Why I almost walked away from skeleton

by Matt Antoine

Each morning I wake and the first thing I see is the American Flag hanging on the wall directly opposite from my bed. I then look up behind me and there is the Olympic flag; I give it a tap. Once I roll out of bed and make my way towards my door, there posted, is a sign. For the past four years I’ve had a sign that I look at everyday that has various goals and notes to myself. Among others is written: “Acknowledge fears, doubts, and situations”. Before you can conquer anything in front of you, you have to first acknowledge that it exists. For the most part, I’ve done a fairly good job at that. Not always. Most athletes pretend one thing does not exist, but eventually it catches up. Depression.

It’s the elephant in the locker room. I’ve been battling situational depression my entire career. After the high, there is the inevitable low. Sometimes by the time it fully surfaces though, the athlete has retired and nobody in the sport around him or her has to deal with it. Your problem, good riddance. I’ve watched some people very close to me walk away from sport the last couple years. The lows they have experienced far exceed the lows I have experienced after the end of each season.

Before I continue, do know that I love what I do. Very very much. I can’t imagine anything better than competing in this sport I love, traveling around the world, and the amazing people I get to interact with. The opportunity to represent my country on the world’s largest stage is an honor of immeasurable proportions. The problem is though; an athlete is always chasing a high, the Olympics being the ultimate of that. We have a profession whose success is precisely measurable and very public. The pressure is immense, the payoff substantial, and the end inevitable. Whether one succeeds or fails, it comes to an end, and that part of the path usually looks the same.

How does one manage those lows while in their career? You create a bubble. That’s what I’ve been living in for twelve years. With recent successes I’ve become more adapt to living in the public. It inevitably comes with the territory of becoming a medalist. I love sharing my story, the sport, and my medal with everyone that takes interest. That’s what makes the whole experience worth it, but it can take it’s toll and eventually I need to retreat back to my bubble to recharge. My bubble typically consists of the Olympic Training Center. It’s an environment that has allowed me to grow to levels beyond most people’s expectations. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to live and train here. It’s what has made me what I am today. It’s also the very thing that is beginning to eat me alive.

I don’t know many people that have ever said their goal was to be 30, living in a dorm room.  That’s the reality of what I’ll be looking at after this coming season. It’s a situation that I feel is now preventing me from growing not only in the sport but also for life afterward. So here I am, feeling trapped in the very bubble I created. The bubble that created me.

The struggle is real. While that term is used mostly in a satirical sense, and may certainly be viewed that way here too, most athletes will tell you that the struggle is very real. What do I do now? Have I hit my peak? Have I built any future? Life will exist outside sport, and some will find it faster than others. Some athletes may continue to put on the blinkers and pretend that struggle is not around while others will be very open about it. We’ll all try to conquer it in different ways.

I’m excited and ready for the challenges and successes of the next four years. I have to acknowledge however, I fear for what awaits after the final run. 

Occasionally in my free time, when the mood hits, I like to write.  That was written just prior to the start of the 2014/2015 season.  Life was on a high after the 2014 Olympics, or so it should have seemed.  Eventually the excitement settled down and life became normal again. Normal became boring, boring became depression, depression became normal.  I was no longer happy about what I was doing, where I was living, and felt I had no direction of where I was going.  Eventually October came and I made my way to Lake Placid, N.Y. to start the season.  That’s what I do in October.  This time is was different though; I wasn't excited to be there.  Had my career run its course?  I had nothing to prove to anyone, I didn't need to be here.

Fast forward to January.  Had my career run its course?  Yes.  That was the conclusion I had come to as I sat alone in my room in Altenberg, Germany.  Alone, because at this point I began withdrawing myself from the team.  I’d lie awake in the middle of night as anxiety attacks would begin to creep up on me.  Thankfully the time change would allow me to call my mother as she’d talk me down from them.  Why was I here?  I had made the decision I was done; all I wanted to do was go home.  For whatever reason though, I couldn't bring myself to tell my coach, Tuffy Latour, that.  Week after week I’d tell myself I need to walk away from this life, and each week I’d continue to torture myself by remaining there.  Well I’m glad I made that decision now; at the time it tore me apart mentally.

Eventually after the season of disappointing results came to an end, I got my wish to go home.  My “home” however was still a dorm room.  To pass the days I’d just sleep until 2 p.m., eat, then go hide in my room.  I had become mentally paralyzed, numb to anything around me.  Simple decisions became an impossible task.  Anything and everything became too much handle.  In tears, I called my mom and she told me I was coming back to her house for however long I needed.

Acknowledge fears, doubts, and situations.”  I’d finally accepted what I had been denying I had.  Despite saying the word “depression,” I had never fully acknowledged it until this point.  It’s what I had and I was ready to deal with it.  It’s an inherent trait in males to not discuss our emotions, so taking that first step to see someone was certainly the most difficult.  It was only the first of many.

As the spring carried on eventually I began to get my feet under me and take control of my life again.  After the disappointment of not making the 2010 Olympics, I knew an environmental change was needed.  Well after the success of the 2014 Olympics, that same environmental change needed to take place.  I packed up and moved my entire life to Phoenix, Arizona.  I’d never visited the area before or even knew fully what I was getting into, but I was committed to change.  I got a house, a dog, and most importantly, my life back.  The independence I have gained by building my own little place in this world is a feeling like none other.

I’d be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that my training program in Phoenix has produced results far from acceptable.  Anyone watching the sport this season can see I’m struggling tremendously at the push start right now.  I’m far more capable of handling these setbacks though than I was a year ago.  You don’t know something unless you try.  I tried, it didn't work, onto the next plan.  I have no regrets though on my decision to move.  I needed to fix my personal life before I could fix my sport life.  Despite the tough results, I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time. 

With just over two years until the 2018 Olympics, and just over two years left in my career, I look forward to continuing to grow and improve in my sport.  I look forward to leaving a legacy and lasting impression in the U.S. program.  I look forward to watching the ever-evolving progression of skeleton.  Most of all, I look forward to enjoying the relationships I have with my teammates, coaches, competitors, and everyone involved in this sport; my friends.  In two years time, I no longer fear for what awaits after that final run.  I now look forward to discovering that next great adventure.  The adventure I’ve found in skeleton is going to be one hell of a tough one to top though.