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Gabriel Medina, world’s top surfer, withdraws from season to focus on mental health

                                Brazil’s Gabriel Medina holds his surfboards during a training session at the Tokyo Olympics on July 22 in Ichinomiya, Japan.


    Brazil’s Gabriel Medina holds his surfboards during a training session at the Tokyo Olympics on July 22 in Ichinomiya, Japan.

Gabriel Medina, the No. 1-ranked world champion surfer, said Monday that he would not compete in the 2022 World Surf League season and would instead focus on his mental health.

“The past few months have been a difficult time for me personally, and it has taken a toll,” said Medina, 28, from São Paulo, Brazil. He added, “I’m not in a place where I believe I can perform against the world’s best surfers right now, and I need to focus on my well-being.”

The announcement from Medina, a veteran of the sport who has won three world titles, including one last year, follows that of other prominent athletes who have similarly prioritized their mental health over competition in recent years, forcing the sports community to confront the pressures of competitiveness.

During the Summer Games in Tokyo over the summer, Simone Biles, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, withdrew from part of the competition, citing mental health issues. Naomi Osaka, the tennis champion who is the highest-paid female athlete in the world, withdrew from the French Open last year, saying that she had faced “long bouts of depression” since she won the U.S. Open in 2018. And basketball players A’ja Wilson, DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love have spoken publicly about their depression.

“It’s an old issue,” said Ross Flowers, a sports psychologist based in Los Angeles whose client list includes Olympians and pro and college teams. “I think as a society we’ve become more accepting to hear some of our more public figures actually opening up and talking about what is affecting them or maybe even impeding their performance.”

Medina’s decision, Flowers said, “continues to put more attention on the need to recognize mental health” among athletes.

Medina had hinted in September that he would not compete in the 2022 season. He told LANCE!, a Brazilian sports news site, that at least for a while, he needed “to stop thinking just about competition” and that the time had come for him “to take a break.”

In his Instagram post Monday, he said he had intended to compete this season after preparing mentally and physically while getting a COVID-19 vaccine during the holiday break. But he experienced “a roller coaster of emotions in and out of the water” last year and felt “completely drained,” he said.

In addition to overcoming a slight hip injury, Medina said, he wanted to heal emotionally as well.

“Recognizing and admitting to myself that I’m not well has been a very difficult process, and choosing to take time to take care of myself was perhaps the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my entire life,” Medina said, adding that he would return to the sport whenever he felt able.

Cybil Streett, a sports psychotherapist in Orange County, California, said some of her clients who are surfers struggle with injuries and sometimes feel emotionally overwhelmed during recovery.

Surfing, she said, is a sport with many variables: the strength of waves, the weather and wind direction. Those variables can exhaust athletes over time, she said.

Erik Logan, chief executive of the World Surf League, said in a statement that “the health and safety of our athletes is of the utmost importance, and we fully support Gabriel’s decision to prioritize his well-being.”

Last year, the league rearranged its schedule and overhauled how it would crown a champion. Typically, surfers built up points at events year-round, sometimes knowing who would win the championship before the final event in Hawaii even began.

But under the new playoff system, there is a one-day surf-off among the top five surfers.

Medina said last year that he did not like the new system because it was unfair.

“You spend your life, a year long, and now the last event in September, you’re gonna decide all your year?” he said in September.

John Macri, a sports psychologist in Ridgewood, New Jersey, said that as more athletes like Medina open up about their mental health, “that stigma of keeping everything in the closet is no longer there anymore.”

“I commend him for that,” he said. “Other athletes will hopefully do the same and not neglect their health.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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