Tom Shields Opens Up About What Led Him to Near-Suicide Experience in 2018

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

From the outside looking in, Tom Shields seemingly had everything going for him. He had swam in the Olympic final in 2016, won two national team titles at Cal, broke American records, won NCAA titles, and enjoyed a happy marriage to his wife Gianna. But towards the end of 2018, Shields admitted he tried to take his own life.

But he didn’t go public with this until December 2019, nearly a year after the lowest point of his life.

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A little over a year ago I tried to hang myself. If G didn’t miraculously turn around and come home from her commute I wouldn’t be alive today. She called me out of the blue at a time I normally wouldn’t be reachable, and distracted me til she got back⁣. ⁣ The best description I can offer of what happened:⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ I was a caught in a certain line of thinking, one that convinced me “I should get out of the way of the people I hurt, I will never get my shit together, or be worthwhile. I am simply incapable of becoming the person I want to be, so the best course of action would be to die, and cease the pain I bring into the world”. I had spent many years fantasizing and reveling in this line of thought. My therapist has convinced me that this belief is not connected to who I am. It is rather a “neural pathway” that may have helped me survive an earlier time in my life, but is simply hurting me now. I have learned many strategies to help me deal with it, but it’s a daily battle.⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ If you feel any resonation with the above, I urge you to seek help immediately, because it could be any old day that the thoughts take over, and you act out against yourself. ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ I owe thanks to more than I can ever mention, but to those in my life who rescued me; my wife, the guys at cal, Dave, Chase, my friends back home, USA swimming, a special shout out to @sean28mahoney, and even more people who, with or without knowing it, helped me unfuck my brain and gave me time/support to grow. This past year has been the hardest, coolest, most rewarding time of my life.⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ This is the first picture of Gianna and I after that time. She had gotten us a hotel and took the rest of the week off to be there for me. I am so thankful for her, and do not understand how I got so lucky. She is the light of my life, and the most supportive, kind, loving, and patient person I’ve ever met. ⁣⁣⁣ It’s crazy to look back. I am so thankful for a year of growth, one I wouldn’t trade for anything. A younger version of me would be bummed I didn’t swim a best time or good at all for a 5th year in a row, but I am finally learning to recognize and to value different kinds of growth.

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He opened up in an Instagram post on December 26 saying he had tried to hang himself.

“If G didn’t miraculously turn around and come home from her commute I wouldn’t be alive today,” Shields wrote in the post. “She called me out of the blue at a time I normally wouldn’t be reachable, and distracted me til she got back⁣.”

Swimming World reached out to Tom Shields to talk about what he had learned from the incident.

“This was not a cry for help,” Shields said. “It was more about sharing my experience with it and de-stigmatizing mental health issues.”

“I wish I was mature enough to say I needed help. I don’t think I am changing the world, I just wanted to share what I went through.”

Shields reflected back on what had led him to nearly take his own life, saying it was a combination of things over time.

For nearly his entire life, Shields said he had trouble falling asleep at night. But in the fall of 2015 was when he remembered it was getting particularly bad just months before the 2016 Olympic Trials, the biggest meet of his life to date.

“I think I took swimming too seriously,” Shields said. “One of my friends had a job lined up in case he didn’t make the Olympic team, but I didn’t. My wife was going through grad school and I got stuck in the mindset of ‘I need to be successful to be able to support myself financially.'”

He admits his grades weren’t the best while he was studying at Cal Berkeley, and he admits he didn’t network enough for his out-of-the-pool endeavors. That led to an “all cards on the table” mentality for Shields leading into the 2016 Trials.

Ultimately, he made the 2016 Olympic team at age 25, where he would go on to place seventh in the 100 fly, 20th in the 200 fly, and also swam on the gold medal winning 4×100 medley relay team in the heats in Rio.

But after Rio, he started thinking a lot about his future, admitting he didn’t attach the right ideas to being a professional swimmer. And the insomnia persisted.

