-raised 30-year-old, who was the silver medallist in a USA 1-2-3 slopestyle lock-out at Sochi 2014, will compete for Great Britain at Beijing 2022, potentially taking part in three events – slopestyle, Big Air and halfpipe. Kenworthy told People in August that his third Olympics will be his last but that he's ready to make the most of his last Games experience.

"It's so soon, it's actually crazy. This (the Tokyo 2020 Olympics where he was working for broadcaster NBC) has been really motivating for me, so I feel like this put me in a good head space going into it.

"I'm excited to kind of give it one more, and do the best I can. And it would be incredible to medal, but I'm just looking forward to having a good performance and then getting to walk away with my head held high."

Talk says Patrick Chan

Patrick Chan
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Four months before the last Winter Olympics at PyeongChang 2018, three-time world figure skating champion, Patrick Chan, was struggling. The now-retired Canadian skater told CBC Radio in August: "I was burnt out. I did not want to be at the rink ... It felt like such a daunting task to get myself physically prepared and then mentally prepared to go to the Olympics.”

Nevertheless, Chan made it to South Korea coming away with gold in the team competition but a disappointing – for him – fifth place in the individual event. Having won silver in Sochi in both teams and singles, Chan was aiming to become the first Canadian to turn world championship gold to Olympic gold but the pressure was overwhelming.

The now 30 year old wishes he’d had a psychologist earlier to talk to in his career but says that alleviating the stigma that surrounds talking about mental health will only benefit up-and-coming young Olympic athletes.

"Sometimes just talking about it and voicing it ... that's where that change can happen in a positive way," he said.

"It can be a big change in a positive way being able to share your story and hearing someone else's."