Clare Myers, Staff Writer
Olivia Bach is two minutes late, but she’s not worried. She no longer has to rush.
It’s a big change for the former triathlete, but she’s learned to slow down.
I meet Olivia at the Starbucks just off the highway, a popular haunt of University of Dallas students and a busy place, even on a Wednesday afternoon. We sit facing each other at a little table, comfortably sandwiched between a group of girls studying and a man in headphones sunk deep into an armchair. Our words fall into the general chatter of the place.
She wears a simple necklace: a silver circle, emblazoned with a single word: “Simplicity.” It’s not so much a piece of jewelry as it is a statement, a reminder.
At first glance, the confident 23-year-old with wavy brunette locks and easy grace seems like a typical young woman. The casual observer would not know how tumultuous the past few years have been for the former UD student, when she fell from the peak of success in the ultracompetitive world of triathlons to the depths of exhaustion and depression.
As isolated and lost as she has felt at times, she is not alone in her experience. The difficult reality of athletes burning out is not a new one, but it is a danger that continues to affect young, elite athletes. Olivia has agreed to describe her difficult journey through depression and the rediscovery of faith that allowed her to rise up and overcome it.
Olivia settles at the table with an iced tea in hand and begins to tell her story. She grew up in a large homeschooled family in the small east Texas town of Marshall as the fourth of 10 children. “And we’re not Mormon or Catholic!” she says with a laugh.
The lure of racing began after Olivia had returned home from a two-month mission trip to Uganda for mission work. “I was bored out of my mind,” she recalls, and so she had started cycling. When she jumped on her bike, she could ride for hours, up to 50 miles per day.
“Part of it was just peace of mind. I was by myself … it was freedom.”
Several of her father’s friends were cyclists, and soon they began to encourage her to try racing. Through cross-training to strengthen her upper body, she had also discovered a love of swimming. Triathlons — which include swimming, cycling and running — were a natural choice, especially once she had convinced her brother Elliot, then 13, to train with her.
At the age of 17, when her peers were cheering at high school football games and spending afternoons at the mall, Olivia was training for her first triathlon.
The Longview Parks and Recreation Department race was a sprint-distance triathlon: a 750-meter (.465-mile) swim, a 20-kilometer (12.5-mile) bike ride and a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) run. She was the only woman under the age of 25 to compete. It was her first victory.
From that point on, her rise is a familiar story.
One of her father’s cyclist friends, “Papa” John Ritter, began to coach her. She joined the local bike shop crowd and started competing in more races and winning.
Encouragement was constant. Woolley G’s began to sponsor Olivia, by then 18, and her brother Elliot. She was caught up in the whirlwind of success.
“It definitely became an addiction,” she said.
It wasn’t long before Olivia was scheduled to compete in a Half Ironman in Florida. The race consisted of a 1.9-kilometer (1.2-mile) swim, a 90-kilometer (56-mile) bike ride and a 21.1-kilometer (13.1-mile) run. But communication problems with a new coach had led to overtraining, and she sprained her ankle. She ended up participating in a relay team in the race, but her first official foray into Ironman competitions was delayed. She continued to train hard, however, this time coaching herself.
In the fall of 2009, a week before she was to attend freshman orientation at the University of Dallas, where she hoped to join the cross country team, Olivia raced in a Half Ironman. “It was pouring down rain with 30 mile per hour winds,” she remembers. “It was horrible, except I was having the best time of my life.”
Unfortunately, the event proved costly. “My legs were nonexistent,” she says when discussing her efforts to run at UD. Olivia had put too much stress on her joints and now needed tailbone surgery. She was out of commission for the season, at least.
After that, her health deteriorated quickly. She couldn’t run, couldn’t exercise.
“That was Hell,” she recalls soberly.
Training had been her way of dealing with the stress of everyday life, and without it, she found herself at a loss.
Increasingly plagued by food allergies and hormone imbalances she hadn’t known she had, Olivia struggled through her first college semester.
“I had a lot of depression and I didn’t know it,” she says, citing her health issues as a major cause of the problem.
Friends helped her through, she says.
