World-class bicycle racer takes own life after suffering concussion

Dr. Gabe Mirkin

This is the saddest story I have ever had to write.  Kelly Catlin was a world-class bicycle racer who won a silver medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics and gold medals in the 2016, 2017, and 2018 UCI Track Cycling World Championships. At the same time, she was a concert-quality classical violinist and an artist, was graduated summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics, spoke fluent Chinese, and was in the exclusive graduate school in mathematics at Stanford University when she committed suicide at age 23, on March 7, 2019.

Kelly Catlin

Early Years in Cycling

Kelly was born as a triplet on November 3, 1995, in St. Paul, Minnesota.   She and her brother and sister were all over-achievers and were very good at soccer and cross-country running.  She was the most competitive but often suffered from chronic shin splints. Her triplet brother, Colin, began racing bicycles at age 14.  When they were 17, he encouraged his injured sister to start riding a bicycle.  Since running stresses primarily the lower legs and causes shin splints while cycling stresses primarily the muscles above the knee, cycling is often prescribed for athletes who suffer lower leg injuries. She took up cycling and the lower leg pain disappeared. 

As a cyclist, she was fortunate enough to be coached by experts who taught her the science of training, which made her love cycling even more.  To improve in any endurance sport, you have to do very intense training and that means you have to do intervals.  You go very fast, then you slow down to recover your breath and for the burning in your muscles to go away, and you alternate these short bursts until you are close to exhaustion.   Her brother recalls that, “We’d come home from high school and she’d be on the indoor trainer next to me doing VO2 interval after interval, that was the key to her success. She loved to train really hard.”

She was dominant right from her first races in Minnesota’s junior women’s road and mountain bike races.  She was so talented that during her senior year in high school, she competed with the University of Minnesota’s college cycling team.  She and Colin both took university classes while still in high school. Velo News reported that in one college race, the women’s race started several minutes after the men’s B race.   She quickly dropped all the female racers and soon afterwards dropped everyone in the men’s race to finish way ahead of all of them. 

At age 19, she was so good that she was chosen to train with America’s best,  Chloé Dygert, Jennifer Valente, and Ruth Winder, for the 2016 Olympics in the team pursuit.  Her coach told the press that Kelly trained harder than everyone else and she studied long hours to earn her college degree with honors. She went on to be part of the team that finished first in the 2016, 2017, and 2018 World Championships of  UCI Track Cycling. At the same time, she enrolled in the computational mathematics program at Stanford, competing with some of the most talented math students in the world. 

The Beginning of the End

In October 2018, she crashed during a training ride and broke her arm, but as was expected from her, she continued to train and race.  On January 5, 2019, she crashed on a training ride in Malibu, California, but she finished her ride.  On the next day, she left for the U.S. national team training camp in Colorado Springs.  There she told her family that she was dizzy and felt like throwing up, so she left the camp early and flew back to school in California.  Her brother believes that these were probably signs of a concussion.  

Her family feels that her personality also changed at that time. She told them that she “lost her control” after the crash and felt that her workouts were going very poorly.  Her emails to her family suddenly became irrational and she told her parents that her “mind was spinning.” In January 2019, she wrote a suicide note in an email to her family and they immediately called the campus police at Stanford and heard that she was already in the hospital after inhaling gas from her stove.   She had been found in her bathroom, dazed and staring at the mirror.  Her family flew to California, but Kelly told them she was fine and forced the hospital to release her after a week.  She attended group therapy sessions and promised her family and doctors that she no longer desired to kill herself.  However, the gas had damaged her lungs and heart so that she was unable to train without getting severely short of breath, and she was not allowed to compete in the UCI track world championships in Poland. This hurt Kelly so much that she told her family that she was thinking about giving up bicycle racing forever. On March 8, 2019, she was found in her apartment after having killed herself by inhaling gas.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

The Catlin family feels that the crashes, in which Kelly broke her arm and suffered at least one concussion, may have led to her suicide.  She couldn’t train, she had severe headaches and she was bothered by bright lights.  Concussions can and do cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be diagnosed by examining the brain after death. It has been found in hundreds of former football players and war veterans.  Symptoms include depression, memory loss and mood swings.  The family has donated Kelly’s brain to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) center, where researchers will be able to assess the amount of damage in her brain. 

