Rough Seas // Tough Sailor – An Open Discussion On Mental Illness

Written and courtesy of Quillan Oak

More so than any other sport, it seems that mental illness in swimmers is much more common than one may first think. Although I am not a professional, when I think back on it, I have had many teammates who have either openly admitted they have mental illnesses, or have shown symptoms of suffering from one. And I do not have the answers to why this may be, or how and why it happens so commonly in our beloved sport. But I do know what it can do to a person, and what it can do to their career and their love of the sport.

It is my wish that what happened to me never happens to anyone else. Although this may be impossible, it doesn’t mean that we can’t work together towards it. As swimmers, we are passionate people. We are passionate about our sport, our teammates, goals, education, futures, friends, family – everything in our life, we go all out for it. We are a community of some of the hardest workers on the planet. We chose this sport because we love it, and whether we like to admit it or not, we love the hard work that comes with it. We love holding out breath through tunnel vision, lactic acid flowing through our bodies, to cool feeling of the water on our red, warm faces during a set. We know how to work hard, and we rarely give up.

But mental illness can change this. I can speak from personal experience as can many other swimmers that mental illness is one of the hardest things we have ever dealt with. And when combined with swimming, it can only be worse. It can make you want to give up; I almost did with one semester of college swimming left. After our mid-season meet, gaining a ridiculous amount of time, anxiety attacks, frustration, and feeling alone, I wanted to be done. But I didn’t quit, although, yes, I wanted to. I wanted to so bad. I never wanted to touch the water again. But this wasn’t me, and I knew that.

Mental illness took my love of swimming away from me, and it took me a long time to realize that. It made me a negative person. It made me despise going to practice. It made me feel like I was letting everyone down. And more than anything, I felt truly alone. I was too stubborn to get help, and in denial that my mental health was suffering. I didn’t feel like there was anyone for me to talk to. And as this happened, I knew that my negativity, sometimes distanced attitude and change in personality was impacting not only myself, but my team and everyone on it. And I just watched it happen. I quit a month and a half before my 200 breast at Olympic Trials. I couldn’t take it anymore.

Eventually, after my career was over, I was finally convinced by a friend to talk to someone. As I did, for the first time in a very long time, I started to miss the sport. I missed it desperately. I started swimming before the team I was assistant coaching would come in for practice. I was able to feel the water as I had never felt it before. I was splitting faster times after not swimming for almost a year than I was before training for Olympic Trials. I felt happy in the water again.

This new found motivation and renewed love for the sport that had given me so much convinced me to open up about my struggles, and making the decision to return to competition. Although I may have to schedule training around a full-time job, it is something that I both want, and need to do. I want and need to end my career when I want to, not when mental illness determines it is over. After writing my first article for SwimSwam, there was an outpouring of support from former teammates, coaches, friends, hometown residents, and from people I had never met from around the nation. These people told me that they share my struggles, and many of them have been going through it without seeking help, because they too feel alone. Although I had always heard that mental illness was common in swimming, it wasn’t until I actually interacted with those who suffer from it that my eyes were opened.

This is why I started Rough Seas // Tough Sailor – a website and community dedicated to the open discussion, support, and advocacy of mental health and mental illness in athletics. It is a blog site in which those who wish to tell their story, share their experiences, advice, and more, are welcome to do so. It has become clear to me that there is massive support surrounding anyone who struggles with mental illness; you just have to reach out and find it. Rough Seas // Tough Sailor is an easy outlet to do just that.

I stigmatized myself for more than three years. I was afraid to open up about what was going on inside my head, and I paid dearly for it. My goal is to help those who are losing the love for their sport gain it back. For those who’s performance is suffering because of mental illness, to once again perform as they used to by seeking out help and becoming comfortable with the fact that mental illness is just like any other illness, or in an athlete’s case, any other injury.

If you would like to be a guest writer for the site, do not hesitate to reach out. I would be more than happy to share it. I know how important a sense of community, camaraderie, and open support can be to benefit the mental health of others, and I want to create a place where all of that exists for fellow athletes.


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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Harold A. Maio
3 years ago

—-I stigmatized myself —

One knows a prejudice has succeeded when its victim internalizes it and self-imposes it. It is the ultimate control.

Reply to  Harold A. Maio
3 years ago

Well, I made it because of my family. I had to worked jobs even with poorer than average visual perception. So, I don’t consider myself a victim. When I was young, they the adults said I had Add and I found out that I had learning disabilities. I had a father that had severe dyslexia. In adulthood I found out by one Psychologist I may have Asperger’s.

3 years ago

Important issue. Good article

Julia Robinson Shimizu
3 years ago

I swim because it brings me peace as I care for a loved one with severe mental illness. I am so glad to have discovered Rough Seas // Tough Sailor. When we talk about mental illness we become aware we are not alone. Thank you.