What Really Killed Kelly Catlin, the Stanford Olympian Who Committed Suicide

Kelly Catlin was a three-time cycling world champion and an Olympic silver medalist. She was a force to be reckoned with in both team pursuit and individual pursuit, claiming wins in both categories.

But her string of many talents doesn’t end there…

Amidst her athletic commitments, the 23-year-old was also working towards a graduate degree in computational and mathematical engineering at Stanford. The star student had previously completed her Bachelor’s degree in Chinese and mathematics. She was even a gifted artist and violinist.

Kelly was a triplet who was adored by her family, friends, and teammates. Her brother Colin claimed that he had ignited her passion for cycling, saying that initially “she didn’t really want to, but she started winning things and she likes winning things.”

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That’s right, Kelly was a winner. In all categories. The prime definition of the American “golden child.”

And on March 7th, 2019 she committed suicide.

Her sudden death was a tragic loss to the cycling community, her family, and all of those who loved her most.

“There isn’t a minute that goes by that we don’t think of her and think of the wonderful life she could have lived,” said her father, Mark Catlin. “There isn’t a second in which we wouldn’t freely give our lives in exchange for hers. The hurt is unbelievable.”

But there’s an element of this widely spread story that remains the elephant in the room, perhaps because it’s so obvious that we’ve become blind to it, or maybe because it’s too painful for people to admit — because it requires us to get uncomfortable, and reassess our entire value system as a society who idolizes “winners.”

So what really killed Kelly Catlin? 

The overall consensus: PRESSURE.

Insane, crippling, debilitating amounts of PRESSURE.

The pressure for the elusive prize that is perfection and success.

It seems as though Kelly couldn’t quite balance all that was put on her plate, and because of it, she felt like a failure. Her family shared that she became nihilistic and could no longer attach meaning to her life. She had previously attempted suicide in January.

Kelly’s father, a pathologist, told the New York Times that he “blames her suicide on a combination of factors, including her success-at-all-costs personality, overtraining, stress, and physical injuries from a January suicide attempt about a month before she was found dead in her dorm.”

“What is it like to no longer have a mind?” the 23-year-old wrote in January, right before her first suicide attempt.

She answered her own question: “It is unimaginable. Terrifying.”

In addition to having recently suffered a concussion, Kelly’s father says his daughter’s death was the result of a “perfect storm” of taking on too much, overtraining, and depression.

“Being a graduate student, track cyclist, and professional road cyclist can instead feel like I need to time-travel to get everything done. And things still slip through the cracks,” Kelly wrote before her death. “This is probably the point when you’ll expect me to say something cliché like, ‘Time management is everything.’ Or perhaps you’re expecting a nice, encouraging slogan like, ‘Being a student only makes me a better athlete!’ After all, I somehow make everything work, right? Sure. Yeah, that’s somewhat accurate. But the truth is that most of the time, I don’t make everything work.”

Kelly was also a girl who felt the need to hold back her tears and be strong. “Seeking therapy means [I’m] weak and [I] would rather suffer,” she told her sister Christine.

“Our parents always told us that we could be great at anything we wanted to, if we worked hard enough,” Christine shared. “Looking back, maybe we kind of twisted that into thinking we weren’t worth anything if we weren’t the best. I think Kelly believed that,” adding that her once outgoing, friendly sister started shutting out the world in middle school because she was “so obsessed with success.”

The Olympian also admitted to her brother Colin that “she thought she was going insane and she worried that she was a danger to others because she was filled with rage.”

Catlin’s parents have donated her brain to researchers in an effort to find out more detailed, conclusive answers.

What they do know is that this poor suffering girl was crushed by the weight of her own expectation and the perceived expectation of those around her. With her athletic abilities being challenged by recent injuries, she was no longer the invincible athlete she once was, and her identity and self-worth began to crumble.

Mental health issues appeared to play a critical role as well, though that is yet another stigmatized topic–even currently in the Tokyo Olympics as Simone Biles, for example, is bashed for prioritizing mental health above a gold medal.

But Kelly isn’t the only one who’s ever thought this way. My heart shatters for this beautiful, talented young woman because, in a way, I am that girl. Though no Olympian, I know what if feels like to have the perceived ‘weight of the world’ on my shoulders stemming from the pressure of perfectionism. I see so much of myself in her, it’s scary. And if you look closely enough, I think you might see a little bit of yourself too.

How many of us have been a victim of this same destructive thought process? Maybe you haven’t contemplated suicide, but I’d be willing to bet at some point in your life, you’ve allowed your very existence to be defined by performance and the benchmarks that this world tells you make you worth something.

As a recovering neurotic perfectionist myself, I know I’ve fallen prey to it more times than I can count.

This isn’t the first time we’ve read this story, nor will it be the last… unless we OPEN our eyes to the ways in which Satan is ever-so-sneakily infiltrating our culture and killing our people by their own hands.

It’s an epidemic running rampant today, but somehow we refuse to take it seriously enough to effect change, to make a paradigm shift, to think differently. People are DYING, yet we continue to encourage our children from kindergarten on to chase that ambiguous thing we call success. It seems harmless and even “good”, but when we put it up on a pedestal and allow the enemy to morph it into an idol, “success,” “winning,” and “fame” become deadly pursuits.

Overachieving is killing. Pressure is crushing. Mental health problems are increasing. Suicides are skyrocketing. The weight of expectations is actually murdering people.

In the meantime, our culture continues to place the utmost value on perfect grades, athletic talent, a life in the limelight, and being all things to all people.

When are we going to WAKE up and realize that it’s killing us? Children and adults alike.

Over and over again, statistics have shown that at the top of the ladder, there’s emptiness — a hollow Olympic medal made of fool’s gold.

Perhaps, author Cynthia Heimel put it best in her “Tongue in Chic” column exposing the pitfalls of fame and success:

“They worked, they pushed and the morning after each of them became famous they wanted to take an overdose. Because that giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything OK, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them with personal fulfillment and happiness had happened and they were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable.”

As Christians, let us be a united body that challenges this disillusioning status quo. For if we don’t, who will?

I pray we may all find the countercultural courage to “store up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew:6:20-21)”

Please join us in praying for Kelly Catlin’s family, that God may grant them the peace that passes understanding amidst unimaginable grief—which does not expire as years pass.

Moreover, pray for all the “Kellys” of the world, that they may feel okay to get help, and to be free of performance prison; and that they may seek and secure their identity in Christ alone—the only treasure that will endure forever.

Kelsey Straeter
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Kelsey is an editor at Outreach. She’s passionate about fear fighting, freedom writing, and the pursuit of excellence in the name of crucifying perfectionism. Glitter is her favorite color, 2nd only to pink, and 3rd only to pink glitter.