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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


The pressure of the pool: a DI diver’s view on mental health

Nathanial Stenchever

An Arizona women’s swimmer sits ready before competing in the backstroke event on Saturday, Oct. 15, at Hillenbrand Aquatic Center. The Arizona women’s swim and dive team would get the win against Grand Canyon University 219-76. 

For diver Gracie Sleeman, becoming a Division I athlete at the University of Arizona was exciting. Coming from Michigan, being in Arizona meant she would have the opportunity to train outside every day and dive in an outdoor pool.

But the image she constantly felt pressured to withhold led her to develop an unhealthy lifestyle and question her passion for what she loves most.

Freshman year

In her freshman year on the Arizona swimming and diving team, Sleeman began to notice issues arising within her athletic performance. She was introduced to new mental blocks that became anxiety-ridden and disruptive when trying to perfect her dive.

Being a freshman during the COVID-19 pandemic and going home for a long period of time, Sleeman found herself struggling more with anxiety and depression. It took a turn when Sleeman returned to campus in the fall of 2020 and started to develop a negative relationship with food and her body.

“My sport is just so based on aesthetics,” Sleeman said. Women’s swimming and diving, alongside many other sports, deals with being judged and scored — on every little detail.

Sophomore year

As Sleeman’s eating disorder began escalating, Arizona Athletics reached out to her. They advised her to meet with a new therapist, dietician and psychiatrist after assistant swimming and diving coach Dwight Dumais, the head of the diving program, had contacted them.

“My coach Dwight [Dumais] cares so much about us as people before athletes,” Sleeman said. “He wants us to excel in our sport, but he really wants us to do well as a person.”

Sleeman said it is really easy to feel pressured or self-conscious due to the nature of the sport. While she was struggling with eating and facing different behaviors, she still managed to force all of her efforts into diving. By the end of her season, she had made the NCAA’s swimming and diving championship.

Because she was performing great athletically and maintaining satisfactory grades, she was able to convince herself that she didn’t have a problem.

“I was just completely in denial,” Sleeman said. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just so unhealthy.”

Junior year

With lots of therapy and struggling with her mental health on and off throughout her sophomore year, Sleeman realized it had been a long time coming to take a break. With 13 years of diving came built-up stress that stemmed from spending her entire life in a pool.

“You’re trying to upkeep an image of being strong enough to do hard dives,” Sleeman said. “You also want to look a certain way.”

By March 2021, her team of doctors suggested she seek more professional treatment. At the beginning of May, Sleeman took a semester off school and attended McCallum Place, an inpatient residential eating disorder center in St. Louis, Missouri, where she had group therapies and meals in a program made specifically for athletes. Sleeman said it was helpful to be surrounded by people in her world who could relate to what she was going through.

After leaving the facility, Sleeman moved on to partial hospitalization where she visited the hospital for eight hours a day and stayed in an off-site house. She was discharged, returned home in July, and made the decision to retire from diving and take another semester off in the fall. It took her a long time to accept herself and figure out what was important.

About a month later, once Sleeman had become much healthier, she realized her choice to end her career in diving was a mistake. So, she called Dumais and he welcomed her back to the team.

“I thought that I had lost my love for the sport, but I guess you could say I just lost love for myself,” Sleeman said.

Once she found love for herself again, she said her love for diving returned too.

Senior year

She returned in Jan. 2022 to restart training and began competing again this year. Sleeman said it felt like normal and her team worked together and established a healthy environment for one another.

“I feel like it really proved to myself that, like, you went through everything but you still did [it],” Sleeman said. “You fell down but you got back up, and that’s what’s important.”

When dealing with her mental health, Sleeman explained that sometimes, you never want to admit to yourself that you have a problem.

“It’s so important to hear,” Sleeman said. “It destigmatizes mental health and just shows people how important and real it is.”

Recovery is a long and ongoing process for Sleeman and a battle she has to face every day. She said that it never really goes away, she just gets better at managing it.

Looking ahead

Sleeman will retire this season and is set to graduate in December with a major in digital journalism and a minor in business administration.

Swimming and diving are among the many sports with a competitive atmosphere and overwhelming pressure that can negatively affect its athletes’ mental health. Strenuous training, high stress levels and maintaining a certain image can be very detrimental to an individual.

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