Anxiety, Depression & Swimming: How My Career Was Taken From Me

Written and Courtesy of Quillan Oak

This is something I wrote that I feel many swimmers can relate to. I think this will help explain to my teammates, coaches, family and friends what was happening with me during my collegiate career, and I think this could potentially help other swimmers struggling with the same thing.

It was an IM set. Nothing hard, nothing crazy. Just your average, aerobic IM set. But something was off. There was a glitch in my brain. A little flicker that I couldn’t push away. The past season hadn’t been the best, and I still wasn’t swimming well. In fact, on this day, I was getting smoked by people that had no business being close to be in an IM set. I was missing easy intervals. I don’t really remember much of it, but I remember the feeling. I remember coming out of it and realizing I was hyperventilating, and squeezing my head as hard as I could, my hands in a death grip around my skull. I remember the negative thoughts spinning through my head that I couldn’t control. And I remember how absolutely exhausted I felt after it was all over.

It took me a long time to realize it, but that was an anxiety attack. It was my first one. And it had been building for the past year and a half.

I had always been a happy swimmer. I loved practice. I loved competition. I loved being there for my team. But after the first semester of my sophomore year at Iowa, something changed. I would get to my dorm room and lay in my bed for hours without moving. I wouldn’t talk to anyone. I wouldn’t sleep, eat, do homework, or study for exams. I couldn’t get myself to do it. All I could focus on was the fact that I was letting the team down. I was letting my family and friends and my small northern Minnesota hometown down. I could not help but feel this way. It was a glitch. I wasn’t swimming fast enough or scoring enough points for my team. I was the reason we were losing meets. I started becoming angry with myself, and it was out of my control. I would be angry at myself for becoming angry, and then would plummet into a deep, deep sadness. I had no strength or energy for anything. I had no interest in school, and my love for swimming started becoming a resentment for it. I switched my major three times, but nothing changed. I was still letting the team down in the pool, and in the classroom. I loved my teammates so much, and I couldn’t stand any longer to do this.

After conference that year, after not scoring points for my team, and wasting my mom and dad’s time and money to come and watch me, I knew I had to try and make a change. I knew that I had to do something to not feel this way any longer. I wasn’t myself anymore. So I decided to transfer. I chose the University of Utah. A school that I had loved my recruiting trip to my senior year, and where one of my best childhood friends was on the team. The program was steadily building, and they needed breaststrokers. I would be a great asset to the team. I thought this was the cure for what was happening to me.

But when it was all said and done, I couldn’t escape it. This deep sadness and uneasiness was attached to me like ball and chain. Leaving my teammates at the University of Iowa was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. As I drove away from Iowa City, my feelings of letting them down only got stronger. I felt now as though I had betrayed them by leaving the team. As helpless as I felt, I couldn’t do anything about it. I didn’t know enough about mental illness to even realize that I may be suffering from something. And even if I did, I was too stubborn to do anything about it. I don’t like getting help. I had never needed it before, so I was going to figure this out myself. I didn’t know it then, but I was stigmatizing myself, and would continue to do so for a long time.

In June of 2014, I arrived in Salt Lake City. I moved in with one of my best friends, who I considered my sister. Things were looking up. I swam a best time in the 200 breast at nationals in California, spent two awesome weeks at home in Minnesota, and returned ready for school and the season to start. I had found a major that I enjoyed, and the coaches were excited to have me there.

Midseason came fast, and although I didn’t swim best times, I was close. I was on A-medley relays. I scored points for the team, and broke a school record. Things continued to look up, until two weeks before conference. I could feel that glitch start to flutter in my head. I started swimming slowly, and became on edge and uneasy. I could feel myself becoming someone I wasn’t once again.

I didn’t swim any best times at conference. I didn’t score any points for the team. The glitch in my head started to take over again. This leads up to the first anxiety attack during that average IM set. From that moment on, anxiety and depression completely took over the reigns of my swimming career. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized that for my entire senior year, I was suffered from mild anxiety attacks at almost every single practice. I was constantly on edge, with negative thoughts always running through my mind. I couldn’t turn it off. My heart rate would rise, my breathing would become short and intense. I could feel myself become angry. I hated myself for who I was. I was negatively impacting my entire team. I came to this team to contribute more, and somehow ended up contributing less.

