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Overholt’s smile has returned after swimming through struggle

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VANCOUVER – A half-dozen swimmers look up from their lanes in the UBC Aquatic Centre pool, each with a hand on the ledge as they watch a clock high on the wall tick down the seconds they have left to catch their breath.

The teammates push off the wall in unison for their next set. Emily Overholt, a five-foot-seven 21-year old from West Vancouver, powers through all four strokes of the individual medley. The undulating rhythm of the butterfly, rolling over into the windmilling backstroke. Back onto her front into the breaststroke at the halfway point, and then the fastest – freestyle – to finish.

She touches the wall again for another short respite, and exchanges a quick joke and a smile with Markus Thormeyer, her teammate and friend for the past three years at the High Performance Centre – Vancouver.

Overholt once swam that combination of strokes to the gruelling distance of 400 metres faster than all but two other women in the world. At the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, Overholt earned a bronze medal, Canada’s first ever in the 400 IM.

At the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, Overholt earned a bronze medal, Canada’s first ever in the 400 IM.

Just 17 years old and a fresh graduate of Collingwood School, she was the youngest member of the national team, and earlier that summer was among Canada’s most compelling stories during the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games. That’s where she earned an unexpected win in the 400-m freestyle a night after having a win in the 400 IM wiped out by a disqualification.

As a young swimmer dreaming of the Olympics, 11-year-old Overholt met her future teammate Ryan Cochrane.

“Things seemed perfect from the outside”

She’d showcased her poise, her maturity, and her swimming talent. She entered the 2015-16 season on the cusp of her dream to wear the Maple Leaf at the Olympics, with a chance to be one of Canada’s biggest stars at the Rio 2016 Games.

“Things seemed perfect from the outside,” Overholt says. “But all this pressure and expectation was affecting my mental health.”

“That’s definitely when I started to feel depressed.”

In September 2015, Overholt moved out of her parents’ house and into her own place on the University of British Columbia campus where the High Performance Centre is located, but took the year off from studying to focus exclusively on making the Olympic team at the April 2016 Trials. Having swimming as her singular focus turned into “a huge weight” as she dealt daily with thoughts of whether she would or wouldn’t make it to Rio.

“I was in bed pretty much all day every single day. I didn’t want to see my friends, I never saw my family, and I just had no energy or motivation to do anything,” she says.

“I was going to practice but I was dragging myself there.”

And the goal of the Olympics was dragging Overholt towards the Trials, so she brushed off the feelings. Her smile was fading, but she replaced it with a poker face. The Trials were set for Toronto, and the darling of those recent Pan Am Games was expected to play a starring role.

When she made the team with a second-place finish in the 400 IM on Day 2, what she noticed most was how little she enjoyed the moment.

“I was just happy to have it out of the way,” she says. “When I saw other people making the Olympic team, their reactions were different than mine. I was kind of confused that I wasn’t really feeling that way. I guess they just seemed a lot more happy than I did.”

After swimming poorly in the 200 free on Day 3, Overholt scratched out of the last three days of the meet.

She didn’t swim another competitive race until the Olympic Games that summer.

Overholt showcased her poise, her maturity, and her swimming talent at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games.

Overholt thought making the Olympic team might make the depression she was battling go away.

It didn’t.

But she didn’t let anyone know. Complicating matters was a hamstring injury that took her out of training and at times kept her away from her teammates. When she did return to training she could only use her arms.

When Overholt made the team at the 2016 Olympic and Para-swimming Trials, what she noticed most was how little she enjoyed the moment.

“It’s pretty hard to swim breaststroke if you’re (not able to extend your knee),” says HPC-Vancouver Head Coach Tom Johnson, a 68-year-old B.C. Sports Hall of Famer who has been to every Olympics since Montreal 1976. “But she knew the race, and she knew the event well enough so the whole thing was to just get her to the starting line in one piece.”

In Rio, Overholt gutted her way to fifth place in the 400 IM and helped Canada to a relay bronze.

In Rio, Overholt gutted her way through her preliminary heat to grab the eighth lane for the 400 IM final, then swam nearly two seconds faster that night to finish fifth.

“Basically her Olympics were over,” Johnson says.

Then Brittany MacLean came down with a respiratory virus. Swimming Canada High Performance Director John Atkinson and Olympic Head Coach Ben Titley asked Johnson if Overholt might be able to help qualify Canada for the 4×200-m freestyle final.

