The first thing Chalmers needs to know is: that’s completely fine. And in swimming, sadly, almost a new normality. His great rival and friend Dressel has been open with his mental health concerns about him, speaking of them before Tokyo and then withdrawing just days into the recent FINA World Championships.
The Olympics were a watershed for athletes dealing with crushing pressure and expectation. Simone Biles, one of the faces of the American Games team, drew her from competition to focus on her mental health. Swimming’s winning machine, Katie Ledecky, showed rare glimpses of emotion as the toll she carried became clear.
Chalmers need look no further than the face on the other side of the Channel Seven microphone for a reminder of how swimming can grind down even the brightest of souls. Cate Campbell, poolside for the broadcaster in Birmingham, revealed her own depression battle late last year after she was diagnosed four weeks before the Tokyo Games.
The whole scenario raises questions about the treatment of athletes, especially those who float in and out of the spotlight and don’t have the support scaffolding in place like those in the protective bubble of a wealthy football or cricket team.
Professionals must have a degree of resilience in terms of weathering the occasional media storm or robust line of questioning. But it wasn’t only Chalmers who felt the line had been crossed when he spent his entire post-race interview talking not about a gold medal or a Games record but allegations of petulance and division.
It may be hard for him to see through the present mist but his lowest moment also presents a golden opportunity. Having been bold enough to call out what he felt was inappropriate and inaccurate coverage, Chalmers now has the chance to step back, reconnect with the important people in his life and ponder what he wants out of the sport, if anything, and how to engage with those within its wider ecosystem.
What is apparent is that he could do with a fresh set of eyes when it comes to taking back control of his own narrative, because it’s a good one, potentially with a great legacy, and worth telling. If that means picking his battles from him more carefully and having some more discipline around his prolific social media output, he needs to be open to those conversations.
But first, he shouldn’t fear stepping back and if needed, checking out completely for an extended time. Travel the world, learn the drums, feed the snakes… all worthy adventures if they lead to him finding his self-worth and purpose beyond a set of Speedos.
Once he does, as so many have done before, he will return to the pool with a renewed vigour, drive and love for the water. What he comes to define as success, as a person and an athlete, will go a long way to determining what sort of man will emerge from the other side.
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