13 March 2019

R.I.P Kelly Catlin

By now, you've probably heard that Kelly Catlin died.

The USCF confirmed her death on Sunday.  I waited to write about her because, like many people, I reacted with disbelief when I learned how she died:  suicide.  

Of course, it's terrible when anyone kills him or her self.  I know:  Five people in my life, including two close friends, did it.  But people were all the more shocked about Kelly because, really, she seemed to have everything going for her:  She was young (23 years old) and had a range of talents most of us can only dream about.

I mean, how many people pursue a graduate degree in computational and mathematical engineering--after getting an undergraduate degree in mathematics and Chinese--from Stanford, no less?  Oh, and as her brother Colin recalls, she could go from listening to German industrial heavy metal to playing Paganini on her violin.  In fact, when she was training for the 2016 Olympics, she spent her spare time memorizing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major, all 35 pages of it.

Such talents, and her pursuit of them, could have made her hermetic.  People who knew her, however, described her as warm, funny and generous.

But the reason why her suicide made the news is that she was part of the US Women's Pursuit Team that won the silver medal in the 2016 Olympics--and won three consecutive World Championships from that year through 2018.

Kelly Catlin (second from left) on the podium with her teammates at the Rio Olympics, 2016

According to reports, she was advised not to participate in this year's championships.  That alone probably wouldn't have sent her "over the edge."  But the reason that advice was given to her may have been the cause.

She had experienced a series of crashes that left her with injuries, including a concussion.  We've heard a lot about those among NFL players--some of whom, not coincidentally, have taken their own lives.

It's known that concussions can alter the structure of a person's brain.  A cheerful, optimistic person who suffers such an injury can therefore become angry and depressed, and people who pride themselves on their physical and mental dexterity find themselves fumbling through things that had been routine.

The problem is that no one seems able to determine the extent of the damage or other change to the brain of someone who's been concussed--until an autopsy is performed.  And if the person's mind is benighted with thoughts of ending his or her life, the usual entreaties to seek help are of no use.  

Kelly's family is donating her brain to be used for research.  I am sure their gesture, or even the knowledge that doctors and scientists will learn much from it, will not comfort them.  But we can only hope that we won't have to hear more stories about lives full of promise--or, for that matter, any life--ended too soon.

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