Her Incredible Determination 

She had an amazing memory and could recite the first 400 digits of the mathematical constant Pi, was the equivalent of a classical concert violinist, was graduated Summa Cum Laude, at the very top of her class in college, was in a graduate program at Stanford with some of the smartest mathematicians anywhere, and was an Olympic-medal winner and world-champion athlete.  She could block pain with her mind and had her broken arm set with neither pain medication nor anesthesia. She was the most focused and determined person her family had ever met. She was the best at everything she ever did.  

Athletes train by taking a very intense workout on one day in which they damage their muscles so that on the next day, they feel very sore and have to recover by going slowly with far less intensity.  She wrote an article about how she once studied for 12 hours during her workout recovery day, and found out that she needed another recovery day to recover from her intense brain workout day. She wrote, “So, remember: Just as with your muscles, your mind can only repair itself and get stronger with rest. Ask for a rest day, or, if you’re fortunate to be your own taskmaster, give yourself a rest day.  Unlike everything else in life, it cannot possibly do you harm.”

Mental State After Her Concussion

Her father is a medical doctor who is board certified in pathology.  He wrote that after her first suicide attempt by inhaling toxic gases, she had elevated heart enzymes, showing that her heart had been damaged.  During her hospital stay, she was unable to sleep, was talking to herself, and was argumentative with medical personnel.  After her discharge from the hospital, she returned to Stanford with a reduced class load and tried to resume heavy bicycle training.  She did up to “three high-intensity workouts a day to get prepared” for the trip to the World Championship in Poland.  She also did 11 consecutive days of intense bicycle training without a rest day. Her  MRI showed indeterminate white lesions in gray matter compatible with brain damage from her concussion and she did have mild lapses in her tests for memory.  

At this point, her training had deteriorated and she suffered from severe headaches.  She had a rapid heart rate that did not slow down with rest.  She realized that she would not be able to go to Poland to compete in the World Championship, thought that she might never be able to race again, and stopped responding to emails and phone calls from her family.

A Message from Kelly Catlin’s Short Life

Her success in everything she did was the result of her exceptional intelligence and her willingness to work harder than everyone else. We will never know whether her suicide was the result of her concussion causing depression because it prevented her from doing her best.  One message we can all take from this tragedy is that you have to work so hard and so long to be the best at anything that you can’t be the best at everything.  She tried to be the best cyclist in the world while at the same time working in a graduate program with other outstanding mathematicians.  Both are full time jobs.  I have heard about other people who excel in more than one field, but they are rare.

• Paul Robeson was an All-American football player at Rutgers, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Cornell and one of the world’s great opera singers. He spent his entire life fighting for the rights of the working class and against ignorance and prejudice. As an undergraduate, he was the first black football player at Rutgers, and twice was named to the All American Football Team in spite of racism from some of his teammates. He won 12 varsity letters in baseball, football, basketball, and track and field (freshmen could not compete on varsity teams). He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995, nineteen years after his death.

• Ken Wilson was on the track team with me at Harvard, and won both the Ivy-league indoor and outdoor two-mile runs in 1954, 1955, and 1956, took all his math courses at the graduate level, finished at the top of his class, and in his senior year at Harvard won the Putnam Competition in which mathematicians take an examination that is called the most difficult intellectual test in the world. At age 27, Ken Wilson won the Nobel Prize in physics for his theory for critical phenomena.  

• Micheline Ostermeyer, at age 26, won Olympic gold medals in both the shot put and discus and a third place bronze medal in the high jump.  She celebrated her victories with a piano recital of Beethoven at France’s team headquarters and went on to become a famous concert pianist.   Three months before the 1948 Olympic games she was graduated with highest honors from the Paris Conservatory of Music. She said that playing the piano gave her strong biceps and a sense of rhythm.

Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com