Izzy Connor enjoying every bit of her Tokyo moment.
(Via Izzy Connor)
Higher Ed

UCSC Olympian’s golden dream: Help destigmatize the mental health conversation in sports, society

Soon-to-be UC Santa Cruz student Izzy Connor plans to join the ranks of high-profile athletes like Simone Biles, Michael Phelps and Naomi Osaka who are refusing to just be quiet about the mental rigors that go into striving to be the best. Lookout caught up with her before her big Tokyo moment.

Isabelle Connor couldn’t yet tell you whether she’s more Taqueria Vallarta than Los Pericos or Cat & Cloud than 11th Hour. The UC Santa Cruz student who goes by “Izzy” has hardly stepped foot in the 831 since enrolling and deferring her astrophysics/psychology dreams while she chased her Olympic rhythmic gymnastics dream.

The gymnastics dream will turn to reality in Tokyo this coming weekend, and soon after Izzy will return to the country — and soon to this county — sure of something far more important: Simone Biles isn’t the only U.S. gymnast intent on shining a light on the mental health challenges elite athletes endure amidst a culture that demands invincibility.

“You can absolutely be a successful athlete and still struggle with anxiety and depression,” said the gymnast, who turned 21 earlier this month. “It doesn’t have to stop you.”

The Manhattan Beach native has spent most of the past five years living and training in Chicago, part of a contingent of young Americans going after their Olympic dreams without any certainty that they would make it.

That, Izzy says, describes how unlikely she feels this moment was when she thinks back only a few years. She wrote about that poignantly in an emotional Instagram post when the team received official word that it had made the Olympics in June.

Izzy Connor and team

Most people tell a story of dreaming since they were very young that they want to go to the Olympics. For me, it was different. It was a dream I never allowed myself to have because I thought it was unrealistic and I felt unworthy. I wish I could hold my 10-year-old self by the hand and tell her she is allowed to dream bigger than what she thinks she can achieve. I wish I could cradle my 18-year-old self struggling with anxiety and depression, wipe away her tears and tell her she is worthy of it all.

— Izzy Connor via Instagram

The U.S. rhythmic gymnastics team will get its Tokyo moment Saturday (Friday here on the West Coast). Though they are far from favorites in a sport dominated by Eastern European nations, they will savor their Olympic moment just the same and strive for the cleanest routine they can turn in.

Lookout was fortunate to catch up with Izzy, who plans to be in Santa Cruz this fall working toward her degree, before she left for Tokyo. She was in Lake Placid, New York, training eight hours a day for this big moment.

Thanks for taking time out of this whirlwind. How crazy has it been?

Between the media requests and long training days, pretty crazy.

How’d you fall into rhythmic gymnastics?

When I was doing regular gymnastics, my coaches noticed I had the body type and lines suited for rhythmic, and I saw it happening on the other side of the gym and I was really interested in it. And also I didn’t have very much upper-body strength, so it seemed more natural for me to go into rhythmic.

So you’ve been on this path to make the Tokyo Olympics for five years. How confident were you along the way that you’d make it and be a part of it?

Not confident at all. When I came in, I went through a big personal transformation. I did not have a lot of self-confidence, I didn’t think there was a high chance that I was going to be chosen for the Olympic team. I had a lot of problems with self-esteem.

Your Instagram post touched on that some ...

I haven’t publicly come out about my story, which I’m going to do after I’m done competing. The bottom line is that many athletes go through mental health problems and mental struggles. And there’s a very large stigma around it still. Athletes are humans and, as athletes, there is pressure to keep your emotions covered up and contributes a lot to it. I’m very open about the fact that I go to therapy and I work with sports psychologists and I have worked to reprogram the way that my mind works. And you have to work at it every single day.

Being hard on yourself is considered mandatory for elite athletes, right?

Every athlete is very much a perfectionist and hard on themselves. I was definitely extremely hard on myself. I haven’t completely formulated the way I’m going to talk to the media about that yet, so I don’t know if I should go to into detail before the Olympics.

