After failing to qualify for the triple jump final, Illinois native Tori Franklin returned to the athletes village, crawled into her cardboard bed and stayed there for the next 24 hours.
She refused to eat or drink anything except for a stale slice of vanilla cake her cousin gave her six days earlier when Franklin left for the Olympics. She watched a mediocre rom-com on Netflix to pass the time, then turned it off and simply stared at the hair on her arms.
“I was still so heartbroken,” she said. “I just didn’t want to feed myself. I wasn’t drinking any water. I didn’t want to see anyone and have to look them in the eye. ... I wanted to be able to process my emotions instead of pretending everything was OK. And I wanted to do it in my own space.”
Rather than hide her post-competition struggles, Franklin, 28, shared them publicly in a powerful essay upon returning from Japan. In doing so, she became one of many Olympians forcing an overdue conversation about mental health.
The Tokyo Olympics will be remembered as the Pandemic Games, a competition postponed and then held in empty venues as the positive COVID-19 cases rose throughout the largely unvaccinated city.
History, however, should also note it was the Games in which athletes insisted their emotional well-being be given just as much care as their physical state.
The demands came from superstars such as Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Rory McIlroy. They also were made by lower-billed athletes such as Franklin, shot putter Raven Saunders and marathoner Molly Seidel.
Biles, the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history, withdrew from some events after losing her bearing on the vault during the team competition. She cited the emotional strain of preparing for the Tokyo Games, not a physical injury, as a root cause.
She returned to win bronze in the balance beam Tuesday, making it clear she always will put her mental health before marketing campaigns or public expectations.
“At the end of the day,” she said, “we’re not just entertainment, we’re humans.”
While there was some debate about Biles’ withdrawal in the United States, her decision received overwhelming support from her fellow Olympians and sparked discussions in venues across the city. In post-competition interviews throughout the fortnight, athletes cited mental health as a factor in their performances — both the good and bad ones — as easily as they discussed nagging injuries and Tokyo’s oppressive weather.
“I’m glad that at least the conversation has started,” McIlroy said. “The conversation, it’s not taboo any more. People can talk about it. Just as someone has a knee injury, or an elbow injury, if you don’t feel right 100 percent mentally that’s an injury too.”
For her part Franklin has advocated for mental-health issues since college, when she suffered bouts of depression her sophomore and junior years at Michigan State. She said she spoke out in part because she wanted other athletes to know they weren’t alone.
Her admission caught many by surprise given Franklin’s reputation as an outgoing, joy-filled athlete who leads crowds in group claps before each of her jumps. Much like Biles, she had to educate others that happy and successful people can still struggle.
Her candor, however, wasn’t without risk. Franklin — who holds the American indoor record for the triple jump — initially questioned whether she was fostering the impression that she was weak and, by extension, giving her competitors an advantage. She still worries someone might use it against her at meets, perhaps say something about her past battles with depression to disrupt her concentration.
“It’s not something that goes away,” she said. “I’m just not someone who lets those kind of fears hold me back.”
No doubt the public mental health discussion was hastened by the pandemic, which disrupted many athletes’ training schedules and threw their heavily regimented lives into chaos. Competitors in Tokyo talked about grappling with the uncertainty while scrambling to find backyard pools in which to practice or scaling high school fences to run on the tracks after facilities across the country shut down.
While coping with personal and professional stress of the public health crisis, Black athletes also endured additional stressors as the police murder of George Floyd led to nationwide protests and forced the United States to confront systemic racism. It’s not a coincidence that many of the most prominent discussions about athletes’ mental health was led by Black athletes like Franklin, Biles, Saunders, Osaka and sprinter Noah Lyles.
It was a shared experience that transcended their specific sports and made conversations about emotional well-being easier, Franklin said.
“I think the pandemic put athletes through a lot,” she said. “And speaking about it made athletes feel more comfortable.”
Franklin, like every one else, struggled to find places to practice and the crucial pre-Olympic competitions during the lockdown. For the first few months she trained with her Paris-based coach via video. When she finally made it back to Paris, the coach decided he no longer wanted to work with her.
With the Olympics a few months away, she moved back to the United States and found a new coach. It was a stressful, frightening time, so Franklin gave her mental health the same attention she gave her body. She spoke with a therapist weekly and talked to a sports psychologist as needed. She wrote in her journal, meditated and spent time in nature.
“We’re not robots, we’re not superheroes,” she said. “We’re people who work really, really hard and go through mental struggles. Just because you have some mental struggles doesn’t mean you can’t be successful in any sport or any realm of life.”
Franklin plans to go on a hard-won vacation this month, then return to competition in the fall. She also is looking for a publisher for her recently finished book, “You Anthem: Reflections and Tips to Facilitate Mindfulness, Manage Negative Self-Thought and Celebrate Your Spirit.” (She said she tried to find one before the Games but — in perhaps the most shortsighted of rejections — was told there wasn’t a market for a book dealing with athletes’ mental health.)
She also has an eye on Paris 2024, evidenced by her return to training shortly after arriving back in the United States.
The reentry wasn’t easy. As practice got started, Franklin’s thoughts drifted to that humid night in Olympic Stadium when she failed to meet her own expectations.
She started to cry.
“I think that’ll probably happen for a little bit,” she said. “And that’s OK.”