In Courtney Weaver’s two seasons swimming at the University of Georgia, she swam at one NCAA Championship meet and earned two spots on Georgia’s all-time top 10 lists: in the 100 fly (52.27) and 200 fly (1:55.33).
The Flint, Michigan native was a 3-time member of the USA Swimming Junior National Team; a member of the USA Swimming National Team in the 2014-2015 season; a member of the 2012 Junior Pan Pacs team; a captain of the 2013 Junior World Championships Team; and was an 11-time YMCA National Champion.
Yet, with all of those accolades, she decided to call it a career after the Bulldogs won the 7th NCAA team title in program history in March. She says that an extreme level of anxiety caused her to retire, and below she shares her story, in her own words, in hopes that other athletes battling mental health issues might learn from her experiences.
Imagine a sumo wrestler sitting on your chest. You feel trapped. You feel lost. You feel worthless. You don’t know why it’s there. Why you? You keep asking yourself the same things: “Why do I feel this way?” “Why is this happening to me?” You don’t understand what you’ve done wrong. The sumo wrestler is getting heavier and heavier. You feel like your chest is in a knot. You realize, soon, that your breaths keep getting shorter and shorter. You think that there must be something wrong with you. You’re never going to get healthy. You’re never going to be able to swim again. You’re going to lose your scholarship. You’re going to lose your spot on the team. Finally, the sumo wrestler on your chest is starting to be too much to handle. You can’t fall asleep at night. You can’t focus in class. You can’t study at night. You can’t focus on what others are saying in conversation. You think that something must be wrong. All you can think is how horrible the future is going to be if this sumo wrestler won’t get up off of your chest. You simply can not function the rest of your life with this sumo wrestler there. And you know that for a fact. You think the sumo wrestler will never get up. You think that your whole life is going to fall apart, and you don’t even know why this sumo wrestler is there.
That was what was going on with me for about four straight weeks. I was confused. I didn’t know what was going on. I had never felt this before. I shared the chest pain with my trainer because I thought something must be wrong with my physical health. The doctors kept doing a variety of tests, everything coming back relatively normal. The doctors said that my asthma shouldn’t cause chest pain that was that bad and that was lasting this long. Frustration was the only thing that was going through my head. I was not getting answers. I KNEW something was wrong, yet they could not find anything. I thought that my trainer wouldn’t believe me. I thought that my parents wouldn’t believe me. I thought that the coaches wouldn’t believe me. The coaches thought I was lying, just to get out of practice. I thought that my teammates thought the same thing. I thought they all must hate me. I’m not swimming, and the doctors aren’t finding anything that is wrong with me, so I must be making all of this up to get out of swimming. I knew this wasn’t true. The only thing I wanted to do was be in the water, swimming, and training as hard as I could. This tore me apart mentally. I did not believe in myself. I kept telling myself that I was just messed up in the head and that all of this needed to go away so that I could be cleared to swim again. The only problem was that the chest pain was getting worse. It was affecting every aspect of my life, and I had no control over it. I was lost. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. After weeks of unsuccessful tests, the doctor suggested that I go see the Sports Psychologist on campus. As soon as those words came out of his mouth, I shouted in my head “NO.” I did not want to go talk to someone about all of my problems. I was embarrassed that I had these thoughts. Thoughts of being a failure, screwing up my whole life, disappointing my family, my coaches, and my teammates. I did not want someone else to know what I thought about. Especially the thoughts that scare me. I knew that once I started talking about all of these thoughts that I would break down in tears. It would probably be hard for me to even talk. The last thing I wanted to do, was express all of my scariest thoughts to a complete stranger and bawl my eyes out in front of them. To me, I saw this as being weak. And, I did not want a random person to see me as being weak. One of my biggest fears is that people see me as weak. I thought that since I am a Division 1 student-athlete, people wouldn’t see why I would think or feel this way. They would think that I am just making this story up in order to get attention. They think that I must be so talented to be a student-athlete, and if I’m so talented, then why would I ever think of myself as being worthless?
