Taylor Ricci On Building Dam Worth It & Bringing Mental Health Awareness To The Pac-12 Conference

When and why did mental health become something that's so important to you?

Taylor Ricci: Yeah, that's a loaded question. I think that there are so many reasons why mental health is a passionate topic. I was an elite gymnast growing up competing for Team Canada and I went down to Oregon State on a scholarship. So I think just competing at a high level of athletics, you automatically experience mental health struggles, whether it be anxiety or getting an injury and having that take you out of the sport for a season. All those things I was not excluded from. I was injured as an athlete. I grew five inches my freshman year at Oregon State as a gymnast, which in itself was a huge physical and mental battle. But really my huge passion for mental health stems from my own mental health journey. In my senior year at Oregon State, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called alopecia, which essentially is hair loss. That's the result of the autoimmune condition. So in the span of about two weeks, I lost 50% of the hair on my head, which in the sport of gymnastics, and as a female, in particular, you are literally defined on beauty. We wear expensive, sparkly leotards. We wear bows and our hair sparkles on our face. Our job is literally to salute the judge and be beautiful and be perfect. And my senior year was this pull and this struggle between doing the sport that I love and competing in front of 1000s of people at Oregon State. But at the same time having this constant thought in the back of my head, "Are these people in the audience noticing that I'm bald?" That was really tough. I would say that part of my mental health journey, I went to a lot of it alone. I sometimes turned to my close teammates and my roommates who really helped me through it, but it was something that I was for no reason ashamed of. I was kind of upset and angry that my body was doing this to me. I was really fortunate later that year to go through treatment and go through injections in my head several times a month to help with the hair regrowth so that did improve. When that was resolved, I would say my mental health improved a little bit. But then a couple of months later, right after finishing my senior season, I got a phone call from my coach when I was back home in Vancouver, BC which changed my life forever when he told me that one of my former teammates had taken her life to suicide. So that right there was what I like to call my breaking point where I say that I really experienced mental health in a purely negative way for a prolonged period of time. I can look back on it three years later and say I've done the work to heal and to now talk about mental health in a positive light, but really that passion stemmed from a lot of tragedy and heartache.

Yeah, I can't even imagine, and up until that point, even before you kind of went through all those obstacles and those challenges was the concept or the topic of mental health ever talked about growing up or even in competitive space when you were younger?

Taylor Ricci: Yeah, when I was younger I grew up with Russian and Romanian coaches, which in the sport of gymnastics they're notoriously known for being pretty tough on you. So mental health really wasn't talked about. When I fell, when I got hurt, when I did poorly in a competition, it was just the repeated, "Stand up, brush it off and keep going." Never did they really acknowledge the mental or emotional impacts an event had on me as an athlete, but it was just that mentality of you're a gymnast, and you're tough and you just got to push through. So I would say up until college, no mental health was really not talked about in the concept of being an athlete or in my life. Then in college, it started to be brought forward more in relation to mental training. So doing a lot of mental performance training to help with competing and help with that aspect of it, which was super beneficial and super important. But I would say in my experience, the concept of an athlete struggling with mental health was not talked about until our team, unfortunately, had to face the reality of it's something that we need to talk about.

How do you suggest or think about striking the balance between making sure that athletes are in a mental space to where they can compete at the highest levels, because part of being an athlete is having that mental toughness, but also ensuring that we're taking care the human behind the athlete and making sure they're getting the support they need to manage the mental side of life in general, and some of the pressure and stress that might come along with that? How do you think about mental toughness versus mental health outside of sports?

Taylor Ricci: Yeah, I think that I think everyone views this in a different way. But I view mental health as this spectrum. On one side of the spectrum is mental illness, which is depression, anxiety, those sorts of things that I think society really thinks about when it comes to mental health. Then on the other side is mental wellness and this concept of whether you're an athlete or just a human being, you exist along this spectrum every single day of your life. It's just a matter of where you sit on this spectrum. So I think, as an athlete, the difference between being mentally tough, and also talking about your mental health, they aren't mutually exclusive. You can be an athlete that struggles with depression or anxiety, but also be an athlete that goes to practice day in and day out and can use your sport as an escape or as a form of therapy for you. So I think that it was a huge lesson for me to learn that being vulnerable and being open about my mental health was not me showing that I was mentally weak, but it was me showing that I was mentally tough. Kind of in the same way as when I hurt my shoulder during my junior year at Oregon State, and not wanting to really talk about that, or bring it forward and just being afraid that it would take me out of the meet or out of the season, you know. I had to talk about that injury so that I could take the steps to recover and heal so that I could come back as a stronger athlete. I think it was the same for my mental health during that experience. As an athlete, you have to recognize it and do the same kind of rehab that you do a physical injury to get to the point where you're strong again.

