Tom Shields goes public with his rescue, hoping it helps save others

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Tom Shields composed the message two months ago. He did not press “share” until Dec. 26, telling the world that he tried to hang himself a little more than one year ago.

“My time in the sport is coming to an end,” Shields, a 2016 U.S. Olympic swimmer, said by phone Sunday night from Colorado Springs, where he’s training at a high-altitude camp with other Cal-Berkeley-based swimmers. “As I’ve gotten older, I don’t just want to do nothing with this [sport’s] platform, as small as it is. I had this happen to me, and I feel pretty level-headed about it. I did this to myself, rather. But it didn’t really seem too hard [to post]. I just kind of thought it might help some folks.”

Shields spoke for 15 minutes. He expanded on the 435-word Instagram post accompanied by a photo of him with his wife of five years, fellow former Cal athlete Gianna Tinetti.

“If G didn’t miraculously turn around and come home from her commute I wouldn’t be alive today,” Shields wrote. “She called me out of the blue at a time I normally wouldn’t be reachable, and distracted me til she got back⁣.”

Shields doesn’t remember much about that day. It was a Wednesday morning, a swim practice morning. He was awake since Sunday, though Shields had a track record of getting through training on no sleep.

“But four or five days in a row is pretty tough,” he said. Shields left practice halfway through.

“That was kind of the precipitating moment, but there were a lot of problems going on,” he said. “I think [Tinetti] probably figured I wouldn’t finish that practice.”

Shields said he never previously tried to harm himself physically, but the mental state he described on Instagram was one that developed since being performance-driven as an early teen. Aaron Peirsol, the retired, five-time Olympic champion backstroker, helped Shields navigate mental-health struggles after the Rio Olympics.

Shields wrote that he was “caught in a certain line of thinking, one that convinced me ‘I should get out of the way of the people I hurt, I will never get my s— together, or be worthwhile. I am simply incapable of becoming the person I want to be, so the best course of action would be to die, and cease the pain I bring into the world.’ I had spent many years fantasizing and reveling in this line of thought.”

Shields began seeing a therapist later that same day that his wife saved him. He learned eye movement desensitization and reprocessing psychotherapy. He now uses cognitive behavioral therapy worksheets and other breathing and memory exercises.

“To get into a state of mind where you feel like you,” Shields said. “I do a lot of that in my head, a couple hundred times a day, constantly checking in. It’s very similar to Hindu meditation classes I took or Christian prayer.”

Shields, the 2009 National High School Swimmer of the Year, was an NCAA champion at Cal who broke through professionally in 2014. That’s when he swept the butterflies at the U.S. Championships, beating Michael Phelps by .01 in the 100m, about 12 miles from his hometown of Huntington Beach. Years earlier, Shields watched Phelps swim a Grand Prix meet in Long Beach and was inspired to change from middle-distance freestyle to butterfly.

Shields made teams for the 2015 World Championships and 2016 Rio Games, earning medley relay gold medals at each meet. He finished seventh and 20th in the individual butterflies at the Olympics.

“I don’t think I maximized my performance [in Rio], and that’s a regret for sure,” said Shields, noting he hasn’t lowered his personal bests in four years and may step back from national-team competition after next summer to spend more time at home with his wife. “All of my best training has been since 2015 Worlds, for sure, so it’s been a frustrating process, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.”

Shields replays videos of his 2014 national titles twice a year.

“I see a lot more freedom in my swimming [then],” he said. “You can see that I’m not worried about much.”

One of the first people whom Shields noted as a rescuer last week was Dave Durden, his coach since he matriculated at Cal nearly a decade ago.

“He basically parented me through college,” Shields said. “I don’t think I ever could have swam successfully under any other coach just because I don’t think anyone else could have dealt with me, to be honest.”

The one person Shields tagged in his post was former swimmer Sean Mahoney. Mahoney was a senior at Cal when Shields was a freshman. They’ve been friends for nearly a decade, still live close to each other in the Berkeley area and have gone spear-fishing together.

“[Shields] is the kind of guy who goes 100 miles an hour, whatever direction it is, and that’s also emotionally,” Mahoney said. “I’d always try to steer him towards the middle, either way, if possible.”

Two weeks after his suicide attempt, Shields confided in Mahoney during one of their weekly to monthly dinners together at the Shields’ home.

“It’s definitely a subject that I’m pretty touchy on and empathetic to,” Mahoney said. “Tom and I were already close, and knowing that something this serious was going on with him just made a stronger reason to do the dinners, to just be a friend to this guy. One of the hardest things for someone going through mental health problems is people want to treat you differently, and they’re not sure how to act. Having someone to listen to — and listens to you — having that outlet to talk to, someone who is treating you the same before and will treat you the same after, at least in my experience from what I’ve seen, is very helpful.”

Since he went public, Shields said younger athletes reached out to him with their own struggles.

“This is going to help some people, you hope,” he said. “More than anything, I’d like to shift the conversation. [Suicide] attempts are always going to be a big deal, but I hope that we get to the point where it’s not a big deal to just ask for help.”

