This spring, champion weightlifter Katherine Nye officially qualified for the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games. For the 22-year-old from Oakland Township, Michigan, the journey to the Olympics hasn't been easy. After only training in weightlifting for three years, Nye made her international debut in 2018 and won silver at the IWF Junior World Championships. In 2019, at one of the heights of her competitive weightlifting career, Nye was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder -- a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings that include hypomania and depression -- and mild ADHD.
As Nye balanced Olympic qualification training, attending school at Oakland University and working part-time as a physical therapist technician, she also started a new life with her diagnosis. At the 2019 IWF Senior World Championships, the youth gymnast-turned CrossFitter-turned weightlifter won all three categories to become the youngest U.S. women's world champion. In her own words, Nye, who will compete in women's 76.kg category this summer, opens up about how that diagnosis changed her life, why her athletic career shifted for the positive and what the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games meant for her mental health.
It's hard to pin down exactly when it "happened." In the middle of high school, before I even began competitive weightlifting, I started to really struggle. Initially, I experienced really bad bouts of depression. I wasn't depressed 24/7, but I would have really bad weeks and then I'd have great weeks. And during those great weeks, I was unstoppable.
But those great weeks usually were followed by sleepless nights. There were nights where I would sleep for less than two hours, and then the next day, I'd wake up and feel fine. I wouldn't feel sleep deprived. I would just go about my day. I'd be energetic. I'd be fine. And once I started training at an elite level for weightlifting, in my head, I thought, "Some people just don't need to sleep that much." Some people might not need as much sleep as others, but to get no sleep -- that's a different story, especially as an athlete training at an elite level.
For years, I let this pattern continue. Bad weeks. Good weeks. Bad weeks. Good weeks.
I powered through the mood swings. The hypomanic episodes -- characterized by increased energy and exhilaration. The weeks-long depression bouts. I powered through the very beginning of my weightlifting career that led me into elite weightlifting, all the while not knowing what was going on with me.
It wasn't until June 2019, during my Olympic qualification process, that one of my bad weeks changed my life. I was at an all-time low. And I knew it. But I still competed at the 2019 Junior Pan American Championships, an Olympic weightlifting qualifier in Havana, Cuba. I had a very poor performance -- it was just a bad competition. I returned home to Michigan and it hit me. This time it was another level of depression. Something that I have never fully experienced -- or at least something that I never realized I had been experiencing.
I barely got out of bed. I went from the bed to the couch. And that pattern continued for weeks. My husband, Noah, who I married at the end of 2018, would come home from work, and I'd still be on the couch. I had a hard time eating, taking care of myself. It finally got to a point where my husband lovingly said, "We need to do something, Kate. You can't live like this. I hate seeing you like this."
Here I was, in the middle of the Olympic qualification process, not knowing if I could get out of bed. Not knowing if I was going to live to see another day. I was literally chasing my dreams as an Olympic weightlifter while just trying to survive.
I didn't want to do anything. Things that were once enjoyable for me weren't anymore. I loved weightlifting, but I couldn't bring myself to enjoy it.
My husband took me to see a psychologist, and within a short time of talking, the psychologist decided to give me a diagnostic test for different mental health issues. The sleepless nights. The drastic highs and lows. Those things all alarmed the psychologist.
And so, I saw another psychologist. And then I saw a therapist. And that pattern of seeing different medical professionals continued for a little bit. And each time I would take a diagnostic test, I remember thinking about how my tendencies and habits aligned with hypomanic behavior -- something that I didn't even really think about before. After I took the first test, I went to my husband afterward and said, "I think I might be bipolar." It was almost eye-opening. I was starting to realize different things about my mental health that I never even thought of as "not normal." For me, I thought my bad weeks followed by good weeks were just part of my personality.
Shortly after, in the summer of 2019, I was officially diagnosed with bipolar II disorder and mild ADHD. At the time I didn't realize it, but that was the beginning of a new life for me.
To go from thinking this was my personality type to being medically diagnosed, I definitely experienced a learning curve trying to understand my mental health. At that point, I felt like depression and anxiety were being talked about more openly. But things like bipolar disorder? Absolutely not.
It was really emotionally painful at the time. The diagnosis was painful to hear, I'm not going to lie about that. Now, I look back at it as necessary for me to be where I am today. I don't think I'd be preparing to compete at my first Olympic Games if it weren't for my diagnosis.
When I first got diagnosed, I had to sit with it. Understand it. Make sense of it. I had to figure out what this meant for my career. For my family. For my whole being.
With my doctors, I was able to figure out what medication worked for me. I was able to identify my triggers. I was able to better understand what would turn a good week into a bad week -- what would make me hypomanic. At this point, I was still understanding what mental health meant and looked like for me.
