Every gold medal takes years of dedication, training and focus. But it also takes a mental toll on every athlete — a toll most are not prepared to deal with. David Boudia opened up about the weight he went through before – he is part of several documentaries about Olympic struggles.
Sometimes the toll comes before gold, whether it be a heartbreaking finish or missed opportunity. Sometimes it comes afterward with what has become known as an Olympic hangover or Olympic blues.
Boudia is featured on an upcoming HBO documentary “The Weight of Gold” that will be released July 29, and will also be a part of a series called “What Moves Me” on the Olympic Channel, which begins July 24.
“For both of these projects, it is a little intimidating because both of these are about mental health and put myself in a vulnerable position. The biggest thing I wanted to do with this is let people know it is a common struggle,” Boudia told Swimming World.
“There is such a misconception of athletes on the world stage and they are kind of up on a pedestal and people think they have everything they wanted, and that is not the case. The post Olympic blues are hard because athletes aren’t sure what to do. I am thankful for Toyota and the Olympic Channel (and HBO) for wanting to tell my story.”
For Boudia, the weight was the heaviest in 2008 when he made his first Olympic team and had hopes of medaling, but fell short of that goal.
“I didn’t even realize I wasn’t enjoying the moments of the journey,” he said. “The expectations you have at the Olympic Games that don’t get met are shattering. I finished my last event in Beijing and I was crushed. Then you have the entire emotional roller coaster of what the Olympics actually are. You have the highest of highs at the Opening Ceremony and marching in with the best athletes in the world.
“Then you have to go to work and for so many people it ends in heartbreak.”
After getting over that initial weight, which took a toll, Boudia was able to pick up the pieces and make a run at another Olympic team — then another.
But it took time to realize he needed to lift that weight off of his shoulders.
“I think it was about valuing the journey. For me specifically, that was helped by my faith. About a year afterward is when the depression really set in. Suicidal thoughts pushed their way in. It wasn’t until I started reaching out that I understood. The support was there, it was me not willing or feeling that I needed help,” he said.
“I can close my eyes and see what rock bottom was. It was September of 2009. I was sitting in my room at Purdue. I remember waking up from a nap and I pushed everyone away. Everyone went to a night football game, and I pushed them away and that is when the thoughts crept in. That scarred, but scarring doesn’t define you when you push forward.”
In 2012, he won gold on the 10-meter platform and bronze in the 10-meter synchro. He was the first American diver in 12 years to stand at the top of the podium at the Olympic Games.
In 2016, he won silver in the 10-meter synchro and bronze on the 10-meter platform.
“The biggest thing that I did approaching 2012 was planning for what life would look like after 2012 and setting up tiny goals to get there. My outcome goal was the Olympics and we had tiny goals to get there. When you break it up like that, it doesn’t seem un-achievable and allows you to enjoy each moment,” he said.
Mindfulness training is huge in today’s culture, and that is what athletes need to be doing. That is not to say you shouldn’t dream but it should be a good balance,” David Boudia said. “Life looked a little different going into 2016. After the 2012 games, I got married. In 2014, we met our first daughter. Life looked dramatically different.”
Now, Boudia, and his wife Sonnie, have three children: Dakoda (5), Mila (2) and Knox (1). David said starting a family helped his mindset more than he could have imagined.
“It is almost easier to train with three kids than with no responsibilities,” he said. “It is two different worlds. I go in and get my job done at the pool. Everything stays at the pool and then I go home and be dad. The balance and perspective is even more going into 2021.”
Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the games for an entire year.
“You can look at it one of two ways,” David Boudia said. “You can be dragged down by it or see it as an opportunity to get that much better toward your goals. Every athlete is in this position, whether they are back yet or not. We have to put a ton of work in to get back in shape and be ready for this. But the hardships in attaining the goals make achieving them that much sweeter.”
When Daryl Homer was 10 years old he saw an image in a children’s dictionary of a fencer wearing a mask, a white outfit and standing in the “en garde” position.
He was fascinated.
“I ran to my mom and said, ‘I want to try it out,’ and she kind of laughed at me,” Homer said. “She was interested, but she kind of laughed.”
Over the next year he kept seeing the sport in everything from movies to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to finally a commercial featuring two Black men fencing for a New York City cab. After seeing that commercial, Homer’s mom pulled out the Yellow Pages and found the Peter Westbrook Foundation, the namesake organization of the Olympic bronze medalist. The program’s stated objective was to push diversity, inclusion and representation to the forefront of fencing. Not long after, the 11-year-old Homer had a sword in his hand.