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Svetlana Romashina, seven-time Olympic champion artistic swimmer, retires

Svetlana Romashina
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Russian Svetlana Romashina, the most decorated artistic swimmer in Olympic history with seven gold medals, announced her retirement at age 33.

Romashina entered seven Olympic artistic swimming events and won all of them, starting in 2008. She won four Olympic titles in the team event and three in the duet (two with Nataliya Ishchenko and one with Svetlana Kolesnichenko).

The Tokyo Games marked her last major competition.

Romashina is the only woman to go undefeated in her Olympic career while entering seven or more events. The only man to do so was American track and field athlete Ray Ewry, who won all eight of his Olympic starts from 1900-08, according to Olympedia.org.

Romashina also won 21 world championships medals — all gold, second in aquatics history behind Michael Phelps‘ 26.

She took nearly two years off after giving birth to daughter Alexandra in November 2017, then came back to win three golds at her last world championships in 2019 and two golds at her last Olympics in 2021.

Romashina is now an artistic swimming coach, according to Russian media.

Russian swimmers swept the Olympic duet and team titles at each of the last six Olympics.

Russians have been banned from international competition since March due to the war in Ukraine.

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Mikaela Shiffrin, three gates from gold, skis out of world championships combined

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Mikaela Shiffrin was three gates from a record-tying seventh world championships gold medal when she lost her balance and straddled a gate, skiing out of the first race of worlds on Monday.

Italian Federica Brignone won the women’s combined instead, prevailing by 1.62 seconds over Swiss Wendy Holdener, the largest Olympic or world championships men’s or women’s margin of victory in the event since it switched from three runs to two in 2007.

Austrian Ricarda Haaser took bronze in an event that is one run of super-G followed by one run of slalom.

At 32, Brignone, the 2020 World Cup overall champion, won her first global title and became the oldest female world champion in any event.

“What was missing in my career was a gold medal,” she said. “So I’m old. No, I’m just kidding.”

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Shiffrin was sixth fastest in the opening super-G run, 96 hundredths behind Brignone. She skied aggressively in the slalom in a bid to beat Brignone. Shiffrin cut the gap to eight hundredths by the last intermediate split with about 10 seconds left on the course in Meribel, France.

Shiffrin looked set to overtake Brignone until tripping up slightly with five gates left. It compounded, and Shiffrin couldn’t save the run, losing control, straddling the third-to-last gate and skiing out. The timing system still registered her finish — 34 hundredths faster than Brignone — but it was quickly corrected to the obvious disqualification.

Asked on French TV if she lost focus, Shiffrin said, “People are going to say that no matter what.”

“The surface changed a little bit on these last gates, so [on pre-race] inspection I saw it’s a bit more unstable on the snow,” she added. “I tried to be aware of that, but I knew that if I had a chance to make up nine tenths on Federica, or more than that, like one second, I had to push like crazy. So I did, and I had a very good run. I’m really happy with my skiing.”

It marked Shiffrin’s first time skiing out since she did so in three races at last February’s Olympics, where her best individual finish was ninth in five races. At the Olympics, she skied out within the first 13 seconds in each instance. On Monday, she was more than 40 seconds into her run.

“I was thinking, now I’m going to go through the mixed zone. and everyone’s going to ask, ‘Oh, is this Beijing again?'” Shiffrin said. “I didn’t really think about that for myself, but more for the people asking. But I also said before, coming into this world champs multiple times, I’m not afraid if it happens again. What if I don’t finish every run? What happened last year, and I survived. And then I’ve had some pretty amazing races this season. So I would take the season that I’ve had with no medals at the world championships. If it’s either/or, then I would take that. I’m happy with it. But I’m going to be pushing for medals, because that’s what you do at world champs. You wear your heart on your sleeve, and you go for it. I’m not afraid of the consequences, as long as I have that mentality, which I had today.”

NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino said what happened Monday was “completely different” from the Olympics, calling it “an error of aggression.”

“It certainly wasn’t nerves that sent her out,” Porino said on the Peacock broadcast. “This was Shiffrin knowing that she had to have a huge run to get the gold medal.

“The way she went out this time, I think she can brush that one off.”

Shiffrin was bidding to tie the modern-era records for individual world championships gold medals (seven) and total medals (12). Coming into Monday, she earned a medal in her last 10 world championships races dating to 2015.

Her next chance to match those records comes in Wednesday’s super-G, where she is a medal contender. Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel is the world’s top-ranked super-G skier through five races on the World Cup this season, though she was 71 hundredths behind Brignone in Monday’s super-G run.

Shiffrin has raced two super-Gs this season with a win and a seventh place.

She is expected to race three more times over the two-week worlds, which is separate from the World Cup circuit that she has torn up this season.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup wins in 23 starts across all disciplines since November, moving her one shy of the career victories record of 86 accumulated by Swede Ingemar Stenmark in the 1970s and ’80s. Again, world championships races do not count toward the World Cup, which picks back up after worlds end in late February.

Worlds continue Tuesday with the men’s combined.

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