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Fast forward 13 months and 12 days. I sit here viewing the previous passage for the first time since I closed out of the document that February 11, 2015. Just 3 days shy of leaving for my first SEC Championships. I still am not sure how I came out of that meet with all best times, allowing me to qualify for NCAAs my freshman year. I was still experiencing that same amount of anxiety and pressure from myself, but I was somehow able to perform. In the 4 weeks separating SECs and NCAAs I was able to return to full training, but not without some major bumps in my path. One day during those 4 weeks I mentally broke down. I was still not getting any answers. I was showing success in training and competition but I was doubting myself as a person. I questioned the pain I was experiencing and this tore me apart. My motto was always to take each day at a time. This back-fired on me when one day seemed like too much to handle. I was at the Health Center obtaining some asthma medication when I broke down. Practice started in 15 minutes. I didn’t know what to do. I called my trainer and she told me to go upstairs to CAPS(Counseling and Psychiatric Services) in the Health Center. There, I was barely able to say my student ID number because of how distraught and frantic I felt. I visited with the walk-in counselor available at the time, and poured my life out to him through each sniffle and cry. He consoled me and we both waited for my normal Sports Psychologist to show up. Once she arrived I was able to realize that it’s okay if some days seem too demanding or large. I needed to scale down my motto to taking each hour at a time, take each practice at a time, take each set at a time, and take each lap at a time. This may seem very minute to some, but to me, this made the difference.
NCAAs came and I did not perform how I wanted to. I wanted to score points for my team, as I knew we were in close contention for the National Title. When I missed scoring by just a few tenths in my first race, I was distraught. I went a best time and performed very well, but I didn’t care because I didn’t score for the team. The following day was my best event and one I typically get the most nervous for, the 200 fly. During warm-up for the race, I could feel the sumo wrestler very strongly on my chest. I hated it. I didn’t know what to do to get rid of it and I knew I was swimming in less than 5 minutes. I asked one of the seniors how to calm down for my race, meanwhile I could feel my eyes welling up, and I could barely talk. I was freaking out. My coach, Jack, pulled me over to the side, reminded me I was ready and how hard I had worked in the 4 week span after SECs. This was my last shot to score points for the team, as this was my last event of the meet. I thought I had calmed myself down enough, and I was ready to go. I was in the last heat of the morning, so immediately after I touched I found out if I had made it back for finals, which would mean that I would be scoring points. I narrowly missed finals again. And yet again, I was distraught. Tears came streaming down my face quicker than ever before. The sumo wrestler was still there, heavier than before. I felt like the biggest failure to my team. In between prelims and finals of the final session, I returned to my hotel room and tried to get in contact with my psychologist. She was not answering and I needed someone to talk to. I got in touch with a random psychologist and was trying to explain to her my situation. The only problem was, I could barely speak or breathe, so I felt helpless, yet again. I returned to finals, eager to cheer on my teammates who were still competing. Immediately following finals, all I wanted to do was return back to Athens. I wanted to be where I felt safe and comfortable; in my bed.
Upon returning from NCAAs, I met with my Sports Psychologist again, and realized that I was still an important player on the NCAA team, even though I didn’t score points. I was a cheerleader, a teammate, and a friend to all of those on my team. It was not the role I was used to playing, but I understood that it plays a major role on a Championship team. I continued to train in the water and condition outside of the pool. I was enjoying practice and I looked forward to going every day in order to give it all I had that day. I still struggled every now and then, but I was making it through.
