Izzy Connor is glad to be embarking on the next portion of her journey, helping others as best she can along the way.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Health & Wellness

Knowing when you’re not OK: Izzy Connor knew she wasn’t — and luckily, she had someone to tell

COVID-19 has upended the sense of well-being for many, with more people experiencing the far ends of anxiety and depression. Some of them are now speaking out on their experience. UC Santa Cruz astrophysics major Isabelle Connor, who last summer in Tokyo completed her yearslong mission to make the U.S. rhythmic gymnastics team and compete in the Olympic Games, is one of them.

On the night she heard the news of star Stanford goalkeeper Katie Meyer’s death by suicide, Ellen Connor immediately grabbed the phone and called her daughter, Isabelle, a freshman living at UC Santa Cruz’s Crown College.

“I didn’t even tell her what had happened,” Ellen said. “I just wanted to check in with her.”

Izzy Connor is a UCSC freshman delving into the world of astrophysics.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As the parents and friends of Meyer grieve over her March 1 death and Stanford University pledges to increase mental health support after losing four students to on-campus deaths in just over a year, the Connor family realizes how fortunate they are.

Three years ago, as Izzy pursued her dream of becoming an Olympic rhythmic gymnast during training camp in Chicago, she suffered a sudden bout of depression that left her feeling suicidal. It was “like this wasn’t a life I wanted to live anymore,” she said.

Stanford goalkeeper and captain Katie Meyer.
(Via Instagram)

Luckily, she had someone with her in Chicago, far from her home in Manhattan Beach, who knew how to identify that something wasn’t right, knew the look in her eyes was not normal: her mom.

Izzy initially resisted even opening up to her mom about it, but Ellen persisted, and Izzy finally agreed to share the strange wave of intrusive thoughts and emotions overcoming her. It led to successful treatments that she’d never even had a need to know about: antidepressant drugs, cognitive therapy, mindfulness techniques.

It also led to important revelations about brain wiring and thought patterns and how both — nature and nurture — can lead to such sudden, terrifying predicaments.

Somewhat miraculously, it didn’t derail her Olympic dream. Izzy’s U.S. squad made it to the Tokyo Games, a year later than planned, and she emerged with a satisfying cause, far more influential than any hunk of metal: helping other student-athletes — and young people in general — better understand the tricks the brain will play on unsuspecting overachievers with big dreams.

Like many Olympians, Izzy Connor wanted the ink to mark the moment after the Tokyo Olympics.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s a lesson that should no longer be new.

The likes of gymnast Simone Biles, tennis star Naomi Osaka, swimmer Michael Phelps, the NBA’s Kevin Love and many more have begun to reveal their struggles in recent years. But understanding that leads to real change — readily available and affordable therapy, for starters — is slow in developing.

Izzy, 21, is still one of those big dreamers — she’s an astrophysics major who received a Lamat Institute fellowship, a prestigious honor for emerging early-career scientists. And she’s learning how to replace one big dream with another one in as healthy a fashion as possible.

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But she’s also now a grizzled veteran of the mental health challenge, with a full toolbox to share with the world. She aims to be a vocal advocate, and perhaps even a game-changer, during this especially challenging COVID-19 era when few have been unaffected.

She also knows too many fellow athletes who have tried to take their lives — and far too many of them who have died by their own hand. She knows how those destructive feelings can come out of nowhere and break the fragility of what many might assume to be a charmed life.

“I didn’t want to be alive,” she said.

* * *

Izzy remembers that you could see it in her eyes.

Ellen recalls it well, that vacant look in her daughter’s normally expressive green-eyed gaze, the quietness and inward pull that had suddenly taken over her teenager’s aura.

Izzy and Ellen Connor.
(Via Ellen Connor)

Izzy thinks it was probably the internalized stress of years of trying to achieve that Olympic goal, compounded by the work left to be done. Her mom believes an ended relationship, the difficulty of keeping up with schoolwork to advance her college dreams and not being back home for normal teen life events with friends in Los Angeles all played a part.

Regardless, Izzy was not well and was worried that she might harm herself. She said she tried to keep it to herself, and isn’t sure how it might’ve played out had her mother not been there with her in Chicago.

