Niyo: For Michigan’s Kate Nye, Olympic dream was worth the weight

Berkley Olympic athlete Kate Nye didn’t plan to go public with her mental-health…

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Olympic weightlifting champion Kate Nye discusses her approach

Olympian Kate Nye, a 22-year-old world champion in weightlifting who lives and trains in Berkley,

Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

Berkley — Whenever Kate Nye is asked to talk about the weight she’s lifting these days, as a 22-year-old world champion preparing for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, she’s also asked about weight that has been lifted.

In a way, that’s the price of her relative fame, as one of the bright young stars in one of the world’s oldest sports. And it’s one that she’s willing to pay, she says, if only to help pay it forward.

For Nye, who lives in Berkley and also attends Oakland University, going public with her personal story of mental-health struggles — bouts of depression that culminated in a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder two summers ago — certainly wasn’t the plan. But it’s a part of who she is, and it helps explain why she’s thriving now.

“That diagnosis led to medication which led to therapy and understanding more about my mental illness so I could properly go about life and deal with the symptoms,” Nye said. “I don’t know if I would’ve qualified (for the Olympics) without that, because I was going through a really hard time and it was getting worse and worse. So if I hadn’t taken action, and gotten a diagnosis or at least sought out help, I’m not sure I’d be where I am today.”

Where Nye is today is where the Rochester Adams graduate has been six days a week for the last 18 months or so, training in the home gym she and her husband, Noah, built in their garage. It was a project they started not long after she’d all but locked up her first Olympic berth by winning gold at the 2019 World Weightlifting Championships in Thailand. And it’s one they finished in January 2020, six months ahead of what was supposed to be the 2020 Tokyo Games but only a couple months before the world effectively shut down, putting those Olympic dreams on hold.

“We didn’t know how much this would be a blessing in a global pandemic,” said Nye, who trains daily under the watchful eye of her two German Shepherd pups, Theo and Dani.

‘Significant expectations’

Still, it’s where she’s headed that is the real story here, as Nye is finally bound for Japan this summer, leading an eight-member team — four men, four women — that is carrying “significant expectations,” as USA Weightlifting CEO Phil Andrews puts it.

“There’s a chance our women may win more Olympic medals in one Games than we have in history,” Andrews said.

More: Niyo: Local athletes see their Olympic dreams deferred but not denied

Indeed, all four U.S. women have a legitimate shot at a podium finish, something only three Americans — including Tara (Nott) Cunningham, formerly of Mount Pleasant — have done since women’s weightlifting was added to the Olympic program in 2000. (The last medal for the U.S. men was back in 1984.)

Some of that success in Tokyo may depend on which weight classes the dominant Chinese team will decide to compete in this summer. But Nye got a sneak peek at some of the rest of her competition at April’s Pan-American Championships in the Dominican Republic, taking silver behind one of her friendly rivals, Ecuador’s Neisi Dajomes. That event was mostly a status check for Nye, who’d missed a month of training in February due to back spasms and hadn’t done an in-person competition in more than a year.

Another tune-up awaits later this month when the top U.S. lifters converge on Nye’s hometown for the 2021 national championships, June 25-July 4, at the TCF Center in Detroit. A week later, the U.S. Olympic team will head to Hawaii, which will be the American’s training base for Tokyo. Nye’s Olympics competition date in the women’s 76kg weight class is Aug. 1.

And to say she has missed events like these would be a massive understatement.  

“I love weightlifting, don’t get me wrong,” said Nye, who had to add weight this past year because her preferred class (71kg) isn’t part of the Olympic program. “You can’t do this without loving it. But it’s just different. … Honestly, I thrive on competition. I want to beat people. I just want to be the best. That’s just kind of my Type-A, hypercompetitive personality.”

It’s part of what made her a top-level gymnast growing up. And after she gave that sport up following a minor knee surgery at age 15, it’s what ultimately led Nye to weightlifting. She joined a CrossFit gym the following winter and showed plenty of promise in that sport as well. But when she started taking weightlifting classes, one of the coaches there, Josh Galloway, convinced her to give it a competitive try.