My first chance to race long course had come. I was nervous to compete because I was scared of failure. I didn’t perform how I wanted to and was losing more confidence in myself behind the blocks. I was beginning to get more and more frustrated every time I finished a race and looked up at the clock. I knew I was a better swimmer than what my times were showing, and it broke my heart that that’s what the outcome was. I continued training even harder, just in the slight hope that if I was freaking out behind the blocks, I would still be able to swim a good time. More and more meets and swims went by, and I was losing more and more confidence in myself behind the blocks. Long Course Nationals arrived quickly and I wanted to perform. I was nervous, but I felt ready. The first day came and I was swimming the 100 fly. Due to suit malfunctions, I was not able to warm up, and I was forced to run directly behind the blocks. This scared me and made me doubt myself even more. I performed poorly and was very disappointed in myself. I was able to rationalize the circumstances and decided I wanted to time trial the 100 fly again the next day. Again though, when I got behind the blocks, I doubted my competition abilities. I swam even slower than I did the day before. I was heart-broken and I still had my best (and most stressful) event, the 200 fly, yet to come later that week. The sumo wrestler was getting heavier again, and I my mind was already racing all over the place. I was going over every type of scenario in my head. I was going to have an asthma attack in the middle of my race and not be able to finish the race. My mind even jumped so far as to convince me that I would choke on water and die from swimming this race. I was having a war within my head and I could not control anything. I talked to my coach and I scratched the 200 fly for that meet. I was upset that it had come this far, but I was scared for myself.
I returned back to school and was ready to leave freshman year and that summer in the past. I was training harder than I ever had before in and out of the water. I was doing extra training outside of the pool as well. I was giving it everything I had and wanted so badly to see the hard work pay off. I owed it to my teammates, my coaches, and most importantly, myself. The first few dual meets came and I was still anxious before my race, but my times were not that bad considering what kind of training I was doing at the time. I was starting to believe in myself just a little bit again. I thought there might be a light to the end of this long, dark, and dreary tunnel. I was sadly mistaken.
My anxiety was causing me to freak out during practices. I met with my coaches on multiple occasions to help us come up with ways to help me not have panic attacks during practice. No matter what they decided on for that day, week, or even month, I still seemed to be struggling with it. I thought I could handle it if it didn’t get any worse. But it was getting worse. It was taking a severe toll on my ability to train, and it was mentally draining. I constantly worried if I was doing enough, and even when I consistently gave 120%, I was still doubting myself. I was in a never-ending war with myself and I thought the only way to make it better was to race well.
When the midseason invite came up, I was ready to prove myself to my teammates, my coaches, and to myself, what I had been working so hard at. In my eyes, it didn’t pay off. My times were slower than what I went last season at this same time, and I was losing more and more confidence in myself. The lack of confidence I felt behind the blocks started trickling into other aspects of my life. I didn’t think much about it because I believed that I could eventually get over this illness. I was still struggling in practice, but I was not allowing myself to give up. I pushed through the many dual meets that required me to race, losing more and more confidence in myself. The lack of confidence in school and friendships started to grow increasingly larger. I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what to do to make things right. I was miserable when it came time to race, but I knew that I owed it to my teammates and to my coaches.
I was severely doubting myself in almost every aspect of life now. I was having a hard time accepting the grades I received in the classroom if they weren’t A’s. I was striving to be the best that I could be but it was tearing me down more than it was building me up. I doubted what friends said positively about me and accepted all of the negative things I had heard about me. I didn’t know what to do and I was lost.
SECs rolled around and I have never been more nervous for a meet. I felt great in the water but I still doubted myself. I was embarrassed to get behind the blocks for my races because I was worried that I would add a lot of time and not even make it back for finals. The first day I did not make it back to finals, but I dealt with that well. In college swimming lingo it was my “third event” aka, wasn’t my best event. I told myself that I needed to move on and be there for my teammates, so I did. I was always trying to be the best teammate I could be but in my mind I didn’t believe that I was doing enough. The outcome of my race was still at the forefront of my mind and I couldn’t help but be extremely disappointed in myself and the outcome that followed.
The second day came and I was extremely nervous for my 100 fly. I had not been near my best time in almost a year and I didn’t believe I was good enough to go that time anymore. I lost all confidence in myself. I turned to my teammates to help me. They calmed me down and reminded me that it was just swimming. That I just needed to go out there and show how hard I’ve worked this year. I tried to do that, but I couldn’t stop thinking about all the previous times I have stepped up to the blocks and choked. I knew I was gonna do it again. I was scared to swim, but I did it anyways because my team needed me. My freshman year, I qualified tied for 8th, requiring a swim-off. I ended up narrowly missing out on the A-final, so I was the top seed in the B final. That scenario kept running through my head. I should make A final this year. I almost did it last year and I’m supposed to get better each year, right? Wrong. I ended up qualifying in the C-final. I was heart-broken again. I felt like I had let everyone down, because I had this sumo wrestler sitting on my chest, and I couldn’t get him off. Everyone was telling me it was okay and that I just needed to win the C final at night. I didn’t believe that I could. The doubt and lack of confidence was taking over my entire way of thinking and I wasn’t sure how to make things better.
