Tom Shields Builds From Suicide Attempt to Heroic Advocacy and Another Olympic Team

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Tom Shields Builds From Suicide Attempt to Heroic Advocacy and Another Olympic Team

Five years ago, Tom Shields qualified for his first Olympic team, finishing second behind Michael Phelps in both the 100 and 200 fly at Olympic Trials. He went on to earn a gold medal as a prelims relay at the Rio Games. The years following that career accomplishment were among the most difficult of his life as Shields struggled with depression and insomnia from putting too much pressure on himself and his swimming. He assumed he needed to be successful in swimming to support himself and his wife.

In late 2018, Shields bottomed out. He stayed awake for three days. He attempted suicide. He only survived thanks to his wife, Gianna.

Shields only told the world about his struggles with depression in late 2019, with hopes of relieving the stigma of mental health, so that people who were struggling might be more willing to come forward and ask for help.

Make no mistake, Shields was a hero. If his willingness to be vulnerable helped even one person, it was obviously worth it. But at the same time, he was still swimming, flying under the radar somewhat. But in Omaha, Shields would earn his way back to the highest level of the sport—with a completely different perspective than when he qualified in a more expected result in 2016.

Saturday night, as Caeleb Dressel took a run at his own world record in the men’s 100 butterfly, Shields took second, more than four tenths ahead of third-place finisher Luca Urlando. Conversations about the second spot in the 100 fly prior to the meet had been on Michael Andrew and Maxime Rooney, swimmers with 50-second swims to their credit in the relatively recent past. Not Shields.

But for the second time, Shields successfully navigated the crusher that is the Omaha meet. It’s not easy to come into a meet knowing that much of your swimming legacy depends on the results from one race. Miss out, and that can be devastating for the swimmers, as we’ve seen on so many occasions this week in Omaha. Get the job done, and there’s elation and the highest of highs, but Shields knows better than anyone that the resulting post-Olympics downer can be just as tough to pull out of. As he pointed out, at Trials, opportunities can be won or lost and every action can have massive implications in a swimmer’s future.

“Trials is hard, man. We train so much for mind, not result. But it’s really hard here. It’s not like Pac-12s or NCAAs. Trials meets are very traumatizing. And people talk about the mental health side of this, and I’ve started to talk about it a little more, and going through this last Trials, it’s like man, maybe it’s the Games experience, because there’s that Olympic hangover, people fall on hard times. I know I did myself,” Shields said.

“But I don’t think it’s exclusive to the people that make the team. It’s the Trials experience and this whole value system. It’s hard to manage. I was thinking about that a lot this week. I tried my hardest today, just go have my swim, focus on what I need to focus on, but it’s really hard. And this is my fourth time doing it.”

Comparing this meet to his 2016 Trials experience, Shields recalled entering the 100 fly being freaked out about having already qualified for the 200 fly in Rio and having to swim that event at the Games. But this time, he knows who he is at a swimmer, and he’s comfortable as that swimmer. If he never becomes an all-time great swimmer, that’s OK. He’s fully comfortable living in the moment and enjoying the experience he has earned.

“I’d love to think I could go really fast,” Shields said. “I still believe I can, but I’m 29. If I were going to be a top, top end earner in the sport, I probably would be by now. So not much is going to change. So I’m more settled in myself and I know what I want to do, and I want to put out good swims and just, 19 or 20 more 100s. I think I can go 50-point. I’ve never done it. But that’s what I’m focused on.”

From his lowest point two and a half years ago until now, Shields has grown, and he has advocated for important discussions about mental health, discussions that transcend what he or any swimmer could ever accomplish in the pool. That steadiness gave him a foundation upon which he could continue building his swimming career, and now, he has another Olympics to show for it.

5 comments

  1. avatar
    christine shields

    Tom

    i applaud you. sharing your personal lows and highs. My world would have been crushed if you had not had the inner strength and the love of Gianna to reach out that day, choose to live. Congratulations onward to training for Toyko Olympics , I cheered and cried as you arrived at the wall June 19, 2021 yesterday racing, 100 M Fly Olympic Trials, Omaha, NB. Love you Aunt Chris (Shields)

  2. Rich Davis

    Unfortunately he’s not the only high performance athlete suffering from mental health issues. I urge everyone to watch the Michael Phelps narrate documentary in HBO, Weight of Gold, it’s eye opening and very disturbing.

  3. Marsha Kathryn McClary

    Nice swimming Tom! Thank you sharing your story with the world. Best of luck in Tokyo.

  4. avatar
    Sandra Davis

    Hello Tom,
    Just read your story. You have accomplished and overcome so much. Wishing you the very best at the 2021 Olympics and in your future endeavors.
    Aunt Christine’s neighbors, John&Sandy

  5. avatar
    Deborah (Porter) Stoner

    Glad you made the Tokyo Olympics! Keep fighting, ask for help if you need it, and know that there are people who love you & cheer for you regardless if you win or not. My family always cheered for you at the Olympics since you swam at Edison (my brother Mike was an Edison diver). I’ll be cheering you this year. Best of luck!