Addiction doesn’t discriminate. In the spirit of the Olympic Games, here are the inspirational stories of elite athletes in recovery.
Sometimes it seems as though all we hear about addiction is news reports of death and prosecution. But there are so many more stories than that, ones full of hope, recovery, and inspiration!
The Olympic Games also tend to be inspirational and aspirational. People all over the world cheer for athletes who surpass challenges and limitations to achieve incredible skill. But despite their physical abilities, those athletes are still humans, and addiction doesn’t discriminate. Many athletes struggle with substance use disorders—before, during, or after their performances on the Olympic stage.
There are almost certainly hundreds of Olympic athletes in recovery who are not public about their struggles. We respect their privacy and right to share only when and if they feel ready. But other elite athlete do share their recovery stories, and we love the way they provide hope and visibility! Here are just a few of the Olympic athletes who share their recovery stories:
1. Nicole Bobek – Figure skating: 1995 World bronze medalist, 1998 Olympics competitor
Nicole Bobek dazzled figure skating audiences and judges with her rhythm and signature move, a spiral with a free leg extended very high. Trained since early childhood in figure skating, Bobek was racking up titles and money by her adolescence. Unfortunately, this threw her into a world of partying that she was not prepared for. By 2009, her mother had started and abandoned a petition for her to go to rehab, and she had multiple run-ins with the law, including one involving a methamphetamine ring.
She began her recovery from drug addiction in 2010. She began to talk about her story publicly with the intention of preventing youth from falling into the same slippery slope.
Bobek is now in recovery, happily working and married, and in her own words, “Super happy, ridiculously happy.”
2. Nile Wilson – Gymnastics: 2015 World silver medalist, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist
Like so many other people who suffer an injury, Nile Wilson’s struggle with addiction began with prescription painkillers. Wilson had been triumphing in international gymnastics competition since 2014, when he dominated the juniors and then moved into the senior level and promptly won one team and three individual medals at the Commonwelath Games. He continued to be successful, medaling in many competitions and at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Then in 2019, Wilson ripped a disc in his neck that required surgery. He was in physical agony and in a bad mental state from being unable to continue his competitive career. He combined his opioid painkillers with alcohol to cope with the physical and emotional pain. In an interview, he says he felt suicidal even while making positive videos for social media.
Wilson is now in recovery from opioids and alcohol, and focusing on his mental health. He’s passionate about changing gymnastics to make it more supportive and less damaging to athletes’ mental health.
3. Riley Salmon – Volleyball: 2004 & 2012 Olympic competitor, 2008 Olympic gold medalist
Riley Salmon grew up with a family history of addiction and alcoholism, and without the advantages of many of his Olympic teammates. Most members of the US Olympic volleyball team attend NCAA Division I schools, competing at the highest level of collegiate volleyball. Salmon, on the other hand, played for two years at a junior college. Imagine the skill he displayed, to be recognized in that setting!
After winning gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Salmon began taking opioids as painkillers for injuries. He quickly developed opioid use disorder. He admits to doctor shopping to get more pills, and to using alcohol as well. In 2016 he pawned his gold medal.
In 2018, Salmon realized he needed help and entered recovery. He’s healthier, happier, and grateful to be out of the desperation that kept him returning to using in the past. He’s now a collegiate volleyball coach.
4. Wilfred Bungei – Running: 2001 World silver medalist, 2003 World Indoor bronze medalist, 2006 World Indoor gold medalist, 2008 Olympic gold medalist
From his teens until his retirement from running in 2010—a span of 13 years—Wilfred Bungei spent nearly every day training. In many ways, his hard work paid off, as he succeeded at the highest levels of his sport. He took gold at the 800m in the Beijing Olympics, and he was part of the 4 x 800m relay team that still holds the world record. But when he retired in 2010, he found himself untethered without the routine of training to ground him.
Bungei rapidly developed an alcohol use disorder. He drank nearly constantly and found himself unable to stop or to control how much he drank. His children were afraid to drive with him, and he was physically ill from the effects of his alcohol consumption.
Bungei entered inpatient treatment in 2012 and his life is no longer ruled by alcohol. He now helps other athletes make the transition into retirement.
5. Matthew Mitcham – Diving: 2008 Olympic gold medalist, 2009 World bronze medalist
It might be a slight exaggeration to say that no one expected Matthew Mitcham’s triumph at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but not much of one. Mitcham dove beautifully, smashing expectations to enter the final round in second place. Then frontrunner Zhou Lüxin flubbed his final dive, and Mitcham performed his own nearly perfectly. It was a glorious moment and remains the highest-scoring men’s dive in Olympic history.