The third day was the big event, the 200 fly. It was always my most nerve-racking event. All I kept thinking about was how I finished 4th in this event last year, so if I don’t make A-final, then I am a total failure. These thoughts had been racing in my head for months. I have never been so scared to swim a race before. I was trying to create confidence in my mind and I knew my coaches and teammates were doing everything they could to instill confidence in me. It didn’t matter though. The anxiety won again. And yet again, my heart broke. I had no control over this sumo wrestler on my chest. I wanted someone to yank him off, but nothing anyone did helped. I felt helpless because I couldn’t control my mind. I ended up not even making it back to finals. I was devastated that I couldn’t score points for my team when they needed me. I was attempting everything to help me succeed and in the end anxiety beat me out.
I swam in the last chance meet at our home pool, and did even worse. The anxiety was taking over my body and my entire thinking process even more than I thought possible. Following the first day of finals when I swam embarrassing slow, I went in to talk to my coach, Stefanie. I broke down crying because I was so embarrassed. I had worked so hard and the outcome that was shown on the scoreboard completely ripped any remaining confidence that I still had in myself. Jack, the head coach, came in and said he was scratching me from the 200 fly the next day. He told me that I needed to take a mental breather, which I agreed with. My mind was racing a million miles per hour and I could barely think about other aspects of life, including school.
I took off the next two weeks, the longest break I’ve ever had in my career. During the first week off, I visited with my Sports Psychologist and she told me that swimming was unhealthy for me. I have never heard swimming and unhealthy used in the same sentence before so I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant. She told me for the time being I needed to take an extended break from competing. I understood where she was coming from and this even made me a little bit happy because I could focus on the part of swimming that I was still enjoying, the practicing. She mentioned to me possibly stopping swimming in general. This took me off guard and I was completely shaken up. I never wanted to be a quitter, especially in the sport that I have dedicated my entire life to. The second week, I went home for spring break and tried to get my mind off of swimming and focus on spending time with my family. While I had fun at home, the entire time, my mind kept racing and thinking about how out of shape I was getting and how everyone else that was swimming at that time was getting faster. I was stressed out and anxious the entire break. I felt like no matter how much I worked out, it wasn’t enough. This tore me apart even more during the time that was supposed to be spent building myself back up.
Once I returned to school, I started practice back up. My first practice back was strange. I finally realized how anxious I always get walking onto the pool deck. Throughout the entire practice all I could think about was how much I wanted to get out, something I have never constantly thought about. The times I was in the weight room doing dryland, all I was thinking about was how much better everyone else was than me. I could not stop looking at others and comparing myself, so much to where it made me so uncomfortable to be working out with others. The little bit of confidence that I had built up back at home and from talking to coaches and my friends was completely shattered. I wanted to cry and leave every time I started working out, but I refused. I was miserable and I wasn’t happy, but I couldn’t let my teammates down. I drove to Atlanta and cheered my heart out for all of my teammates competing at NCAAs. I was so proud of all of them and I could not stop thinking about how I should be down there. I could’ve been down there if this anxiety hadn’t completely taken over my mind and body. I was frustrated with myself because I couldn’t control it and I wanted more than anything in the world to be able to contribute points to my team. I was so happy to be at NCAAs, but my mind was still constantly racing about how much I failed this year. I felt like I had let myself down because I came into my sophomore with the drive and determination to make this better than last year. I came up short, very short. I hated that this anxiety was getting worse and nothing I seemed to do was working. I met with coaches and my psychologist very often to try to help this problem, but it was unsuccessful.
