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Katherine Nye, America's new weightlifting silver medalist, has a message about living with bipolar disorder

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TOKYO — Katherine Nye is an Olympic silver medal winner. She can lift more than three times her body weight directly over her head. She also has bipolar II disorder, and wants people to be more comfortable talking about it.

The medal came Sunday night in a hazy auditorium at the Tokyo International Forum, decked out with pulsating lights and thumping retro party tunes befitting a nonexistent crowd. Her 249 kg (549 lbs.) total between a 111 kg (245 lbs.) snatch and a 138 kg (304 lbs.) clean & jerk was a personal record, and second only to Ecuador's Neisi Dajomes. It was the highest finish by an American weightlifter since the 2000 Sydney Games.

The bipolar II diagnosis came two years ago, and now she wants to ensure that the broader conversation about mental health doesn’t push certain disorders further into a stigmatized space.

Nye has long aspired to reach the Olympics — but originally not as a weightlifter. She trained as a gymnast for over a decade before injury forced a break and she realized her heart wasn’t it. And that she was never going to be elite at the sport.

“Oh, I definitely wasn't talented enough for gymnastics,” Nye said with a laugh. “I think I was good at gymnastics because I was very powerful. And I maybe could have gone to college with it — big maybe. But I think when it came down to it, I knew that I didn't have the passion and love for it that was necessary.”

Katherine Elizabeth Nye of the United States celebrates after a lift, as she competes in the women's 76kg weightlifting event, at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Katherine Elizabeth Nye of the United States celebrates after a lift, as she competes in the women's 76kg weightlifting event, at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

So she gave up gymnastics in 2014. Two years later, via crossfit, she found weightlifting. And in September 2019 she became the youngest U.S. woman to win a world championship en route to winning the 2019 International Weightlifting Federation Lifter of the Year. Two years after that, she’s standing with an American flag draped around her shoulders talking about what her message would be to young women everywhere.

In between, a longstanding pattern of extreme hypomania followed by bouts of depression hit a breaking point. After a disappointing performance at the 2019 Junior Pan American Championships Nye returned home and could barely get out of bed.

“I was literally chasing my dreams as an Olympic weightlifter while just trying to survive,” she told ESPN. “I didn't want to do anything. Things that were once enjoyable for me weren't anymore. I loved weightlifting, but I couldn't bring myself to enjoy it.”

She saw a series of psychologists and eventually, “they basically figured out I was no doubt bipolar,” she said.

“It was kind of scary at first, but then I realized that a diagnosis meant I could find a way to feel better.”

Now, through the often necessary trial-and-error of treatment plans, Nye says she has more control over her mental health than ever before. She knows how to take care of herself at high-pressure events, which means spending most of her time in Tokyo around coaches and teammates.

“I'm almost never alone,” she said, “because it's just not good for me.”

Over the past week, she’s watched as Simone Biles’ inability to safely compete set off an international conversation about athletes’ mental health.

“Which I love and I hope we can see more of it,” she said.

But she’d like to see something else, too.

“I think that it's great that mental health is becoming destigmatized as far as a lot of common disorders, like depression, anxiety and ADHD — which is fantastic. There's nothing wrong with that,” Nye said.

“But I also think that there's almost added stigma for a lot of other disorders that are not as common and not as understood. So I hope that I can show people what it means to be bipolar — or, you know, hopefully share stories of other people that have other disorders that I don't even know enough about. I think it's important to talk about them as a whole, not just pick and choose which ones were OK to talk about.”

It’s a perspective that could get lost in the broad-strokes celebration of self care. Because even as “mental health” becomes an increasingly empowered and anodyne buzzword, there are still very real and often difficult and different issues plaguing the estimated 2.6% of the American population that lives with bipolar disorder.

Normalization and acceptance of mental illness is a critical first step to lowering the barrier to treatment. But we don’t have to stop there. We can take the time and energy and effort to get specific. It just helps when someone so strong starts talking about it.

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