“I said … I think she can go a 200 that’s going to be good enough to put Canada in the final. But it’s not a guarantee,” Johnson recalls.

While MacLean rested, Overholt stood up and swam a respectable 1:58.29, enough to advance Canada comfortably in sixth. When MacLean and Penny Oleksiak joined Katerine Savard and Taylor Ruck in the final, they swam to bronze, making medallists of Overholt (and fellow heat swimmer Kennedy Goss) as well.

“I just felt like I had failed…”

In Rio, Overholt gutted her way to fifth place in the 400 IM and helped Canada to a relay bronze.

Overholt came home with a medal, got the Olympic rings tattooed on her right foot in August 2016, and was enrolled at UBC. But things were not OK.

“I just felt like I had failed. I felt like I had let my coaches down, my family down and myself down,” she says.

“There was one day where I just felt so alone and like things were never going to get better. That my life was just going to be like that forever.

“I ended up in emergency that night.”

It was a Sunday in September 2016 and Overholt was a no-show for the UBC Thunderbirds pancake breakfast.

Keegan Zanatta, a varsity teammate four years her senior, was at the rugby field flipping pancakes on a portable grill for fellow UBC athletes who’d come out to support the women’s rugby team. He went a while without checking his phone, which was buzzing with messages from Overholt.

“She sent me like 10 text messages. I was like, ‘OK, maybe this is an issue.’ ” Zanatta recalls.

Zanatta walked to the nearby UBC Hospital and found Overholt. At the time she didn’t want her family or coaches to know, so Zanatta called fellow veteran Thunderbird Stefanie Serka from her bedside. Serka was relaxing with her mom at her parents’ house in suburban Richmond when Zanatta called.

“I was like, ‘Mom, we’ve got to go in the car, you’ve got to drop me off at the hospital’ ” Serka recalls.

Serka arrived that afternoon to find Overholt in a bed, Zanatta at her side. The pair spent the afternoon trying to joke around and distract their younger friend any way they could.

“Basically we just talked about everything but the issue at hand. It was obvious she just didn’t want to talk about it,” Serka says. At that time, that included coaches and her family.

As the afternoon stretched into evening they learned Overholt would be transferred to the Vancouver General Hospital. They waited a few more hours, then around 11 p.m. Serka climbed into the back of an ambulance with Overholt to make the 10-km drive east into the city, while Zanatta drove in his car to meet them.

Serka remembers staying with Overholt into the wee hours of the morning at the VGH emergency room. A police officer was sitting next to a person he appeared to have arrested. They could hear a woman screaming periodically. Around 3 or 4 a.m. they were told Overholt would be admitted. A doctor told them to go home.

“It was just such a weird dynamic,” Serka says. “Having to leave Emily alone in that setting was a little bit upsetting.”

“We went back and slept for about an hour and a half, got up at 7 o’clock and went back to the hospital and sat in the same chairs that we just left.”

As the day went on, her parents and coaches arrived, and those closest to her began to digest just how serious the situation was. Overholt remained in hospital for more than two months. She doesn’t remember much about that time, but she does remember Zanatta and Serka visiting almost every day at first, and regularly throughout her time in hospital.

“It took a long time before I even started talking to the doctors there. I told them I just wanted to go home and I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but obviously they weren’t going to let me go home if I wasn’t safe,” she says.

“I was (eventually) ready to accept the help that I needed and they were ready to help me”

“I was (eventually) ready to accept the help that I needed and they were ready to help me, so I finally started to talk to them and that’s when things started to turn around. I worked with the doctors to find the right medication to help me and we also found the right combination of therapies to get me feeling like my normal self.”

After getting out of hospital, she spent more time at her parents’ house, and fell in love with the new family dog, Charlie (a cavalier spaniel and poodle cross known as a cavapoo.) But unlike the swimming lanes she was so used to, recovery was not a straight line. Overholt was absent from 2017 Trials and the world championships that followed.

“I tried to go back to school in the second semester and I think it was a lot. I didn’t really swim, I dropped one of my classes and I kind of had to take it a bit slower,” she says. “I was definitely really torn. Part of me thought that it was swimming that was making me depressed. Coming to the pool every day was a struggle still and I thought that that was what was bringing my mood down. But another part of me wanted to swim. I still felt like I had goals I hadn’t reached yet. I knew I needed to take some time away but I didn’t know if I was ready to come back.

“Or if I was ever going to come back.”

