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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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Dan Hicks, Rowdy Gaines call backyard pool swim race

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Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines covered swimming together at the last six Olympics, including every one of Michael Phelps‘ finals, but they’ve never called a “race” quite like this.

“We heard you were looking for something to commentate during the down time….might this short short short course 100 IM help?” tweeted Cathleen Pruden, posting a video of younger sister Mary Pruden, a sophomore swimmer at Columbia University, taking individual medley strokes in what appeared to be an inflatable backyard pool.

“Hang on,” Gaines replied. “This race of the century deserves the right call. @DanHicksNBC and I are working some magic!”

Later, Hicks posted a revised video dubbed with commentary from he and Gaines.

They became the latest commentators to go beyond the booth to post calls on social media while sports are halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

NBC Sports hockey voice Doc Emrick (who has also called Olympic hockey and water polo) did play-by-play of a windshield wiper installation.

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Which athletes are qualified for the U.S. Olympic team?

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Soon after Tokyo Olympic qualifying events began getting postponed, the International Olympic Committee announced that all quota places already allocated to National Olympic Committees and athletes will remain with those NOCs and athletes.

The IOC repeated that position over the last week, after the Tokyo Games were postponed (now to open July 23, 2021). What does that mean for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee?

Well, 76 athletes qualified for the U.S. Olympic team before the Olympic postponement was announced. That full list is here.

Those 76 athletes can be separated into two categories.

  • Athletes who earned Olympic spots BY NAME via International Federation (i.e. International Surfing Association or International Aquatics Federation) selection procedures.
  • Athletes named to the U.S. Olympic team by their national governing body (i.e. USA Swimming or USA Track and Field) and confirmed by the USOPC using NGB selection procedures after the NGB earned a quota spot.

When the IOC says “all quota places already allocated to National Olympic Committees and athletes will remain with those NOCs and athletes,” it means just that. USA Softball still has 15 athlete quota spots from qualifying a full team via international results. Surfer Kolohe Andino still has his Olympic spot from qualifying BY NAME via the International Surfing Association selection procedures route.

USA Softball named its 15-player Olympic roster last fall. Those 15 athletes did not earn Olympic quota spots for themselves. Unlike Andino (and 13 other American qualifiers across all sports), the 15 softball players had to be nominated by USA Softball and confirmed by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Unless and until the USOPC confirms that any of those other 62 athletes remain qualified, for now the list of U.S. Olympic qualifiers is these 14 who qualified BY NAME:

Karate (1)
Sakura Kokumai

Modern Pentathlon (2)
Samantha Achterberg
Amro Elgeziry

Swimming (3)
Haley Anderson
Ashley Twichell
Jordan Wilimovsky

Sport Climbing (4)
Kyra Condie
Brooke Raboutou
Nathaniel Coleman
Colin Duffy

Surfing (4)
Caroline Marks
Carissa Moore
Kolohe Andino
John John Florence

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