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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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Noah Lyles’ unbelievable time comes with an oops at Inspiration Games

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Noah Lyles may one day break Usain Bolt‘s world record, but Thursday wasn’t going to be that day. Even if, for about five minutes, Lyles was the first man to break 19 seconds over 200m.

Lyles registered 18.90 seconds, racing alone against competitors simultaneously sprinting on tracks in Europe. The time was unbelievable, given Bolt’s world record was 19.19 seconds. Turns out, it was too good to be true.

Minutes later on the broadcast, commentator Steve Cram said that Lyles only ran 185 meters, starting from an incorrect place on his Florida track.

“You can’t be playing with my emotions like this,” tweeted Lyles, who raced in Sonic the Hedgehog socks. “Got me in the wrong lane smh.”

Lyles, 22, has run 66 official 200m races dating to 2013, according to Tilastopaja.org. He is the reigning world champion and the fourth-fastest man in history with a personal best of 19.50 seconds.

But he had never experienced what came Thursday, with few spectators and nobody else in adjacent lanes for the Inspiration Games, a socially distanced meet with Olympians competing against each other on different continents.

Perhaps the setting played a role in the mistake.

“It actually felt pretty good besides getting that full gust of wind,” Lyles, who ran into a registered 3.7 meter/second headwind, said before he knew his time or that he was 15 meters short.

Christophe Lemaitre, the Olympic bronze medalist from France, got the win in 20.65 seconds.

Earlier Thursday, Allyson Felix had a succinct reaction to the strangest victory of her sterling career.

“That’s weird,” she said after running 150 meters alone, in front of few spectators on a track in Walnut, California.

Officially, Felix ran 16.81 seconds — impressive, especially if the reported 2.6 meter/second headwind reading was accurate — to defeat Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and world 200m bronze medalist Mujinga Kambundji.

Miller-Uibo raced alone in Florida. Kambundji was on her own in Zurich, the base of the Inspiration Games, a repurposed version of an annual Diamond League stop. The coronavirus pandemic is forcing meet organizers to get creative this summer.

Full meet results are here.

Felix, a 34-year-old mom with nine Olympic medals, called her event “very strange.”

“It feels sort of like practice, but not even because there’s really no teammates or anything,” she told 1996 Olympic decathlon champion Dan O’Brien at Mt. San Antonio College. “It’s hard to challenge yourself. I think that’s the big thing with running solo.”

Canadian Olympic medalist Andre De Grasse won a 100-yard race in 9.68 seconds, defeating French veteran Jimmy Vicaut (9.72) and Olympic 110m hurdles champion Omar McLeod of Jamaica (9.87). De Grasse, Vicaut and McLeod raced together, in every other lane at a Florida track.

The 100 yards is scantly contested in top-level meets. Nobody has broken nine seconds in a 100-yard (91.44-meter) race, according to World Athletics. But Usain Bolt‘s estimated 100-yard time en route to his 2009 world record in the 100m was 8.87 seconds.

The regular Diamond League calendar is scheduled to resume in August.

“This was fun,” Felix said. “I can’t wait until we can do it in person.”

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Jeff Gadley, Willie Davenport changed bobsled as Winter Olympic pioneers

Jeff Gadley
Photos courtesy Jeff Jordan
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Jeff Gadley‘s life changed when a stranger in a car tailed him on a decathlon training run in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in 1978.

The driver was Al Hachigian, a veteran U.S. bobsledder on the lookout for new talent.

Hachigian found the right man. Gadley had just won the first Empire State Games decathlon and set sights on the 1980 U.S. Summer Olympic Trials. Once Hachigian got his attention, he asked the 23-year-old Gadley if he ever considered pushing a bobsled.

“Of course,” Gadley said. “I grew up in Buffalo.”

Hachigian looked at Gadley — undersized for a bobsledder at 5 feet, 8 inches, and no more than 180 pounds — and decided he was worth extending an invitation to a trials event for the 1978-79 season.

“I think you could do well,” Hachigian told Gadley. “But there are no Black bobsledders, so you kind of have to be a little bit prepared for some things.”

No problem, Gadley said.

A year and a half later, Gadley and a later bobsled convert — Willie Davenport, the 1968 Olympic 110m hurdles champion — became the first Black men to compete on a U.S. Winter Olympic team in any sport.