The comeback started in earnest in fall 2017.

“It’s going to be one heck of a comeback”

The comeback started in earnest in fall 2017. Overholt had swum one meet in the 14 months since the Olympics, but she returned to training with cautious optimism and regular support from a psychologist and psychiatrist. In her belated rookie year as a UBC Thunderbird, she was named U Sports national rookie of the year. But no one wanted to put expectations on her. People were just happy she was OK, and back enjoying swimming.

On the first day of the July 2018 Trials in Edmonton, a familiar name returned to the start list for the 400 IM. Overholt swam the third-fastest heat in the morning to earn a spot in the final and a chance at returning to the national team. When Sydney Pickrem, who won 400 IM bronze of her own at the 2017 worlds, scratched, the door opened a little wider for Overholt.

At 350 metres, Overholt had narrowed the gap on Sarah Darcel but still trailed by 0.34 seconds. She put everything she had left into the final 50 metres, charging past Darcel to win the race by nearly a second and a half. Her face broke into a wide smile, then she covered her mouth in disbelief as she looked to the other end of the pool and processed the result on the scoreboard.

She was back on Team Canada.

Overholt getting back on Team Canada was a moment “that you live for,” said veteran coach Tom Johnson.

“You don’t get those moments very often in sport but they’re some of the ones that you live for,” says Johnson, who’s seen so much the other coaches tease him with questions about the ancient Olympic Games.

Although Overholt was fighting back tears, the smile returned. This time it wasn’t relief, it was joy.

“I’m so happy,” she said between heaving breaths in the post-race interview. “A year ago I didn’t think I was ever going to be back here, so it means a lot.”

Thormeyer remembers tearing up, along with just about every other member of the Vancouver training group.

“To watch that whole journey that she went through, making a return to the sport, and first year back already gets her hand on the wall first and makes the 2018 Pan Pacific team, it was very emotional, I remember. And she was also having a great time,” Thormeyer says.

“It wasn’t just watching someone not go to Trials one year, and then go to Trials and make the team the next year. It was this huge story.”

If she had it to do over again, she’d have said something sooner.

“I thought that people would say I was being dramatic or that it wasn’t a big deal.

I think if I had asked for help sooner, I would have had a very different experience with it all. I waited a very long time before I talked to people about it and before I told them how serious it was. That really just made the problem so much worse,” Overholt says.

When life’s stresses and struggles get to her now, she tries to “stay present and keep everything in perspective so a bad day doesn’t turn into a bad week.

“I try to find something good in every day even if it’s something really small, like something that helps me relax, or something that I did well that day at practice or school.”

Overholt tries to “stay present and keep everything in perspective so a bad day doesn’t turn into a bad week.”

Life is by no means perfect now, but it’s going well in the pool. She made finals at last year’s Pan Pacs. She recently helped UBC to the U Sports national championship with wins and national university records in the 200 free, 400 free, and 400 IM. She has 10 new best times since December. Earlier this month, Sport BC recognized her with the Harry Jerome Comeback Award at its Athlete of the Year Awards.

“When she told me that she was getting this award, I actually got chills,” says Serka, the friend who was by Overholt’s side at some of her lowest moments. “Not a lot of people can, one, admit to the struggles they had, let alone go public about it, and yet still crush it in the pool, be awesome at her sport and have fun doing it. She’s always got a smile on her face when she’s racing.”

Earlier this month, Sport BC recognized Overholt with the Harry Jerome Comeback Award at its Athlete of the Year Awards.”

“It’s infectious,” Thormeyer adds. “She can bring up the energy of the whole training group, and it doesn’t just limit itself to swimming. Also seeing her go to class or post pictures of her dog on Instagram, you can tell that she’s come so far and it’s great to see her continue on this upward trajectory.”

Overholt still has goals in the pool, but they aren’t her be-all, end-all anymore.

“I think reaching those goals is going to be done by having fun, so that’s kind of what this comeback has been about, and just enjoying the process every day,” she says. “I think this time around, that I’m doing it more for myself rather than for results. I’m really enjoying swimming. There are definitely days when it’s a struggle of course, and when I first came back it was really, really tough. But it’s different this time around.

“I’m definitely smiling more now.”

Emily with the family cavapoo, Charlie.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, we encourage you to reach out to a trusted family or community member, speak to a physician, counsellor, therapist or other health care provider, go to a nearby emergency department, or connect with Crisis Services Canada at 1.833.456.4566 or