The feeling I was constantly experiencing can best be described by two magnets repelling away from each other. But that feeling was inside my head. It was a constant battle between myself and my own brain, who would become its own entity. It would push me aside and take over. My entire senior year, I never knew what was happening to me, although I knew something was wrong.

My senior year was the first and only time I didn’t make a conference team. And I didn’t deserve to. I rarely scored points at duel meets throughout the season, and was steadily becoming slower and weaker in the water. My anxiety and depression was exhausting me, and I let it. I ended up paying my way to swim exhibition at conference. No best times. Not even close, to be specific. My 17-year old self would have smoked me. But I continued to push forward. By this time, I knew something was definitely not right. But I refused to ask for help.

After conference, I continued to train for Olympic Trials. My time had expired in the 100, so I put all of my focus on my 200 breast. My baby. The event that made me fall in love with swimming even more when I first discovered it. As much as I tried to look forward to Trials, my training continued to struggle. My pace times steadily went up and up, and so did my feelings of anxiety. I continued to hate myself, and eventually, began to despise the sport of swimming.

But I knew I couldn’t quit. I imagined how upset my 12-year old self would be with me if I didn’t swim at Trials. The Great American Swim Meet. The meet that, besides becoming an Olympian, everyone in the nation wishes to qualify for. So I continued.

And then, about exactly one year after the first one, it happened again. And it wasn’t good. Once again, it happened at practice. I remember the glitch turning on as I was swimming a set very poorly. Negative thoughts started to leak into my mind. I physically shook my head underwater to try and fight it off, but was unsuccessful. I finished the 100 I was swimming, and it instantly hit. My hands automatically went up and squeezed onto my head. My heart rate spiked and my breathing became short and erratic. My teammates were swimming a 200 easy, and my coach wasn’t watching. I was surrounded by people, but completely alone. This moment was a very accurate representation of how I had been feeling the past three years, even when surrounded by loved ones.

My brain continued to spin, spitting negative thoughts that bounced around my head like ricocheting bullets. I squeezed my head harder and harder trying to gain control of my thoughts. Eventually, it subsided. For the rest of practice, I was in a state of shock. I was a ghost. When I got to my car after, I called my mom and completely broke down. As I was on the phone, the anxiety attack returned. I don’t really thing it was ever gone, but just waiting there to pounce again. I don’t remember much of the phone call, but I was hysterical. I drove home, exhausted. When I got home, I went into my room and sat on the edge of my bed, staring at the wall, trying to gain control of my spinning head. I was in a very dark and painful.

My roommate then came in to my room. My mom had called her to tell her what happened. What she found was not the person she knew or had grown up with. She found me completely and absolutely broken. I had bags under my eyes, and my skin was clammy and pale. I was a shell of who I used to be. Anxiety and depression had completely drained me of everything I was. She urged me to get help. But I once again stigmatized myself. I told myself that I didn’t deserve to feel this way. I had never stigmatized or judged any of my friends or family members who had suffered from mental illness, but I couldn’t help but do it to myself. I still struggle with that to this day.

Eventually, I let the anxiety win. I met with my coach a month and a half before Olympic Trials, and decided to call it quits. The sport that I used to love so much was now my enemy. I dreaded going to practice. I hated thinking about how the water felt when I moved through it. The sport that had given me so much was not something that I never wanted anything to do with again.

The second I got home from that meeting, I stashed everything that had to do with swimming into a bag in the corner of my closet. I never wanted to be reminded of it again. I had never quit on anything in my life like this. I was completely done. I knew I had let anxiety and depression turn swimming into something dark, and I let it destroy me.

After it was said and done, I began training on my own. I started running every day. I created a weight program for myself. I felt happy and free. I had no more anxiety attacks. I wasn’t sad or down on myself. I felt like a new person. In may of 2016, on the same day I walked across the gymnasium floor in my cap and gown, I enlisted in the United States Army.