“It was pretty clear that she had a great talent for the sport,” said Nye’s husband, Noah, whom she started dating after they became training partners at the CrossFit Maven gym in Rochester. “But we never thought that it would get this far.”

Or this soon, really. Then Kate Vibert, she won a bronze medal at the 2016 youth nationals, and shortly after making her international debut she won silver at the IWF Junior World Championships in Uzbekistan.

“At first I was like, ‘Where in the world is Uzbekistan?’” said Noah, laughing. “But then it was, ‘Well, this is getting pretty surreal.’”

A year later, it was almost becoming routine, as Nye won gold at Pan-Ams and junior worlds, and then swept the field in Thailand, setting seven world records and winning gold in all three categories — snatch (112 kg), clean and jerk (136 kg) and total (248 kg) — to become the youngest world champ in U.S. women’s history.

And yet Nye, who was named the IWF’s Best Woman Lifter of 2019, couldn’t even get out of bed a few months before that performance. For several years, she’d been riding an emotional rollercoaster, with stretches of high-energy productivity followed by weeks of sleepless nights and deepening bouts of depression.

‘I really wrestled with it’

When Nye returned home from a disastrous performance at the junior Pan-Ams in Havana, Cuba, in May 2019, she reached new lows, however. She says she struggled to get out of bed, let alone get back in the gym to train. For her husband, it was too troubling to let continue. He gently encouraged Nye to seek professional help: A therapist, a doctor, someone. The federation put her in contact with a sports psychologist, and she met with a psychiatrist locally.

Ultimately, the bipolar II diagnosis wasn’t difficult to reach, given the symptoms she’d been dealing with, cycling through brief hypomanic episodes and major depressive events. But that didn’t make it any easier to hear.

“I expected to be diagnosed or treated for depression because that’s what I was mostly feeling,” said Nye, who also was diagnosed with mild ADHD. “But then more and more symptoms — that I didn’t realize were symptoms — came to light. Manic tendencies, I guess you could call them. So the bipolar disorder was a very big surprise to me. I didn’t take it very well at first. I really wrestled with it, and I was in denial for a little bit. I was like, ‘No way, that’s not me.’ I have these own stereotypes in my mind about what that meant.

“But it didn’t take very long. Maybe a couple days before I’m like, ‘You know what? The diagnostic test says this, the psychologist said it, the psychiatrist said it. Obviously, they know what they’re talking about and what I need to get better. So I’m going to go with that.’”

She started taking medication to help with the extreme mood swings, and learned to read the cues she’d been avoiding in the past while training. Nye also leaned on her family support system — her father, Dr. Brady Vibert, is a spine surgeon in Rochester — as she came to grips with what the bipolar diagnosis meant.

“At first, it’s a little scary, because you don’t understand it,” Noah said. “But as you go through it and learn about it more and learn how to help, it becomes a little bit easier. It’s still there, still relevant, still part of her daily life.

Yet it’s something she understands now, and it’s no longer controlling her life. The breakout performance at world championships later that fall seemed to confirm that. But so did this past year, as Nye dealt with the disappointment of the Olympic postponement, months without competition, a back injury and even a coaching change that now has her making trips to Atlanta to work with Spencer Arnold at Power & Grace Performance.

All of it has her feeling rejuvenated as she prepares for Tokyo … and beyond. Nye hadn’t originally planned on competing through the 2024 Paris Olympics. But she’s still young in the sport, has enjoyed the full support of USA Weightlifting and her sponsors, and says the coaching change “definitely reignited a fire in me that I have more work to do.” 

“And that I’m definitely capable of a lot more,” she adds. “I don’t think I can leave the sport until I’ve done everything I can do, you know?”

Which also explains why she’s sharing her whole story now, not just the competitive side of it.

“Once I started feeling better, I realized, ‘People could benefit from this, people that struggled like I did,’” Nye said. “It’s kind of hard being vulnerable. But at the same time, I do think more good than bad has come from it. Because people message me and say they’ve reached out to a therapist because of my experiences and my symptoms and what brought me to that conclusion. Even one person seeking help because of my story is worth it.”

Twitter: @johnniyo

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