“It was a huge story,” leading up to the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games, Gadley said in a recent interview. “Since we were the first, people wanted to know how we felt. What you thought about the sport being traditionally white. My answer was always, look, I can’t attribute a particular color to playing out in the cold. To be the first African American ever to compete in the Winter Olympics, I think it’s nice. I think it broadens the thought process of people and maybe will bring, one day, stronger and faster athletes to the sport.”

Gadley and Davenport, push athletes in driver Bob Hickey‘s 12th-place sled at those Olympics, accelerated a line of accomplished athletes converting from track to bobsled. They were followed by, most famously, Edwin Moses, Renaldo NehemiahLauryn Williams and Lolo Jones. NFL players Willie Gault and Herschel Walker also pushed sleds.

“There is a myth in this country that says Blacks can’t make the American Winter Olympic team,” Davenport said, according to Jet magazine in 1980. “Jeff and I proved this to be wrong that you don’t have to be rich and white to make it.”

Back when Gadley joined the national team, it was all white and mostly men from around Lake Placid, home of the only Olympic-level bobsled track in the country.

“I’m sure a lot of these people had not been around African Americans before,” said Jeff Jordan, Gadley’s best friend from SUNY Plattsburgh who rounded out the four-man Olympic sled with Hickey, Gadley and Davenport.

Gadley excelled from the start, earning a spot at the 1979 World Championships. Not everyone on the team was excited about his quick rise. Gadley estimated that out of about 20 national team members, seven or eight didn’t like him because of his skin color. He knew about two definitively, witnessing a conversation at the worlds in Germany.

“The worst thing I heard is that someone didn’t want a Black guy on the back of their sled,” Gadley said. “The saddest part is knowing that, at the world championships, your own teammates don’t like you because of your color.

“I said, I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to ride on the back of his sled anyway, even if I’m told to. I said, I don’t want to be on the back of your sled, either, and I just left it at that.”

Gadley competed in another sled at worlds, finishing 10th.

“It wasn’t all about skin color,” Gadley said. “Part of it was about you’re breaking up a culture.”

The next season, Hickey, a veteran driver from Upstate New York, was looking to fill his sled with push athletes. He chose the new group of Gadley, Jordan and Davenport. They won the Olympic Trials, despite Jordan and Davenport being rookies (Davenport reportedly pushed a bobsled for the first time a month or two before trials).

“They were the first real world-class athletes to hit bobsledding,” Jordan said of Gadley and Davenport. “We pretty much crushed them [the local bobsledders at Trials], and they did not like it. I don’t know if they would have liked it, period. It didn’t matter what nationality or color.

“The only thing they knew was they were getting their butts kicked. I can’t say we were mistreated other than they would rather have their buddies on the Olympic team.”

Davenport, at 36, was 12 years removed from his Summer Olympic title and the oldest U.S. bobsledder in Lake Placid. While his speed was an asset, his lack of experience was evident, his teammates said.

“Willie was on the other side of his career,” Jordan said. “He brought a lot of notoriety. We were in People magazine, on Good Morning America. None of that would have happened without Willie’s presence. He wasn’t there for the same reason Jeff [Gadley] was there.

“If Willie had just been another Jeff Gadley, would we have gotten that attention? Maybe, eventually, but there was quite a bit of attention early on.”

Gadley, Hickey and Jordan, in recent interviews, remembered the buzz at the Lake Placid Games. Curt Gowdy, the Hall of Fame sportscaster, called bobsled for ABC. President Jimmy Carter‘s 12-year-old daughter, Amy, showed up one day.

The Americans finished more than six seconds behind the winning East German quartet, but were slowed to an unknown degree by inferior equipment. Hickey said that the East German driver, 39-year-old Meinhard Nehmer, told Gowdy that the Americans would have won if they had his sled.

“They came and went quick,” Hickey said of the Olympics. “We weren’t prepared.”

It marked the end of the Olympic careers for Davenport and Gadley. Davenport died in 2002.

Gadley gave up the decathlon after the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games was announced. He now lives in Texas with his wife.

Most of his Olympic mementos and photos were discarded or lost over the last 40 years. But Gadley was glad for the experience and feels fortunate for the opportunity, back when bobsled was a regional, if not local, sport.

“I would say pioneers would be a good word to use,” for Davenport and I, he said. “It was just a matter of exposure where I was and what I was doing [at the time]. It made an example to others that, hey, as a Black guy, if he’s doing it, I can do it, too.”

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