Kelly Catlin, a member of the U.S. women’s pursuit team that won a silver medal during the 2016 Olympic Games, died Thursday night, ending her focused, driven life at the age of 23. Her death left her father describing “unbelievable” pain and her sister saying, “I want the world to know there was a human being underneath that hard shell."
Catlin died in her on-campus residence at Stanford University; her family members confirmed that she died by suicide, her second attempt since January. Her father, Mark, called her a “warrior princess” in a phone interview with The Washington Post, saying that “part of her undoing was her personal code. She gave 110 percent to whatever she was doing.”
Catlin was one of a set of triplets; her sister, Christine, wrote in an email that Kelly Catlin was “a really special person — kind, funny, empathetic, and talented at literally everything she did. She just felt like she couldn’t say no to everything that was asked of her and this was her only escape.”
A graduate student at Stanford, Catlin was pursuing a degree in computational and mathematical engineering while training in track cycling as a member of the national team and racing as a professional road cyclist. She also excelled at the violin and as an artist. “Everything she did, she was the best at when we were little kids,” Christine Catlin said in a telephone interview Sunday night. “Sports, violin and she casually picked up cycling. We were the Catlins, so we were this force.”
Colin Catlin, the third triplet, said he helped push his sister into cycling, and that “she didn’t really want to, but she started winning things and she likes winning things.” He also helped spur her interest in data science, he said.
“I always saw myself as the planner and she was the doer,” he said in a telephone interview. “I could always see the three of us taking over the world. We were a massive ball of energy and we supported each other in everything.”
Two crashes, one in which she broke her arm in October and another in which she sustained a concussion in December, seemed to take away the control, the multitasking, that Catlin had always prized. In January, she attempted suicide for the first time and was clearly a different person to her family. “She was not the Kelly that we knew,” her father said. “She spoke like a robot. We could get her to talk, but we wondered, ‘what has happened to our Kelly?’
" . . . Everything was open to her, but somehow her thinking was changed and she couldn’t see beyond, I guess, her depression. After her concussion, she started embracing nihilism. Life was meaningless. There was no purpose. This was a person with depression. For her, she could no longer concentrate on her studies or train as hard. She couldn’t fulfill what she felt were her obligations to herself, she couldn’t live up to her own standards. She couldn’t realize that what she needed to do was get away and rest, heal. We were all searching for the magic words, that life was worth living.”
She also suffered from headaches and light sensitivity. “She had written this lengthy email [to her family in January] and said her thoughts were racing all the time,” Christine Catlin said. “She was suicidal, her thinking was really dark, and she had taken to nihilism. We called police the moment we got the email and they got there in time to save her that time [from suicide].”
Although she was in treatment, she convinced her family that she was thinking of the future, even amid her struggles. “It was my impression that she was of two minds about the whole thing,” Colin Catlin said of her suicide. “What killed her was her own stubborn determination. She had to win at everything. She got this idea [about suicide], which may have been related to her concussion. Just a week or two ago, we were making plans and I was optimistic about her future. She did have plans for the future, it turned out. Her plans.”
“The thing that haunts me is that she called me about a week and a half before [she died] and we talked for like 2½ hours and she opened up to me about her whole life,” Christine Catlin said.
Her father described what happened to his daughter as “a perfect storm” of depression, concussion symptoms, overtraining, “not being able to say no” and a rapid heart rate that kept her from being able to train, which he called “the final straw.”
It was all too much and in a recent VeloNews blog post on how she managed three intense pursuits, Kelly Catlin had written that she sometimes felt as if she needed “to time-travel to get everything done. And things still slip through the cracks.
“This is probably the point when you’ll expect me to say something cliche like, ‘Time management is everything.’ Or perhaps you’re expecting a nice, encouraging slogan like, ‘Being a student only makes me a better athlete!’ After all, I somehow make everything work, right? Sure. Yeah, that’s somewhat accurate. But the truth is that most of the time, I don’t make everything work. It’s like juggling with knives, but I really am dropping a lot of them. It’s just that most of them hit the floor and not me.”
Catlin, an Arden Hills, Minn., native who had earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of Minnesota, helped the U.S. team win three consecutive world titles in pursuit between 2016 and 2018. She won bronze in the individual pursuit at the track cycling world championships in 2017 and 2018. She withdrew from the cycling world championships last month in Poland despite being on USA Cycling’s initial roster. She attended the Rally Cycling road team’s January training camp in Oxnard, California but this season she had not competed with the team she first joined in 2017.
“We are deeply saddened by Kelly’s passing,” Rob DeMartini, the president and chief executive of USA Cycling, said in a statement. “We will all miss her dearly. Kelly was more than an athlete to us and she will always be part of the USA Cycling family."
Her sister described her feelings as “mostly numb” because “it feels like we went through the grieving process the first time she did this. It feels so unreal, but I’m glad that after her first attempt we had the chance to be there and let her know how much we cared.”
Kelly Catlin ended her VeloNews journal by echoing her father, who had told her she needed to rest — even if that meant quitting cycling or leaving school for a while and taking time off. “Ask for a rest day,” she wrote, “or, if you’re fortunate to be your own taskmaster (er, coach), give yourself a rest day.”
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