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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Alpine skiing to test new format for combined race

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Alpine skiing officials will test a new format for the combined event, a race that is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

French newspaper L’Equipe reported that the International Ski Federation (FIS) will test a new team format for the combined, which has been an individual event on the Olympic program since 1988. L’Equipe reported that a nation can use a different skier for the downhill and slalom in the new setup, quoting FIS secretary general Michel Vion.

For example, the U.S. could use Breezy Johnson in the downhill run and sub her out for Mikaela Shiffrin in the slalom run, should the format be adopted into senior competition.

The format will be tested at the world junior championships in January in St. Anton, Austria, according to the report.

In response to the report, a FIS spokesperson said, “Regarding the new format of the combined is correct, and our directors are working on the rules so for the moment the only thing we can confirm is that there will be this new format for the Alpine combined that has been proposed by the athletes’ commission.”

Some version of the combined event has been provisionally included on the 2026 Olympic program, with a final IOC decision on its place coming by April.

This will be the third consecutive World Cup season with no combined events. Instead, FIS has included more parallel races in recent years. The individual combined remains on the biennial world championships program.

L’Equipe also reported that the mixed team parallel event, which is being dropped from the Olympics, will also be dropped from the biennial world championships after this season.

“There is nothing definitive about that yet, but it is a project in the making,” a FIS spokesperson said in commenting on the report.

Vion said the mixed team event, which debuted at the Olympics in 2018, was not a hit at the Beijing Games and did not draw a strong audience, according to L’Equipe.

The World Cup season starts in two weeks with the traditional opening giant slaloms in Soelden, Austria.

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Ironman Kona World Championships return, live on Peacock

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The Ironman Kona World Championships return after a three-year hiatus with a new format, live on Peacock on Thursday and Saturday at 12 p.m. ET.

The Ironman, held annually in Hawaii since 1978, and in Kailua-Kona since 1981, was not held in 2020 or 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The world championships made a one-time-only stop in St. George, Utah, on May 7 to make up for the 2021 cancellation. The winners were Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt, the Tokyo Olympic triathlon champion, and Swiss Daniela Ryf, who bagged her fifth Ironman world title.

WATCH LIVE: Ironman Kona men’s pro race, Saturday, 12 p.m. ET — STREAM LINK

Both entered Kailua-Kona, where the races were now split between two days — Thursday for the women and Saturday for the men. Chelsea Sodaro won the women’s race, ending a 20-year American victory drought.

An Ironman includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a marathon — totaling 140.6 miles of racing. It takes top triathletes eight hours to complete. Very arguably, it crowns the world’s fittest man and woman.

Blummenfelt, 28 and in his Kona debut, will try to become the youngest male champion in Kona since German Normann Stadler in 2005. His top challengers include countryman Gustav Iden, the two-time reigning Half Ironman world champion, and German Patrick Lange, the 2017 and 2018 Ironman Kona winner.

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