“A lot of athletes are conditioned to put on a face and just not want to show their weakness. Some of the athletes I know who have attempted suicide have these strong personalities, and you would never know (they tried that),” she said. “It all comes down to caring about the athlete as a person before the athlete. And we talk about checking in, but sometimes athletes are so conditioned to keep things in that even if you check in on them, they’re not going to be honest about it.”

Not every parent who checks in with their child who is off at college has the open dialogue about mental health issues as Ellen and Tom Connor. But trying to build that connection around understanding is a good place to start, Ellen says.

“Keeping the lines of communication open, being observant, listening with your heart not just your ears, being present even if it’s just over the phone, paying attention to what they’re posting online,” she said before pausing. She had remembered a very important one.

Never minimizing their feelings.

“Never minimizing their feelings. Minimizing feelings is not a healthy thing to do,” she said. “Even if you don’t understand why they feel the way they feel and even if you think ‘Oh, you got it all going for you, quit your whining,’ there are things that people have going on under the surface that if you don’t allow them to bring it to the surface. Then it can come out in some really bad ways.”

This much Ellen Connor seems to have understood from early on in her daughter’s athletic career. Consider her definitive “gymnastics mom” moment: Izzy was about 8 years old when something didn’t go right at the gym, and she burst into tears. A coach quickly ran over to intervene, telling the young girl to stop crying.

Izzy Connor (top right) with her Team USA teammates in Tokyo.
(Via Instagram)

“I went over to that coach and I said, ‘Don’t tell her not to cry — I want her to cry. It’s good for her,’” she said. “‘If she needs to cry, she needs to cry.’”

* * *

A few months after her whirlwind time in Tokyo, Izzy headed to Santa Cruz to begin the freshman life she had put on hold. And to see if she was ready to move on.

It took only a few months of assimilation to her new redwoods-meets-ocean existence for Izzy to realize it was the right time to close the book on her gymnastics chapter and figure out how to write the next one.

It involves weekly therapy sessions, she says, partly working on traumas that came with the high-level youth sports equation. “There was some harsh coaching, and those things really stick with you and manifest later,” she said.

And there is also the issue of redefining who you are and why you are here. She is working part-time with a rhythmic gymnastics program in Santa Clara in an effort to bridge that gap and wean herself off the need to compete.

Izzy Connor has decided to move on to the next adventure after gymnastics.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“You can’t get around defining yourself as an athlete in some ways — I mean, it was a huge part of my life,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like a stranger to myself because I’ve never met the version of me that’s not primarily an athlete.”

But as she meets those same 8-year-olds struggling to control their emotions as she did, she is able to impart her own valuable lessons.

I see myself in a lot of the younger girls and I just hope that I can tell them things that I wish a coach would have told me.

“I see myself in a lot of the younger girls and I just hope that I can tell them things that I wish a coach would have told me,” she said. “Things that teach them techniques for fighting past the negative thinking and changing the dialogue in your head.”

Meanwhile, she’s trying to practice what she preaches beyond the therapy, working on her own mindfulness practices: journaling, meditating, exploring where she lives more. Along with her boyfriend, she tried surfing for the first time last week. “Controlling that giant board is tough,” she said. “I’m not sure that’s the next sport for me.”

Izzy and Ellen.
(Via Ellen Connor)

Ellen, too, was surprised to learn about the surfing attempt. But she isn’t surprised at all that her daughter is taking her hard-earned lessons and trying to help others with them.

When she thinks of the family of Katie Meyer, she feels heartbroken. She hopes only that open discussion around mental health becomes more and more normal for families, and that breaking the stigma leads to breaking an all-too-common cycle.

“It’s really important for everybody to have people they can talk to and be honest with,” she said. “I’m really glad that Isabelle is not afraid to talk about these things.”

FINDING HELP

Need assistance with mental health resources?

For those in need for themselves or a loved one, here is a starting point for help with suicidal thoughts and to connect with mental health services:

* National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)

* Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741

* Santa Cruz County Behavioral Health Services: Find a wide range of prevention and treatment options for Santa Cruz County adults, children and families here

* NAMI Santa Cruz County: Connect with mental health support services in English and Spanish by calling 831-427-8020 or clicking here

* Encompass Community Services: Find counseling, support and more here