When she was able to train again, natural ability quickly brought her up to speed. She propelled herself to success again, becoming the top-ranked triathlete in the multi-state area for her age group. In Nov. 2011, a member of the Brian Loncar Racing Team contacted her, asking her to apply to the triathlon training squad. The organization paid for all of her race fees and nearly all of her sports nutrition. It also sponsored opportunities for heavily discounted group training. She still regards becoming a part of the team as one of the highlights of her life.
But once again, passion for the sport bordered on obsession. At the age of 22, she was working with 30-year-olds in the prime of performance for the sport. Once again, Olivia was doing too much.
She kept up with the team for a full year, but training was taking its toll.
“I was just exhausted,” she said.
In the fall of 2012, her senior year at the University of Dallas, she joined the cross country team, cutting back on triathlons in favor of the collegiate level 5- and 6-kilometer races. Being a part of the team helped her to discover a new aspect of life at college.
“She finally felt like she had people who understood where she was coming from,” UD coach Matt Buchhorn said. “Before, I don’t really think she had a lot of direction and support.”
The University of Dallas is a tight-knit community, and sometimes a difficult one in which to find a place that feels like home. Olivia had missed freshman orientation because of her surgery and had always been a commuter student. It was easy for her to feel alone. But her teammates saw a different side of Olivia. They saw a leader.
That season, Olivia quietly led the underclassmen by example, accepting the pain of every hard workout and giving each one every ounce of effort. Her slogan was blunt: “Embrace the suck and smile when you finish.” It became the team’s philosophy.
Unfortunately, the community of the team was too little, too late. Olivia was plagued with problems that ran too deep for a quick fix.
Years of overtraining were catching up to her. Injuries and stress were adding up.
As a philosophy major, Olivia had to write a senior thesis. At UD, the philosophy thesis topic is chosen by the department. Her assignment? Anxiety and depression.
“It was really hard to be writing about and studying these things when I was dealing with them myself,” she acknowledges. What truly fascinated her was existential philosophy, which she calls “atheistic” and “depressing.”
At the same time, she was also questioning her religion. Her family had always been strong evangelical Christians. But her studies at UD had made the perfect storm of confusion for her. Nihilism, Catholicism, depression and doubt collided.
“It was a huge spiritual battle,” she remembers. “I struggled with myself for many months.”
By February 2013, it all became too much. Olivia quit the Brian Loncar team. It was the final straw.
“[I told myself] I’m giving up on one dream I’ve had since I was 16: being a professional athlete,” she says. “I felt like … I had defeated myself.”
She kept going to classes, but went home every night in tears. After a week of anguish, she dropped out of school.
Emotionally distraught, physically a wreck, it took her nearly a year to get back to a state of relative normalcy. “I went to a really dark place,” Olivia recalls.
She then recounts her rebound from rock bottom. Running had started, she explains, as a pure joy, an “amazing communion with God.” But as it became an addiction, the focus shifted to a selfish perspective. She points to one race in particular, the first in which she did not place.
“Things changed from ‘this is a gift’ to ‘this is me and my glory,’” she says.
Running was no longer a way to praise God but a selfish obsession. From that moment on, it didn’t make her happy. A return to her faith in God was a major part of Olivia’s recovery.
“My decision to quit was, in a way, God … forcing me to quit,” she says. “I don’t believe in coincidences.”
She stopped training, took a job at an Italian restaurant and rediscovered friends. After years of religious turmoil and eight months of not attending church services or having a Christian community to support her, Olivia began to pray again. And she began to get better. She prayed that God would give her a new passion.
These days, Olivia is finishing up her undergraduate degree at Dallas Baptist University. She will graduate in December and she’s excited about the future. She’s thinking about law school, and she says that God has answered her prayers for a new passion: She has joined the fight against human trafficking.
She tells me that her hero now is William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist. “Sometimes fighting [something this big] seems absurd and insane, but he changed the world,” she explains.
Fighting an uphill battle is something she understands well. “I’m not an athlete anymore, and that’s okay,” she says with characteristic sincerity. “I’m really happy now.”
For Olivia, success is no longer measured by time and how she placed. We’ve been talking for nearly two hours and that’s all right. Olivia’s not running anymore.