During this entire process, I was still training and qualifying for the Olympics. As I was making sense of my new diagnosis, I had to compete at the end of September in Thailand at the 2019 IWF World Championship. It was really hard because it was leading up to the biggest competition in my life. It was my first senior worlds. It's the only one I've been to, to this day. And I was vying for gold. Even with everything going on, I wanted gold. I know that without my diagnosis and support from my husband, family and doctors, I wouldn't have been able to compete -- and I wouldn't have been able to win.
It's pretty unbelievable, actually. I won gold in the snatch (112 kg.), clean and jerk (136 kg.) and total (248 kg.). During that competition, I shattered records. I became the youngest U.S. woman to ever win a world title. Later that year, I was named the IWF's Best Woman Lifter of 2019, the first American to receive the prestigious honor. I know that none of those accomplishments would have been possible without my diagnosis. Without my medication. Without my support team.
Over the span of six months, I started to feel better. I started to feel more comfortable with my diagnosis. I started to feel like myself before it all "happened." And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the Tokyo Games were postponed.
I knew this would be another mental test. At the beginning, I was in survival mode. We all were. And it was just a whirlwind. No one knew what was going on. It was hard to just allow myself to feel the emotions that I was feeling. And I knew that I still had to keep training and stay ready for the Olympics, regardless of the postponement.
I slipped into a few bouts of depression over the past year. I struggled with keeping a positive mindset. The last few years have been extremely difficult for me, and I thought I was finally going to showcase all that I had accomplished in Tokyo last summer. And then when that was plucked from me, I struggled to accept it all. It was difficult to accept that it was going to be another year of hard training. My body was tired. My mind was tired.
For so many Olympic athletes, their training regimen took a huge hit. I'm grateful that my husband helped me put together a gym in our garage in January 2020 before the pandemic. I was also fortunate that one of my sponsors, aminoVITAL, provided me with products I needed to properly fuel my body and train for Tokyo. I had already been training in my garage when the pandemic hit, so nothing really changed as far as my physical training other than not being able to see my coach for the first few months. It was an isolated experience, but I was able to physically train somewhat normal thanks to my husband and sponsors.
It was all mental for me. And just because I had come to terms with my diagnosis, it didn't mean that I was cured from the depressive and hypomanic episodes. I thrive off competition, and when there was no competition in sight, I struggled. And I struggled hard. I had to really dig deep this last year.
But it wasn't just a period of digging deep. It was a period of continuing to understand what it meant to live with bipolar II disorder. When I was first diagnosed, there were no pauses. This was the first time I felt like I could hit a little pause and reflect on it all.
During quarantine, I decided on my own to try to get off my bipolar II medication. I felt like I was finally understanding myself more and understanding my symptoms a little bit more. I wanted to see what I could do without medication. I'm not a medical expert, and I don't want it to sound like I'm telling people to get off their medication. But for me, at that time during quarantine, I was independently curious.
But my curiosity just confirmed that I'm better with my medication. I need it to be at my best. It's not the cure. But it helps me every single day. I needed that confirmation that being on bipolar II medicine -- that helps with regulating my mood swings and depressive episodes -- was a good decision for me. It was a good decision for my training. For my entire life.
It's been a really hard few years, even before the pandemic. I'm proud of myself for how far I've come. I'm proud of myself for being able to recognize that I need medication to function at my best. I'm proud of myself for understanding that my diagnosis doesn't own me, but it's a part of me. I'm proud of myself for recognizing that my diagnosis isn't a cure, but it's a pathway to a better life.
Throughout this entire journey, people have called me crazy. People have insulted my diagnosis, acting like it was just me being a moody woman and stuff like that. I've gotten all kinds of comments on social media, after I went public with my story in an Instagram post in 2019. It's hard to read those comments. It's disheartening.
I definitely think that some mental health issues are very publicized like depression and anxiety. As a society, we are starting to have a better grip on those mental health issues. We are starting to have more empathy for those issues even though stigmas still exist. But mental health disorders like my own are still very misunderstood. Even I misunderstood my own diagnosis. There are still stereotypes. And that's what hurts the most some days.
I want to use my platform as an athlete to continue to open up the dialogue when it comes to all mental health disorders. I want to continue to have uncomfortable conversations about my diagnosis, if it means helping others understand what it means to be bipolar. I want to continue to break down barriers when it comes to mental health and elite athleticism. I wish the stigmas surrounding mental health conditions didn't exist.
Since my diagnosis, I learned how to enjoy weightlifting again. I love feeling powerful and strong. I love dedicating myself to training and putting time and energy into my craft. I finally feel like I'm both physically and mentally strong. But that took a long time to get here, and I know that that could change.
I still navigate bad days. I still struggle. But rarely do I navigate bad weeks. I'm grateful for the day that my husband took me to the doctor. I'm grateful for my diagnosis. I am still on this learning curve when it comes to my mental health.
My diagnosis means freedom to me. I know it isn't the end. I know I can come out of those bad days. And now, those days are few and far between.