It’s unfortunate that it’s such a stigmatized thing. You’re going to have those logjams in your head trying to be the best, right?

Yeah, the biggest thing for me is that I have to approach everything that I’m feeling with acceptance. And if you accept it and acknowledge it, and then address it and move forward, it will not stop you. You can absolutely be a successful athlete and still struggle with anxiety and depression. It doesn’t have to stop you. I used to think that because I had anxiety all of a sudden, I couldn’t be on the national team and because I have anxiety I couldn’t be a successful athlete. And that is very much not true. You have to just accept the waves of emotions that come with the life that we live, that we have very strong emotions. You have to accept them and not repress them.

Of the 55 Olympic sports, rhythmic gymnastics has got to be one of the least understood. How do you explain it to people?

Usually the thing that people understand right away is it’s the sport with the ribbons. I guess the way that I would describe it is kind of like synchronized swimming ... like synchronized gymnastics on the carpet. We have to do tosses to each other and things underneath those tosses and catch in different parts of our body. It’s a mix of ballet and like artistic gymnastics and coordination. So you know, tossing to yourself, catching with your foot. And then definitely in group, it’s very much so about synchronization and being in tune with your teammates. A lot of times when we do our routine we will notice when we finish that everyone’s breathing is synchronized. It’s a really interesting thing because it’s how we can tell we’re in each other’s energy.

How did you get to UCSC?

So I have been wanting to go into astrophysics. And Santa Cruz has a very good astrophysics program. And then I visited, I believe, like two years ago and I really, really wanted to be somewhere that is just beautiful. I need to be outside in nature to ground me. I need to be somewhere where I feel really at peace. So I just fell in love with the campus. And I talked to some of the professors there and everyone, like everyone that I’ve worked with and talked with, the advisor, registrar’s office and everyone in the administration has been so incredibly accommodating to my situation. And even though it’s a big school, the way it’s set up it feels like a small school.

Astrophysics is a hefty major.

So I’m between psychology and astrophysics, but I’ve been wanting to do astrophysics since middle school. The movie “Interstellar” started it. I’m really into black holes and theoretical astrophysics, and like high-energy astrophysics. I’ve always felt a very strong connection to the stars and have just been so fascinated by outer space.

Psychology comes in handy in trying to figure out ourselves and others too.

Yeah, I became interested in psych when I went through my tough period. And it’s something I’ve realized I think I could also make a really big difference with, just trying to change the mental health stigma in sports and in USA Gymnastics, and just trying to help other people with the things that I went through.

Do you think it’s pretty miraculous where you are right where you sit right now?

Absolutely. It still feels quite unreal. I just keep trying to remind myself every day that it’s like, you know, “Look what you did. Look what you did when you didn’t think that you would ever be able to do something like this.” I’m just so different now than I was when I was younger. And I’ve just essentially proven to myself that I literally can do anything that I work hard at and dream of because I am capable of those types of things.

Your low point was pretty low, it sounds like.

Yeah, essentially, you know, a lot of times when you become an adult, and then life kind of hits you. ... It was a combination of a lot of things, like loss of family members, just realizing a lot of stuff, stressed about world championships, repressing my emotions for a very long time. It was just kind of the perfect storm that led to a mental breakdown. And I maybe only skipped like a couple days of training throughout that entire process. I was very depressed, borderline suicidal for a while, even on our worlds trip. I worked very hard every single day to try and get myself out of that and I ended up eventually coming through it. And I still struggle with it sometimes. It’s like an injury that flares up sometimes and you have to attend to it and you get better and better as you get older and go through more things.

More and more athletes are speaking out.

The level of understanding is definitely better than it used to be. But, yeah, it definitely needs more work because a lot of coaches don’t understand it fully.

It’s great to hear how far you’ve come and I look forward to you sharing more down the line.

Thank you.

Group rhythmic gymnastics competition begins at 10 a.m. in Tokyo on Saturday (6 p.m. Friday here) and concludes with the medal round the following day.