Alex Diebold poses for a portrait during the Team USA Media Summit on Sept. 27, 2017 in Park City, Utah.
Alex Deibold’s Instagram post in mid-May was different from what the Olympic bronze medalist snowboarder typically shares.
Instead of a shot of him on his board or a snowy mountain range, the photo was a black-and-white portrait of the 33-year-old staring into the camera with his hands folded in front of his mouth. His dark sweater blends into the background and half his face is in shadow.
“It’s OK to not be OK all the time,” is the first line.
Deibold goes on to share his struggles with what he calls the “post-competitive season comedown” and how the transition back to “real life” can be difficult. This spring, he admitted, has been worse than usual, for reasons he still doesn’t fully understand.
It was a dose of honesty on a platform where troubles are often hidden and of vulnerability from someone in a profession that values toughness and showcases swagger. It also came in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month.
“On social media a lot of times people get used to seeing my life as great and these are all the adventures I go on and I do all this awesome stuff, and it’s not always the case,” said Deibold, who won the bronze medal in snowboardcross at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. “Spring time has always been a particularly tough time for me, and I never shared that before. I felt like I needed to do it justice because it’s just the truth.”
Over the last decade or so the cycle has become familiar to Deibold. There’s the buildup to the season, where he’s training hard and preparing physically and mentally, followed by the beginning of the season, then the meat of the season and, hopefully, the big event, whether that’s the world championships or Olympics.
Then it’s over.
That’s the hard part.
“During the season you have this razor-sharp focus and everything’s sort of out in front of you,” he said. “Life is very planned out and you’re always busy and you always have something to look forward to. The season comes to a close and you have this feeling of, ‘Now what?’”
For Deibold the “comedown” manifests itself in what he calls a lack of passion, purpose and drive and, yes, sadness and depression. For someone who’s generally a positive, outgoing person as well as someone who feels lucky to be able to do what he does and appreciates all the opportunities he’s had, feeling guilty for feeling sad can make things even worse.
“It feels (lousy),” he said. “It feels lame to be bummed out and sad for myself because I’m not competing in snowboarding when the reality of life is I’m fortunate to have a roof over my head, family that cares about me and a network of friends that support me. Sometimes you go, ‘Why do I feel so sad when I have all this going for me?’ That’s where the guilt comes from.”
These are all things Deibold has battled internally, until now.
In a week the post had accumulated more than 1,000 likes and nearly 70 comments, including quite a few from fellow Olympians and Paralympians.
“It’s very real,” two-time Olympic snowboardcross champion Seth Wescott wrote. “Keep talking and know that it’s all a transition in life.”
Four-time Olympic luger Erin Hamlin wrote, “Real talk. Thank you for this.”
Olympic ice hockey gold medalist Meghan Duggan responded, “Powerful stuff.”
Deibold had a feeling other athletes dealt with the same, but he was still surprised by the responses, both public and private.
“I got phone calls, text messages and direct messages from athletes I know and from people I don’t know,” he said. “Those were the ones that were pretty powerful. A young ski racer who’s a friend of mine reached out to me and said, ‘I’m going through the same thing but I don’t know how to talk about it so thank you for putting yourself out there because I feel like I’m not alone.’ That meant a lot to me because that’s the idea.”
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It’s ok to not be ok all the time. • The post competitive-season come down is real. Transitioning back to “real life” can be tougher some years than others. This spring was one of those for me for reasons I still haven’t sorted out... • Thanks to @robbietubajon for reminding me to allow myself grace to not be okay. Thank you to the rest of the people in my life for even the smallest of support. • It hasn’t been anything serious, just trying to keep things real here in between the gratuitous “Instagram life” shots. #straighttalk
These days, Deibold said, he feels like he’s on the uptick. One of the frustrating things is that he still isn’t sure why some years it hits him harder than others, because it’s not always tied to performance or results from the season. It also doesn’t hit him immediately after the season ends, but rather tends to sneak up after a few weeks.
Over the years he’s learned different ways of dealing with the comedown. He’s an avid biker and golfer, and exercise helps. He’s also learned that finding ways to help others who are going through a tough time also brings him a lot of joy and satisfaction, and he’s even considered getting a part-time job such as the one he worked for years in a bike shop during the offseason.
But he’s also learned, after reaching out to friends and family as he contemplated whether or not to share his struggles publicly, that realizing and accepting that it’s OK to not be OK also helps a lot.
He hopes his admitting it to the world might help others as well.
“In my personal experience athletes are very ego-driven,” he said. “And as an athlete there’s so much focus on positive self-talk and having confidence and all those things. To open up and be vulnerable with a teammate or a coach or a family member, sometimes it can feel like they’re going to possibly use that against you or it sort of cheapens your bravado or your confidence in the future and I don’t think that’s true. I think it takes a lot of strength and confidence to be vulnerable and you should own that.”