I love that explanation. I also want to talk about Dam Worth It because what you've done in this space is incredible as you bring more awareness and remove the stigma. So can you talk about that campaign and what you guys have done so far to make an impact on student-athletes?

Taylor Ricci: Yeah, so Dam Worth It stemmed from the latter part of my mental health journey, and the moment in my life where the concept of Dam Worth It that I like to think was really planted was at my teammates memorial. I remember standing outside of the parking lot in Dallas, Texas, not being able to go into that to the memorial. I remember feeling really defeated and feeling really vulnerable at that moment. My coach came out and I just lost it. And I said to him, "I should have done more. I could have done more and how am I gonna get past this?" And he told me to use my voice and my platform as an athlete to make a change. That conversation led to a coffee shop in Oregon with a former men's soccer player named Nathan Broughton. And at that coffee shop, we said okay, what can we do to end the stigma around mental health and the concept of Dam Worth It was born. So Dam Worth It essentially started in 2017 and the mission has stayed the same over the last several years, which is to use the influential platform of sport to end the stigma around mental health. Back in 2017, we wrote up a game plan and said this is what we want to do as student-athletes to end the stigma on our campus and we walked into our athletic director's office and we plopped this plan on their desk and said, "Will you help us?" Essentially that's where Dam Worth It started at Oregon State. What it looks like now is every year we've got a team of students and student-athletes on our campus that really, just like the mission says, use the platform of sports to remove the stigma. Every single sports team at Oregon State University has a Dam Worth It game or competition every year, and at those events, we've got our Dam Worth It team passing out wristbands, t-shirts, and flyers and playing a promotion video at halftime. Really the goal with these games and these events is to put the uncomfortable topic of mental health into the comfortable atmosphere of sports. And it's really grown over the last three years. We had the opportunity to go across the PAC-12 and speak to different schools to help their schools do something very similar. Then about six months ago, we launched as a nonprofit. So now Dam Worth Its goal is to not just be at Oregon State but to help other college and high school campuses across the country, start a branch of Dam Worth It themselves.

It's super important and super aligned with what we're doing here as well so I commend you on all the work you're doing. But to wrap things up, what advice would you give your younger self about dealing with pressure, anxiety, and just some of the stressors that come along with being a student-athlete at a high level?

Taylor Ricci: Yeah, you know, I laugh about it now, but when I first started to see a counselor at Oregon State, when going through my own journey of mental health, and I don't know if it was the same at the school you went to, but we all got backpacks, and our backpacks had our sport or number on it. So everyone across campus knew that you were an athlete because of this backpack. I used to purposely leave my backpack either in my car or hide my backpack when I went into this counselor's office because I didn't want people seeing that I was this athlete that had a full-ride scholarship had all these privileges of being an athlete, and that was kind of viewed in this kind of superhero way, but when I was out on the competition floor, I didn't want people seeing that I was struggling. I think that if I could go back and give myself advice and give other people advice, it's kind of this cliche saying, but it's okay to not be okay. And by admitting that you're not okay, it's not going to make you any less of an athlete or less of a person. It's only going to make you more relatable to your teammates, and to the people that look up to you and that you look up to as well.

I think that's great advice. And I know I said that was the last question, but I got one more question for you. Where do you see the conversation of mental health going for the next generation of athletes because I feel like the athletes that are coming up are way more outspoken and demanding of what they want and are bringing that humanity back to the world of athletics. So where do you see the conversation of mental health going for the next generation coming up?

Taylor Ricci: Yeah, there's a couple of things, and I do not identify as male, but I think the concept of healthy masculinity is something that's huge, and something that I talked to my co-founder, Nathan about regularly. I think that's something that's really going to change. But just as a whole, they'll start viewing mental health the same way as a physical injury. I think that it was so much easier as an athlete to walk into the trainer's office and get treatment on my ankle or sit in the cold tub just because my body needed it. I think the conversation moving forward in the future, is going to be around the same way when it comes to mental health, you know. Going into your therapist's office once a week, or having a mental health check in every once in a while with your teammates or your coaches just because your body needs it. I think that the role of mental health in athletic performance is huge. I also think that not only athletes, but I think coaches are realizing that so within athletes, the conversation is going to change. And I think that amongst coaches with their athletes, they're starting to really recognize we got to do more about mental health to help us with our athletic game as well.

For sure, fingers crossed. I'm hoping the same and as I said, you're doing amazing work. Please keep it up. Thank you once again for your time.

Taylor Ricci: Thank you.

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