Caroline Burckle: Olympic Medalist to Co-Founder of RISE Athletes
After a successful swimming career that took her to the podium at the Beijing Olympics, Caroline decided she wanted to be more than an athlete. However, upon her retirement, a slough of repressed emotions bubbled to the surface, debilitating her mentally and physically. Through this difficult time, she learned much about herself, as well as the importance of providing others with the tools to deal with these issues throughout their careers and beyond.
When did you start swimming?
I started swimming when I was very young, before I even knew what it was. I loved the water.
Can you describe your swimming career?
I swam for the Lakeside Swim Team and then went on to swim at the University of Florida. Throughout my career I was very happy go lucky and did everything based off of feel. I wasn’t super focused on times, but went on how I felt in the water. I wasn’t a “need to win” person, but I was confident and knew I had something special. I went on to the university and swam well, but went through tough times there.
What difficulties did you face in college?
I struggled with self worth, which I think stemmed from some toxic relationships, for awhile. It showed and I performed poorly. But once I gained that confidence back and trained smarter, as well as put back on healthy weight, I started to compete really well. Florida was a really challenging time for me. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t great for me mentally.
Did you go to the Olympics right after college?
Yes, the Olympic trials were right after graduation. It was awesome and surreal; so many emotions come to mind. It’s hard to explain. You’re fully submerged in the experience. It was very cool. You are there with so many people, cultures, pressure, softness, and fierceness – just so many different emotions. You come together with all these different athletes in this giant community.
What happened after Florida?
I moved to California. I lived in the back bay of Newport Beach and commuted to Fullerton where I swam with a pro team. But that’s when I started feeling like I had more inside of me to give than just swimming. I didn’t feel like I was fulfilling my duties as a person – like I was just being an athlete. I just didn’t need swimming any more. I was broken in a lot of ways and didn’t feel like I wanted to be back in it. I wasn’t angry, I just didn’t have it in me anymore. It was hard, I felt guilty about it. But I had been preparing for it to be done. I had been slowly releasing my obsession with it and having swimming as my total identity. So I retired after 1.5 years there.
Did you know what you wanted to do after swimming?
I wanted something else to do and to balance my life out. I love design and am an artist at heart. I decided to go into fashion school to design swimwear, and was working at Lululemon at the time. After I graduated, I got a job at Motiel Active Wear in San Diego. Then realized I was super unhealthy physically and mentally. I would go to bed right when I go home from work. So I moved back home to Kentucky really depressed and immediately started therapy. I wasn’t in a good space. I was miserable and didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have an identity and was sad all the time. I basically spent a year and a half going in three times a week mending relationships with my father, mother, and coaches – it was gnarly, and a lot. At the time I was 120 lbs, and for someone 5-foot-10-inches, that’s bad. I didn’t have a period for 10 years. I was super anxious all the time, probably from low body weight. I was really unhealthy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but not only was I struggling with the transition but I was manifesting what I endured emotionally throughout my life and career. My body had been showing me something and I needed to listen.
How were these issues manifesting in your body?
I moved to LA from Santa Barbara in 2016 and right then and there I immediately started training for this race called Otillo. I was training, still really thin, probably around 128 lbs, still not having periods, unhealthy, and chasing things. I was killing myself, but was doing it as a validation thing. I ended up getting a stress fracture almost all the way through my heel. This was the first injury of my life – I had been really lucky during my swimming career. I was on crutches for 12 weeks and casted, and it was a realization that something was not right. I did the symptomatic stuff like physical therapy to recover, but I had stored trauma and resentment and it was killing my body from the inside out. I got off my crutches and within two weeks I got septic knee in my other leg and was in the hospital for three days. I couldn’t do anything for another six weeks. Then I get back on my feet running again. I tried to be positive, thinking that those six extra weeks was extra healing for my foot, so at that point I thought I was totally healthy. Then I broke my heel again in the same spot and a different spot. My doctor made me get blood work and low and behold I had no vitamin D, my estrogen way low, progesterone off the charts, and after that break I had to spend 14 weeks on crutches. I did zero movement the second time around, when the first time I was still exercising. I was totally immobilized during the second break recovery besides some physical therapy.
That must have been so difficult for a former professional athlete. What were those weeks of immobilization like for you?
Those 14 weeks were gnarly. That’s also when a previous emotional trauma came out in the news. I cried every day. I started doing a lot of mind body research and learned how your body breaks because of trauma you don’t deal with emotionally. By being forced to sit still and not do anything, I had to face it – I couldn’t run anymore. Everything came up. Thank God for a good support system and amazing friends.
Was that the end of your injuries?
