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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