I was constantly mad at myself and extremely unhappy. I went to another practice and was extremely anxious again. I was so frustrated that throughout these past 16 months, my anxiety has only been getting worse. What I used to love, was now something that made me so incredibly distressed. I had absolutely no confidence in myself to even finish a practice. I was crying in the water and on the verge of getting out, but I refused. I never wanted to feel so overwhelmed and anxious that it caused me to get out in the middle of practice, but I knew it was at that point. I couldn’t take what my mind was telling me anymore. I believed that I was just wasting time while training because I can never perform once I’m behind the blocks. It had been 16 long months of slowly losing confidence in myself, my academics, and my relationships. My anxiety had fully taken over my body and I could not handle it any more.
Earlier that day I had received a text from one of my friends asking if I was okay because I looked sad and wasn’t acting loud and goofy, like my usual self. I lied and said I was fine because I didn’t know where to begin explaining and no words were even coming to mind about why I felt the way I did. My entire mind was consumed with swimming and how I was going to do the next time I was in the water. I tried to cover up to my friends and family how I was truly feeling for so long because I didn’t want them to worry about me. I thought I could control my anxiety, but it was slowly killing me. After practice, I was worried about how I was going to handle the next day’s practice. That was all I could think about during dinner. Following dinner, I received another text from someone else asking what was wrong, because again, I looked sad and was extremely quiet. This was when I finally realized that the anxiety was starting to outwardly show and affect how I was acting towards my friends. I couldn’t even form words to talk with them like a normal human. I was too concerned with how I was going to get through the next day’s practice. This was ultimately my breaking point. I never wanted my anxiety to affect my friends. The fact that I could not even be myself and talk around them anymore broke my heart more than anything.
I felt like I was stuck in between a rock and a hard place. I had two options: keep swimming and losing more confidence in myself, or quit and lose all of my friends and be forced to move back home. I wanted neither option and I felt like I had no way to proceed with life. I texted my closest friend describing what I was going through. She immediately came over and calmed me down. I told her everything. She said, “if your mom saw you like this, she would rip you out of the pool.” This struck me hard. If people knew how I actually felt about swimming and what I was mentally going through, they would pull me out. The sumo wrestler was getting too heavy for me to handle and it was there all day long. I wanted to be able to breathe and swimming was only making things worse for me.
Throughout the last 16 months, I have been trying to make other people happy, all while forgoing my own happiness. I realized that the only reason I swam growing up was because it made me happy. I enjoyed every single aspect of swimming, from training to racing. I had been dreading competitions for 13 months now, and now I was dreading training. I never felt like I was good enough and this tore me down to nothing. The anxiety was too much for me to handle and I felt like I had let my family, my teammates, and my coaches down. When I informed them of my worries, they all constantly reminded me that they wanted me to be happy. They said “the single most important thing to us is not that you’re swimming, but that you’re happy.” I thought about taking an extended break and attempting to return to the sport in the fall, but I know how my last break went, and I need to actually build myself back up, not fall even further down. I have decided to make the hardest decision of my life, and step away from the sport that gave me so much. I have always been one to care too much about what people think, so this step in my life was the hardest one I have ever had to make. I pray that God will lead me to happier and more peaceful times.
I want nothing more than to still be involved with my team and continue my studies at the greatest University in the world. Through the immense amount of support I received from my family, friends, coaches, and psychologists, I am still here today and able to be happier than ever. I submitted a Medical Disqualification to the SEC which will allow me to hold my scholarship and still be at school with all of my friends and teammates. Through this process, I learned that the scholarship will now be covered under a different realm, meaning that my scholarship will be given back to the swim team. This meant the world to me because I never wanted to hurt my team, especially financially. I will still be involved with the team that has easily become my second family. I never knew that Medical Disqualifications included mental illnesses, but I can totally see why. Mental illnesses are just as important and detrimental to an athlete’s health. This has been the hardest part for me to accept, because I feel like I should be in control of my feelings and how my mind functions. I learned the hard way that this is so far from the truth. I now know that I am in control of my own happiness and only I can help prevent high-anxiety situations.
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