In 2017, he tried different pills to help him fall asleep, but he kept experiencing negative side effects. Melatonin did more harm than good. Nyquil wasn’t working either.

“You get in your own head too much when you can’t sleep,” Tom Shields said.

In 2017, he missed qualifying for the World Championships team by placing fourth in the 100 fly at World Trials, and also missed the 200 fly A-Final altogether. It was the first time he wasn’t on a USA team since 2013.

He would frequently blame himself for not doing enough in practices and instead of acting on those doubts that he wasn’t doing enough, like stretching more or eating healthier, he would simply not do anything. He would let the emotion turn into shame and over time things would pile up. He would have a lot of thoughts like ‘why am I still doing this?’

His extreme insomnia was not helping either, and in one particular week in the fall of 2018, he was awake for nearly 72 hours. During this time, his mind would race and would often go to dark places.

“I woke up on Sunday morning and came home and didn’t sleep for three days. I lost the ability to motivate myself and I don’t think swimming success would have changed it. I wasn’t doing any sort of soothing techniques to calm myself down.”

After being awake for so long, he left his practice without finishing it. In his Instagram post he wrote last week, he said that he thought “I should get out of the way of the people I hurt, I will never get my s*** together, or be worthwhile. I am simply incapable of becoming the person I want to be, so the best course of action would be to die, and cease the pain I bring into the world.”

But his wife was there to save him before he could harm himself.

“She is the most loving and supportive person,” Shields said about her.

She helped him get to therapy where he learned exercises to improve his mental health. He uses cognitive behavioral therapy worksheets and other breathing and memory exercises, including spelling a long word backwards or using a diary to write down his experiences. He sees a therapist at least once a week.

Tom Shields wanted to use his own experiences to help other people who might be dealing with similar circumstances because a lot of people are afraid or embarrassed to admit they need help. But it took him a long time to get to a point where he would be able to share his experiences, because he was still searching for answers.

He admits he is still not all the way there but he felt like it was time to come forward with it, and that’s why he wrote the Instagram post at the time he did.

After the inaugural International Swimming League final last month in Las Vegas, he felt like at peace with the thought of being done after the 2020 Olympic Games if he is to make the team to Tokyo.

“I would love to make the team and continue to grow as a leader,” he said. “But I have no hard core plans in swimming.”

And he felt like this was the right time to come forward with his past struggles, saying he wanted to get his message out there while he was still relevant in the swimming universe.

“I waited until it wasn’t weird to talk about it. I tried to do something good by talking about it.”

Since he went public, Shields said younger athletes reached out to him with their own struggles.

“This is going to help some people, you hope,” he said in an interview with NBC Olympic Talk. “More than anything, I’d like to shift the conversation. [Suicide] attempts are always going to be a big deal, but I hope that we get to the point where it’s not a big deal to just ask for help.”

Shields wants to get back to loving racing and loving training again, but he already feels like a much better person than he was a year ago.

“I just remember being angry all the time,” Tom Shields said.

Now he is in a much better place. And he is thankful for that every single day.

3 comments

  1. avatar
    Karen B

    Thank you for sharing your story. Every story matters and will help. #endthestigma

  2. avatar
    Michele Fanfair Steury

    Thank you for sharing your story. As a mother of 2 swim boys and one who’s hope is to be admitted to Cal Berkley in the fall, I appreciate your willingness and openness to sharing this dark time in your life bringing light to all those who take a minute to read and really listen to your life story. I too am grateful for you and your wife. Thank you for opening up my heart today with your life! Forever grateful Mom of Steury boys swimmers❤️🙏🏾

  3. avatar
    Casey Barrett

    Thank you for this. The mental health crisis in swimming is infinitely more pervasive than anyone wants to admit… All love & support to Tom, his wife, and everyone who helped in the darkest times…
    ‘I just remember being angry all the time.’ – Sad to say, but that is my primary memory of myself during my ‘peak’ swimming years…