Westbrook’s unique program provided an environment through which Olympians and national team members (many of whom had come through the program) contributed as teachers and mentors to inner city youth. Many of these teachers and youth have created firsts for US Fencing, with names such as Keeth Smart, Erinn Smart, Ivan Lee, Akhi Spencer El, Nzingha Prescod, Ben Bratton, Kamara James and more having gone through the program
Now 29, Homer is a two-time Olympian whose 2016 silver medal made him the first American man to medal in sabre since Westbrook in 1984. TeamUSA.org caught up with the Team Toyota athlete to discuss his Olympic journey, the postponement of the Tokyo Games and his involvement giving back to both his sport and his community in honor of Olympic & Paralympic Day presented by Toyota.
So the men in the commercial turned out to be Westbrook, who’s a longtime mentor, and Akhi Spencer-El, a 2000 Olympian who’s currently your coach.
Did you understand back when you started what it meant to be around all these great athletes?
I was a kid, so it seemed normal. Even now, it sounds funny to say I was around so many Olympians as a child, but it all felt normal to me. We had all these people of African American descent who were Olympic athletes in fencing, so it wasn’t a reach for me to walk into the room and think one day that could be me.
It sounds like fencing was something you both immediately enjoyed and were really good at?
I definitely wasn’t good at it right away. There were a number of people within the program who were much better than I was. I was seen as talented, but it wasn’t the best person in my age category. I used to have crying fits and get really upset because I kept losing, but the foundation is a really loving place and everyone feels supported. One of the biggest things I’ve taken from Peter is that you can compete and still have kinship.
What stands out now, four years later, from that journey to the medal stand, going through the competition and winning a silver medal?
Standing on the podium, all my training and all the struggles ran through my mind — I had reached a goal that I’d set for myself as a child. You work, but you never know if you’ll reach it. I grew into a man on that journey. I became more comfortable with who I was, channeled my focus and energy towards a goal, formed strong relationships with family and friends, and most importantly learned the importance of paying it forward. After an experience like that, you sit back and reflect on what’s next — how to continue to build and what does success looks like moving forward?
Did it feel like a full circle moment, winning the first men’s individual sabre medal since Peter when he was such an early influence?
Yeah, I mean, it’s huge. Peter and I have a close personal relationship, but to also have our names etched in history next to each other is really humbling. I’ve probably read his book “Harnessing Anger” hundreds of times throughout my life. The six Olympic teams and 13 national championships were always in the back of my mind. I may not beat those, but it’s nice to know that there’s something iconic and transcendental that bonds us together.
The men’s sabre team qualified for Tokyo in March right around the time when everything was starting to shut down. What was that like going from qualifying to all the uncertainty to finally the postponement of the Games until 2021?
We were still traveling and competing when the first wave hit. We were in Warsaw and suddenly we couldn’t go to Italy the next weekend, because they were beginning to lock it down. It was an unsettling experience. We kept training as things were changing day to day, because as an athlete, you always want to be prepared. I think the conversation around the Games being delayed came a couple of weeks after the borders started to close around the world. It was a relief to hear the Games were delayed. It meant we no longer had the pressure of training day to day during a pandemic, but that quickly shifted to more logistical concerns. What does that mean for me financially? How do I shift my future? What does the next year and a half look like? My main takeaway from this entire experience is that you have to present where you are. I also thoroughly miss fencing. Just the physical experience of being able to go to the club with my friends and get some matches in. There’s nothing like being without something to show how valuable it really is to you.
You live in Harlem and have recently posted on social media about racism in the fencing world, being part of protest following the murder of George Floyd and other current events. What’s it been like being part of that and having the Black Lives Matter movement coming back to the forefront?
Black Lives Matter has been at the forefront of our community for quite some time. I’m happy it’s getting the national spotlight and allies are starting to take part in it. I’ve been on calls where something along the lines of “we understand how difficult this time period is” is said, but none of this is new. This “current circumstance” is an everyday reality for many of the black athletes in the sporting world. Many of us hold our communities in our hearts alongside our accomplishments. COVID-19 has wreaked tremendous havoc on the world. It’s also given each of us time to pause and reflect. How do we want to leave this world to our children? How can we be more empathetic and supportive to those around us? How can we lift up and empower those who are disadvantaged? Black Lives Matter continues to elevate our national conversation around systemic racism. It’s important specifically in a sporting context to think about the role we can play, both symbolically and with action, in supporting this national dialogue.
Does it seem different this time? Like maybe people are listening more and the message is getting out there in a way it hasn’t in the past?
COVID-19 stopped the world and that’s made it possible for us all to tune in. Individuals are pushing for increased representation and change across the entire nation. Organizations, spurred by those individuals, are starting to contribute to communities that have supported and enriched them. This is a time of grand reckoning and for massive change.
How have you dealt with racism you’ve experienced in the fencing world?
I think there are a variety of experiences that I’ve had, none I’m willing to elaborate on. But personally, I try to drown them out by cultivating a strong community around myself, speaking out and supporting those who do, and committing myself to my craft. My goal is to make the sport a better place for the next generation of athletes of color. They need to know they’re supported and that we are all part of each other’s journey.