Sports medicine doctor reflects on her role at 2020 Tokyo Olympics

UC Davis Health physician Marcia Faustin never expected to be catapulted into the global spotlight last month at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Marcia Faustin, left, with the USA Gymnastics Women's Olympic Team Marcia Faustin, left, with the USA Gymnastics Women’s Olympic Team

But when you’re a doctor to the U.S. women’s gymnastics national team, and the highest-profile athlete encounters a medical issue, you’ve got no choice.

That is what happened after Simone Biles, under enormous pressure after being designated the face of the 2020 Olympics, struggled to perform her signature vault to her and the world’s expectations. Afterward, the gymnast was photographed and videotaped in widely broadcast images consulting with Faustin, co-head team doctor, on the sideline at Ariake Gymnastic Centre. Biles then withdrew from most of the competitions, citing the need to take care of her mental health.

Faustin is also a family and sports medicine physician who practices at the UC Davis Health Sports Medicine Clinic in Sacramento.

HIPAA privacy regulations prevent Faustin from addressing specific medical care provided to athletes. But she agreed to answer questions about her time at the Olympics – and the significant role that mental health awareness played at the games.

Can you describe your experience at the Olympics with Team USA women’s gymnastics?

Marcia Faustin, USA Gymnastics Women’s Olympic team, their coaches and other personnel pose on a Tokyo street

My experience was amazing. It’s a privilege to be their physician on this exciting journey, taking care of their physical and mental health needs. Due to COVID restrictions, the gymnasts didn’t have any family or friends present, outside of video chat, therefore the medical team and I were also their support system. When you’re in the arena, watching these gymnasts achieve their dreams and win medals, it’s truly magical and exhilarating. Additionally, when things don’t go as planned, I value my ability to empathize with them during the difficult times.

What was your typical day like?

We would wake up by 6 to 7 a.m., go to breakfast, then go to the first practice, whether it was at the main competition arena or an outside training site. Then we’d return to the hotel for lunch, medical evaluations and treatments, then the athletes would have a second training session or competition. On competition days, due to medical and drug testing obligations, there would be nights we didn’t return to the hotel until 1 or 2 a.m. Simone also had a few training sessions at a separate site; therefore, I was the medical personnel that accompanied her and her coaches on those days.

What did these Olympic Games do for mental health awareness?

“Your mental health needs to be addressed, similarly to how one would address a torn ACL, with the appropriate treatment plan and kindness. Elite athletes are further normalizing mental health, reminding us to take care of ourselves, understand ourselves and our limits, and recognize the power of just saying ‘no’.”

— Marcia Faustin

I would actually start back at the 2016 Olympics with Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time. He really brought awareness to mental health, among many other great advocates. Simone and other athletes – like tennis player Naomi Osaka and Sam Mikulak, one of the most well-known male gymnasts in the U.S. – have been using their platforms and vulnerabilities to speak about mental health over the past few years, prior to arriving to the 2020 Olympics. The Olympians used the Olympic world stage to further advance mental health awareness. Through their actions, they showed the public that they are more than exceptional athletes, but first and foremost they are humans, like all of us. They have the same life wins and struggles, just with more unique external pressures. These athletes continue to teach and remind us that you have to take care of yourself, no matter what the external influences are surrounding you. They show us the importance of utilizing your support systems.

Are you surprised that athletes are more open now to talking about mental health?

The trend has been there, so I wouldn’t say I’m surprised. The mental health stigma is present in the patients I take care of in my clinic, along with the high-level athletes. I think the athletes are incredibly brave, and their candidness and openness about their mental health challenges is inspiring countless people. Their strength has shown us that mental health is important to discuss outwardly. USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee have made amazing strides to continuously improve and support the mental health of athletes. These courageous athletes are changing the world with their voices, especially when so many people are suffering due to the pandemic.

What should the public know about elite athletes and their mental health?

Marcia Faustin and Coach Cecile Landi take a selfie with gymnast Simone Biles

Mental health and physical health are two equally important factors in the health of athletes and all patients. I want to remind everybody that elite athletes are people first with varying emotions from feeling happy, sad, angry or scared. These emotions are our common humanity. Your mental health needs to be addressed, similarly to how one would address a torn ACL, with the appropriate treatment plan and kindness. Elite athletes are further normalizing mental health, reminding us to take care of ourselves, understand ourselves and our limits, and recognize the power of just saying “no.”

What message do you have for coaches and parents about the importance of mental health in sports?

One of the biggest lessons I would tell coaches and parents is to listen to your child or athlete. We all listen through our own life filter, but instead we want to give that person the space to talk and open up their hearts to us. In general, I believe people need to know that someone there is supporting them and the decisions they are making. Don’t impose your own beliefs and projects on that person, but allow them to be freely themselves without judgement.

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