I was ecstatic. It was all I could think about. I had almost a year to train and get in shape before I shipped out for basic training. I was a Special Forces recruit. I was going to free innocent people from oppressive, evil men. I felt fulfilled with my new path. That was one of the best summers of my life. I trained, ate well, worked an internship I loved, and was constantly surrounded by my teammates. When my internship ended in August, I moved back to my hometown in Minnesota.

The plan was to stay home and train until I left for training. About two weeks after I got home, there was a familiar sensation going on in my head. It was a glitch. It would make me squint my eyes and shake my head when I felt it turn on. Eventually, it became more frequent. It became more and more established. I once again started to get feelings that I was letting people down, that I was a failure. I was living at home with my parents as a 23-year old, making little money, waiting to leave for training that felt as though it would never get here fast enough.

In October, I moved to the Minneapolis area. I thought all I needed was a change of scenery and a new schedule. But the glitch continued. I started getting anxiety attacks more and more, until it became almost a daily occurrence. Sometimes something would trigger it, other times it would come on on its own. I would have to leave work early because I could feel one building inside my head. I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning.

Eventually, a good friend of mine convinced me to go and see someone. As much as it didn’t feel right, I went in. I got help.

Eventually, it became clear that I could no longer participate in the military. Anxiety and depression do not mix well with the military lifestyle. But still, I couldn’t help but feel like a coward. I felt like less of a man. I was going to help people. I was going to represent the country that I loved so much. And now anxiety had taken that from me as well. It had taken more than three years for me to fully accept that I was suffering from a mental illness.

I still struggle with it to this day. I still am not at peace with how my swimming career ended, and I am not at peace with the fact that I can no longer join the military. But, I am finally actively getting help. I am accepting that mental illness is more common than I think it is, and that it is like any other medical illness. It does not make me weak, it does not make me a coward, it does not make me less of a man. These are things I still struggle with, but am learning to accept.

I will never let anxiety and depression take anything from me again. I have made the decision to take back what it took from me. After 11 months out of the water, I am going to take back my love for swimming, my love for competing, and my love for training. I am not going to let anxiety and depression destroy me any longer. I will once again be a happy swimmer. I will once again chase a dream through the water as I did when I was a young boy.

Mental illness and athletics can be a combination that is devastating. I know that I am not the only one who suffered from a mental illness while trying to maintain a love for swimming. I want to show people who are struggling today that mental illness does not have to control your career, your passion, or who you are. I look to people like Amanda Beard and Anthony Ervin, who overcame so much in the sport of swimming only to come out of it stronger than they were before. Do not be afraid to seek help. Don’t let mental illness take anything from you. I let it take my career from me. But I’m taking it back.

Quillan’s Bio

I grew up in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota and started swimming when I was six. I swam my first two years at the University of Iowa and my last two at the University of Utah. I specialized in breaststroke (specifically the 200), the 200 IM, and the 200 free. I graduated in August 2016 with a degree in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism emphasizing in commercial recreation. 

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Very impactful article. Thanks for sharing.

College swimmer

This article really hit home for me. It’s almost exactly how I feel actually.

Saddened Uncle

Hi College Swimmer — if you are feeling like Quillan did/does, please heed his advice, reach out, and get some help. My niece was a college athlete who suffered from anxiety and depression, did not get help until very late in the game and, as it turned out, it was too late.

M Palota

Get help. Reach out and ask for help. From personal experience, I’ll tell you that the hardest part is the asking. Once you’ve done that, everything else is much, much easier.

Know that depression & anxiety are not all that uncommon, especially in this sport, and also know that there are very effective treatments for both.

Please, please, please reach out and ask for help. You’ll get it and you’ll be amazed at how much better things will get. Really.


Great article. There are so many layers of depression and anxiety that manifest in different ways for different people, and the biggest key is getting help. So glad for you that a friend recognized your struggle and convinced you to talk to someone. Best of luck to you in the future and thank you for sharing.

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