The pressure of failing to repeat this incredible success weighed on Mitcham, as did the scrutiny he faced as the first openly gay Olympic medalist. He began to use methamphetamine to escape and developed a substance use disorder that left him frightened and ashamed.
Mitcham entered recovery with a 12-step program in 2012 and shares openly about his struggle to provide hope for others. He is an author, performer, and student.
6. Kenneth Egan – Boxing: 2008 Olympic silver medalist
Kenneth Egan began drinking as a child and didn’t stop for many, many years. Despite his worsening alcohol use disorder, he excelled at boxing and represented Ireland at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The judging of the final match is hotly contested, and many believe Egan should have won the gold. Instead, he left the games with a silver medal and an excuse to lose himself in alcohol.
After destroying relationships and damaging his career, Egan realized that his alcohol use was out of control. He entered a 12-step program in 2010. His recovery led him to pursue a career in psychotherapy and counseling. He also comments on boxing matches and has political aspirations.
7. Oksana Baiul – Figure skating: 1993 World gold medalist, 1994 Olympic gold medalist
Oksana Baiul took the skating world by storm in 1993. She was only 15 when she skated injured and on damaged blades at the World Championships and took gold. She went on to win gold at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994 in a narrow and controversial victory over Nancy Kerrigan.
At the age of 16, Baiul was famous and touring the United States as a professional figure skater. Disconnected from friends and family, she was surrounded by adults in a hard-drinking, hard-partying environment. She developed a problem with alcohol and was charged with a DUI in 1997. That was a wake-up call, and Baiul entered inpatient treatment in 1998.
‘Life for me is more important than alcohol,” Baiul said.
8. Theo Fleury – Ice Hockey: 1991 World silver medalist, 2002 Olympic gold medalist
For decades, Theo Fleury used alcohol and substances to cope with his trauma. The child of parents with substance use disorders, Fleury also experienced sexual assault as a teen. He didn’t possess the tools to deal with his pain, so he relied on alcohol, cocaine, and the adrenaline of playing hockey. He won the Stanley Cup in 1989 with the Calgary Flames and competed in the Olympics twice. He was on Team Canada when they took gold in 2002 in Salt Lake City.
It wasn’t until 2005, two years after his hockey career ended, that Fleury recognized how serious his problem was and how much he needed help. He entered recovery and focused on his mental health. Finally with resources to cope in a healthier way, Fleury has not had to drink or use drugs since 2005.
Fleury is an entrepreneur, musician, and television personality.
9. Shawn Johnson – Gymnastics: 2007 World three-time gold medalist, 2008 Olympic gold and three-time silver medalist
In many athletic disciplines, eating disorders are a constant, if unspoken, presence. Gymnastics is one of these, and Shawn Johnson (now Shawn Johnson East), did not emerge unscathed. A combination of her undiagnosed but damaging eating disorder, physical injuries, and mental health issues worsened by public scrutiny led Johnson to abuse prescription medications following her 2008 Olympic triumph. She was prescribed Adderall—not for ADHD as it is intended, but to give her energy and help her lose weight. This use of the medication as a stimulant developed into a substance use disorder.
After a descent into depression and additional injury, Johnson retired from gymnastics in 2012. She began working with a therapist and nutritionist to form healthier habits. In 2017, Johnson suffered a miscarriage that was heartbreaking for her and her husband. The possibility that her eating disorder and past drug use may have contributed to the tragedy led Johnson to recommit to her recovery and to share about it publicly.
Johnson is now an author, entrepreneur, and podcaster. She openly discusses her mental health, addiction, and eating disorder in an effort to promote awareness and help others.
10. Carrie Steinseifer – Swimming: 1984 Olympic three-time gold medalist
Carrie Steinseifer (now Carrie Steinseifer Bates) was 16 years old when she dominated the freestyle events at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She won three gold medals before entering her junior year of high school. After that incredible high point, Steinseifer took not making the 1988 Olympic team as a terrible blow. Although she swam in international competitions through 1989, she never again reached her previous level of success. Her mental health suffered, and she began relying on alcohol.
Not everyone gets sober right away when they realize they need help. For Steinseifer, it took four trips to inpatient treatment for alcohol abuse before she found long-term recovery in 2012. Her family is incredibly supportive, celebrating her sobriety anniversary with her every year.
She now works in the recovery industry, helping others find a solution to their alcohol use disorders.
We love hearing stories of people who are living better, happier lives in recovery! We’re so grateful that these Olympic athletes in addiction recovery have courageously chosen to speak up about their experiences!