Well, after that I got back on my feet, went to Mexico for an open water swim, and got E. coli. That took another two weeks to recover from. Then that Fall I went to give blood, left the facility, and passed out, nailing my head on a table on the way down. I sustained a concussion and whiplash. I woke up after eight minutes with blood underneath me and paramedics above me. I had vertigo for two weeks. I just lay in bed crying. I was on the ground and getting slammed. I’m using it as a lesson. I was like, “Caroline, you had amazing life with no injuries during swim, you were great, had a tough time in college but your body was OK, but now it’s time to stop. Now your body is saying no more.” I was dealing with symptoms from the concussion through this past February. There were days where I was just so exhausted, like my adrenal system was failing.
My point of all this is that whole story of just under two years was my lesson in the fact I had been addicted to chaos and running from it, and spending my life in validation mode. Everything I was doing was to make sure I was loved and needed, and important and significant. I didn’t know how to do that myself. That whole period was an eye opening experience for me. It’s been hard, but what I’m working on now is facing these things. I haven’t talked about it a lot because it seems like a pity party. I want it to be a lesson to others in what happens when we store shit in our bodies. It’s an interesting thing, because I don’t know how to discuss it without it sounding like I’m making excuses.
What do you think were some root causes of your depression that affected your body in these ways?
I had some really unhealthy relationships. My coach was rough – like Bobby Knight. In therapy I recognized I was blaming him, and some other emotionally abusive relationships, for everything. I had been running from traumatic experiences emotionally that I had been attaching to the best moments of my life. There’s this dichotomy where the best and worst moments were attached, I had experienced all the pain and pleasure all at once. Like being at the Olympics – it was such a blessing, but I was wondering why I was so pissed. A lot of athletes there feel like that. We feel guilty like we don’t deserve to be sad. I would wake up in the middle of the night and have panic attacks. I hated swimming and everyone associated with it. And at the time, my brother was still in it and slated to make the Olympics. He made it, and I end up going and watching. It was the hardest experience emotionally I’ve ever had. Not for the reasons of coming back to the swimming world, but I was broken. However, I was so proud of him – and my pride actually kick started my acceptance of my own success.
You mentioned many athletes feel some negative emotions at the Olympics. Why do you think that is?
Even at the time we don’t know. We’ve been taught to sack up and deal with it. Of course you want to focus on the good. You’re feeling it, but no one says it. It becomes an entire guilt thing after. You don’t want to be in the middle of Olympic village and say you are depressed, because you know if you say it you’ll manifest it. So instead you push it down and make it so everyone thinks you are fine. But it does more damage in the long run. The emotional abuse is coming to light now and everyone’s trying to do something about it; but you can’t tell someone what it’s going to feel like after. You can only try to equip them with tools to deal with it. That’s why we started RISE, to try to give athletes the tools so they can cultivate what they want and need during the transition.
What was your inspiration for RISE?
Throughout therapy I realized I wanted to help people on a deeper level, so I went back to school for psychology in Tennessee. I moved back to California after Tennessee, starting RISE at the same time in 2015 with Rebecca Soni. Parents were already asking us to mentor their young athletes. We both have psychology degrees, and we realized this importance. Our organization also is all former Olympic athletes who are doing the mentoring, which gives these athletes a job to transition to using the skills they already have. It helps us feel fulfillment as retired athletes as well.
Do you swim anymore?
I didn’t swim at all for five years. I just recently started back like two years ago and I love it now. I love it because I don’t care and it’s so therapeutic. It’s nice to be in the water. If I’m doing a lot of other things with my body it’s a nice change of pace. I love ocean swimming now, but I don’t do it for more than 20 minutes at a time. I actually don’t think I’ve done any exercise for more than that in 10 years. I focus more on strength training now.
Would you have done anything differently?
In a perfect world, a lot. But then again, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I just wish I could have learned what I needed to without the sadness. There were so many beautiful lessons.
Do you feel like you’ve fully healed?
It’s taken a long time to heal, and there are parts of me still coming out of it. I think that’s the beauty though: it’s a continuum. You’re never just done. Your whole life is a transition. Whether we are from one job to the next, there is always something. If we accept we are always in transition, it’s good. I am light-years from where I used to be. It’s almost a detachment from the person I once was. I love her and want to include her in my life now, but I no longer want to be an athlete like that any more. I want to have a different definition of myself. Therapy was really helpful. I moved a bunch, but those journeys are what I needed. I learned from running. Because I ran and tried to fill my cup with accolades and degrees, it was my way of coping with not having the same success as I did in swimming. Once I learned I didn’t have to have that anymore, it was like night and day.
Follow Caroline Burckle on Facebook and Instagram @caroburckle.