BUDAPEST, Hungary — A year ago, Trey Hardee found himself alone in a hotel room, hitting rock bottom.
Struggling to cope with the realities of life in the aftermath of a successful track career, the father of three, a two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist in the decathlon, was thinking about ending his life.
“I read my journal entry from that night,” the 39-year-old told The Associated Press in phone interviews this summer from Austin, Texas, where he lives. “I don’t know who that was.”
His darkest moment came in July 2022 at last year’s world championships in Oregon, as he was gearing up for another day in his role as a TV analyst. At this year’s world championships, which open Saturday in Hungary, Hardee will again be behind the microphone, but much more at peace, and hoping his story might serve as a cautionary tale for the hundreds of athletes who struggle with mental health.
“I went and sought out counseling and figured out a way to mature in that relationship I had with it,” he said of his 14-year competitive decathlon career that ended in 2017.
Hardee’s story isn’t unfamiliar to world-class athletes who retire. Often, they don’t know what to do next. In Hardee’s case, those questions were exacerbated by something he didn’t realize in the days, weeks and even years after his retirement became official: In his rush to move onto “normal life,” he’d forgotten to give his career the fitting sendoff it deserved.
“I never grieved the loss of it, in the same way that you might grieve the loss of a loved one,” Hardee said. “Without that process, without doing any of that, it was like a wound and a disease that just went untreated for me for five years. I spent the entirety of my third, fourth, fifth year after retirement really struggling and really feeling ashamed and not knowing why. I was ashamed of being ashamed.”
Telling the world about such a thing, even years after the fact, is a relatively new phenomena among elite athletes. For decades, so many feared that revealing any misgivings about their mental well-being could be perceived as a sign of weakness – to opponents, to coaches, to people who made decisions about who goes on Olympic teams.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the chaos it wrought in many Olympic athletes’ lives played a big role in shifting that dynamic. Simone Biles, Noah Lyles and Sha’Carri Richardson are among the high-profile athletes whose paths have been fundamentally altered because of mental health. All have been unafraid to acknowledge their reality.
“It’s OK to not be OK,” was the mantra spelled out by Biles and others after the gymnast shockingly withdrew from the team all-around at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago.
Hardee said the recent death of Olympic gold medalist Tori Bowie hit especially hard. The 32-year-old champion sprinter, who died alone at home of childbirth complications in April, had a history of mental-health issues – her bipolar disorder was listed on her autopsy report. Hardee knew Bowie from being on the same teams and used to talk to her at photo shoots.
“It’s just a heavy, heavy sadness,” Hardee said.
Jess Bartley, the director of mental health for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, said despite some significant shifts in the public’s attitude, there’s still “tremendous stigma” attached to mental health.
She said helping athletes navigate retirement, both before and after they hang it up, is among the most important missions her department tackles.
“There’s a lot of information and research coming out around the fact that, in the back of your mind, you might actually be worried about” retirement, she said. “So why would you not think about retiring? Why would you not think about how your skills are transferable” once you retire?
In his early 30s and with one child – he and wife, Chelsea, would go on to have two more kids – Hardee thought he was set for success after his track career ended.
He found new roles and new purposes – as a family man, a track commentator for NBC and a high-performance trainer. He felt he had turned the page so effortlessly.
Maybe too effortlessly.
Hardee concedes he struggled to voice his concerns. It was difficult to let anyone in – not his wife, who could have offered her own insights as a retired world-class pole vaulter, or his friends, some of whom also forged similar career paths as elite athletes.
Hardee said that in retirement he didn’t utilize any of the mental-health services that have become increasingly available through the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and USA Track and Field, both of which played a role in his training over the years.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” he said of the benefits of the later counseling he underwent.
“You can plan and plan and plan, but unless you’ve been talking to a professional and you’ve been really working just on yourself – and this isn’t about a job, this isn’t about having a fallback plan, this isn’t about a safety net. This is about your soul and your consciousness.”
Now, a year after his darkest moment, things look and feel different around the Hardee household.
Some of the pictures and memorabilia that had been stashed away in closets or dusty corners, lest they bring up memories of the career he was trying to leave behind, are re-emerging. One of his favorite pictures – of him throwing a discus – now has a prime spot near the piano.
To one of the world’s most finely tuned athletes, a man who had to master not one, but 10 different events to become a two-time world champion, the simple act of placing some memories of his career back into the foreground represented one of his most consequential breakthroughs.
“It took a while but I got back on my feet,” said Hardee, who also opened up about mental-health struggles in a podcast titled “Life Beyond The Game” with former NFL offensive lineman Joe Hawley.
“And then once I was on my feet I regained my balance. And then once I regained my balance, I started looking up. And after I started looking up, I started to climb out. I’m at a place right now where my head is above the edge of the well or the cave and I’m breathing fresh air again.”
“I can see the sun,” he said. “I can see life.”