What Caeleb Dressel’s Return to Elite Sports Can Teach Us About Success

We may not be as fucked up as we think we are.

Danni Michaeli, MD
Change Becomes You
5 min readJul 7, 2023

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Photo by Rinke Dohmen on Unsplash

A recent article in The New York Times about Caeleb Dressel’s return to competitive swimming identified the impact of his mental health journey through his rise, departure and return to sports. The story also discusses Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Lydia Jacoby, all of whom have had similar experiences during their careers. For the most part, stories about mental health among elite athletes focus on the stress brought on by expectations and public visibility of professional athletics, and with good reason. But can depression and anxiety also be an advantage?

The prevailing conversation is basically that because of the stress, some people start to crack under pressure. Then it becomes a comeback story, the power of human ambition to overcome adversity and succeed despite setbacks and hardship. Never give up. It’s a good story, and has value both as a respectful allegory about the humanity of these larger than life figures, but also as a reminder to the rest of us more mediocre folks.

But consider this: mental health issues are prevalent among all of us, so it’s easy enough to imagine that some elite athletes harbor these conditions as well. In other words, though their careers may bring out these underlying conditions, it’s built into their DNA. Does that represent a vulnerability? I’m sure, but maybe that’s not the whole story. Maybe they offer a competitive advantage.

Think about the isolation athletes have to place themselves in, the perseverance of will to train for many hours each day, the relative abuse of punishing coaches and frequent losses and ceiling events. And you have to put up with it for years and years. There’s a lot of potential suffering in competitive sports. Individuals who are more comfortable being isolated, or more used to a background of suffering may simply be able to handle this type of life.

We’re used to the competitive athlete who is a rock star on all fronts. Beautiful physically, strong, healthy, outgoing, positive, bright and wise. But is that really the norm? Those individuals are simply the most likely to be featured, because of their telegenic personalities and lives. There are literally thousands of competitive professional athletes who we never think about and are quickly forgotten, the “extras” in the success and perseverance stories of human achievement. Are complex mental health conditions more the norm than the exception?

Look around. Elon Musk is autistic. Maria Carey is Bipolar. Similarly, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Ted Turner. Did you know that Jack Kerouac and F. Scott Fitzgerald had Schizophrenia? Could these people have achieved what they did without their complex psychiatric conditions?

What about comedians? Through their humor, many are open about their conflicts, confusion and self-recrimination. Without this public self-deprecation, what would they joke about? They need their suffering to find their humor. They create a wonderful relatability whereby all of us can laugh at ourselves, at our weirdness.

In medicine, we have a powerful example of this: sickle cell anemia. Sickle cell disease is a genetic anomaly which causes red blood cells to curve in an unusual way and clump too much. People with this condition experience anemia, swelling and episodes of terrible pain, and have a markedly shortened lifespan. But because of the physiology caused by this genetic mutation, they are also notably resistant to the parasitic infection, malaria. This is a significant advantage; sicklemia is a mutation which developed in African regions where malaria is prevalent. If you have only one sickle gene, not two, you don’t have symptoms of sickle cell anemia, but you still have hightened immunity to malaria. Maybe the proclivity towards depression and anxiety confer the same sort of competitive advantages when present in the right proportions and in the right environment? Can certain psychiatric conditions be similarly advantageous?

Does this seem preposterous? The entire neurodiversity argument is built on this premise, that characteristics are neither good nor bad, we just need to figure out how to build our lives around them.

In my work as a psychiatrist, patients speak to me about this in two ways. On the one hand, they want help dealing with their messed up brains, but then sometimes they also identify how their anxiety and self-recriminations drive them to strive and try harder. I’ve never been a fan of this way of thinking for most people; I think we have better and less personally toxic psychological tools to help promote engagement and success, but sometimes it doesn’t matter what I think. Some of us are built this way, more angsty.

Like with sicklemia, it all depends on circumstance and proportion. Too much, or in the wrong circumstance, our angst could be deadly. But some of it in the right situation may make a significant difference. Recognizing this possibility represents an opportunity for all of us.

As a society, we discuss mental health conditions as diseases, problems, hardships and barriers. When we see these conditions in others, we often relate to them with pity, maybe cynicism and even resentment. For those of us who experience these conditions, we blame them for our failures and limitations. At their worst, psychiatric conditions can be terrible, painful and life threatening. But it’s not universally true. For some people, the conditions of depression and anxiety may confer an advantage. It may be the key ingredient for their personal successes.

So maybe the most successful individuals in the world are not a bunch of beautiful, strong, brilliant high achievers. They’re not necessarily the best of us. Maybe they’re just the most adaptive. They’ve welcomed their complexity and organized it into a winning package. Those of us who deny those more complicated pieces of our being, our perceived ugliness, will forever be at war with ourselves. That’s going to hold us back.

Some of the winning possibility is available to all of us, and if we harness it, we can get much further in life. The world is huge and getting huger, with all sorts of new possibilities of who we can be and how we can live our lives. Being honest with our complexity, with the true nature of our condition, will better enable us to reach the top of our game.

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Danni Michaeli, MD
Change Becomes You

A psychiatrist and a dreamer, I'm always listening for the magic and wondering what we're all doing here.....