Identity crisis

“Honestly my thought, I was in the medical room, and I was down in the corner, I was sitting in the corner, and I was like, ‘What am I anymore if I’m not this?’ And I was literally sitting there and thinking about killing myself at that exact second. And I’m like, ‘I’m nothing. What do I do anymore?’”

— Ronda Rousey

* * *

When Ronda Rousey said those powerful words to Ellen DeGeneres this week, they sounded utterly familiar. In 1988, my friend Melvin Stewart went to the Olympics in Seoul as one of the contenders in the 200-meter butterfly. Mel and I grew up together. He was my first big assignment. I was his first full-time reporter. We are about the same age.

Mel went to Seoul as a leading contender, but in his mind, he was the favorite. In Mel’s mind, he was ALWAYS the favorite. That’s part of what made him special. We had a million conversations leading up to the Olympics about what it would feel like for him to win the gold medal, how he would celebrate, who he would ask out using the power of the gold medal and what his victory would mean for United States swimming. Mel had countless ideas about how to make swimming more popular in the United States. As I recall, naked swimming was one of those ideas. I don’t remember any of the others.

When Mel went to Seoul, he had this air of invincibility about him. The 200-meter butterfly is a grueling event, perhaps the most grueling swimming event, but he breezed to victory at the Olympic trials. He was only 19 years old, and the best in America. He went Seoul so full of brashness and joy and power.

“What do you think of the competition?” a reporter asked him at a press conference.

“I don’t,” Mel said happily. “They think of me.”

Mel finished fifth at those Olympics. Fifth. And a couple of months later, when he finally talked to me, Mel said words eerily similar to what Rousey said after suffering her first loss to Holly Holm. I can remember him staring at me, his perpetual smile gone, his eyes dull and empty-looking. He said: “Who am I now?”

That’s how Mel remembers it too.

“There’s this weight that comes down on your body,” he says. “And it just feels heavy. For me, I felt it on my head, shoulders and my back. If you ever see someone who has lost in a big moment, it’s like they have been physically defeated. You see they have a slumped shoulder. I fully understood that. There’s this weight on you, an actual weight. You don’t want to talk to anybody. What you want is go to your room, get under the covers and you want those covers to never come off.

“In that moment, if I had the choice to exist or not exist, I would choose not to exist. It feels like death. I know that will sound overly dramatic to people. But that’s just how it feels. Like death.”

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Mel is 47 years old now. He runs the hugely successful SwimSwam Web site — “the world’s most read swimming site,” according to SwimSwam’s Facebook page, with its half-million followers. He’s a husband, and a father, and a writer and an editor; Mel leads what he calls a mundane life. But it’s not hard for him to reach back and feel those dark emotions he felt just after he lost in Seoul.

“When you’re winning,” he says, “you feel like a superhero. You feel like the world just backs away for you. You just feel this energy, like you’re walking steel. And when you lose, well, the thoughts going through my head were, ‘Who am I now? If this is my identity, maybe I’d be better off dying right now.’”

There are those words again about dying, so similar to Rousey talking about wanting to kill herself in that low moment after the fight. Many have talked about Rousey’s words, how unhealthy they sound — and they are no doubt unhealthy. But these are the emotions. We as fans think we understand and feel the highs and lows of athletics. But, no matter how passionate we might be about a team or an athlete, we don’t live it. We don’t experience the brutal workout sessions, the pain, and tedium of preparation, the mental intensity it takes to keep going.

What did Ronda Rousey tell herself day after day in the gym? She undoubtedly said many of the same things that Mel Stewart said before Seoul: “You’re the best in the world. That’s why you do this. You are an inspiration to people. You are pushing your sport forward. You are carving your place in history. You are the best in the world!” The best athletes convince themselves of these things; there is no room in their mind for even the slightest doubts. Those words form the athlete’s self-image.

And then, you finish fifth at the Olympics.

And then, you get knocked around in the second round by a Holly Holm kick.

“That feeling lingers for a very long time,” Mel says. “I remember later when I won the national championship. I was No. 1 in the world. And I still thought, ‘You know what? It’s not that great. In the Olympic Games, I’ll probably lose.’ Here I was, first in the world, and my feeling was still, ‘I might be better off dead.’”

Of course, Mel says, what Rousey endured was different from what he did in Seoul by scale. He was a relatively unknown swimmer. She was world-famous. She had lifted an entire sport. She had become a hero to millions. She was invincible.

But, in a way, it’s no different at all. People who insist, “It’s just a sport,” miss the obvious: It is not just a sport for the athlete. It is life. Ronda Rousey is 29 years old now. She can’t fight all her life. This is her time, her moment. It’s so clear that loss made so little sense to her. It made her question everything that she believed about herself.

“My head started to heal — and it took a long time — when I started to fall back in love with the process,” Mel says. “I remember when I won at the Goodwill Games, broke the American record, and I realized that wasn’t what made me happy. I had to love the process, the incremental successes and accomplishments, the feeling of getting better. It wasn’t so much about the winning.

“I started to think, ‘You’re achieving a level of greatness personally. Maybe somebody will beat me. But this feeling of doing something well day after day, getting close to my own personal high, that’s what matters to me.’ Believe me, that wasn’t an easy adjustment. But that’s when the healing began.”

Rousey talks about her rematch with Holm: “I want to fight Holly and make everything right again,” she says. But, of course, it might not work out that way. She could lose to Holm again. And even if she does win, does that really make it right?

Three years after Seoul, Mel Stewart broke the world record in the 200 butterfly. Then he went to Barcelona in 1992 and won Olympic gold. But in his mind, it wasn’t winning the gold that made everything right.

“I knew that if I had lost in 1992, my head would have been right,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to win badly. Losing would have hurt a lot. But I knew the real reason I was doing this. I knew that it wasn’t about winning and losing. It was about regaining my sense of purpose. Win or lose in 1992, I wouldn’t have asked, ‘Who am I now?’ I knew who I was.”

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