Olympic dreams: Mount Shasta pro snowboarder fights through depression, anxiety, COVID-19
After being diagnosed over the past year with severe depression, anxiety and COVID-19, professional snowboarder Robby Burns said he’s focusing on the future and taking each day as it comes.
Although he’s been disappointed with his season on the 2021 U.S. Alpine Snowboard World Championships Team, Burns plans to return to Mount Shasta this summer to train and do all he can to make the U.S. Winter Olympics Team in 2022.
Burns, who was raised in Mount Shasta and graduated from Mount Shasta High School in 2009, hopes that sharing his experience with depression and anxiety will help others who feel hopeless and lonely know they aren’t alone.
‘Where there is hope and hard work, there is a chance’
Burns’ best performance this season was a seventh place finish at a European Cup event in Davos, Switzerland. He explained that the European Cup is one step below the World Cup.
Burns, age 30, was a candidate for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Snowboard team but did not earn one of the two spots that were open for male alpine snowboarders.
In April of 2019, Burns captured his first United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association gold medal in both the slalom and giant slalom event.
Last year, before the pandemic cut his racing season short, Burns was seeing career high results. At the world championships, he just missed medaling with a fourth place finish.
Burns described this year of competition as “discouraging and challenging.”
“I have not been able to capitalize on any big race day performances so far,” he admitted. Despite the lack of positive results, Burns said his goal of representing the U.S. next year in the Olympics in Beijing, China is “absolutely still alive.”
“And where there is hope and hard work, there is a chance,” he said. “It will be more difficult based on this season’s results, but it is still possible.”
Over the season, Burns competed in 17 races in Europe and Russia. He has one more World Cup race in Berchtesgarden, Germany this weekend, and then potentially four more races after that at a lower level.
This week, Burns is practicing in Italy before heading to Germany on Friday.
His goal for Saturday’s race is “to make strong, courageous, committed turns top to bottom, one run at a time. Getting overly attached to results is the bane of an athlete’s existence, so for me, the simpler I can make my focus, the better I can hold it.”
‘You are never alone’
Burns said he’s experienced depression and anxiety for much of his life, and he always wanted to deal with it on his own.
“After 30 years of having a constantly challenging experience on and off, I noticed that although there were very good times, and very hard times, I really was affected by everything around me, deeply,” he said.
Over the past year, Burns said he started seeking medical attention “because the falls were really overwhelming.”
He has since been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and is taking medication, which helps him cope “with the ups and downs of life.”
“My experience on medication has been good for me, and hard too,” Burns said. “I feel more consistent, with less drastic mood swings. So while the lows don’t feel quite so low, the highs also don’t feel quite so high. As an adrenalin-seeking athlete, highs and lows are commonplace. Not feeling them is peculiar.”
Burns said the most important thing to remember is that “we aren’t alone. You are never alone. My hope is that in sharing my story, more and more with some courage and effort, someone else who might be feeling lonely and hopeless, can have an opportunity to know they aren’t alone.”
In early November, when he was just starting his snow training in Colorado, Burns tested positive for COVID-19. He immediately went into a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
The immediate side effects of the virus felt like a cross between a cold and the flu, he said, with fever, aches, dry cough, and fatigue. The most peculiar side effect was his loss of taste and smell.
“I hadn’t experienced that before, or at least not to that extent,” Burns said. “My diet fell off, as I had no urge or desire to eat. As an athlete, you must consume calories. All of that at the beginning of the season was a challenging way to start a race season.”
Burns said the fatigue and loss of appetite lingered after his recovery. “Food just didn’t sound good,” he recalled. “My cardiovascular endurance and power were also diminished (after) taking almost four weeks off from the gym just before the start of the World Cup race calendar.
“All this to say, regardless, its important to roll with the punches, to take each day as a gift and really try and work with it,” he said.
Looking to the future
Burns is currently training in the Dolomites, a mountain range in northeastern Italy. He said the mountain range is his favorite, and the natural beauty there is “awe inspiring.”
“Of course, Mt. Shasta will always be my favorite mountain, but outside of home, the valleys of Northern Italy are second to none in my book,” he said.
A typical day for Burns usually involves 2 to 3 hours on snow each morning, followed by lunch, a short nap, physical fitness training for 1 to 2 hours in the afternoon, video review, dinner, stretching and recovery, then sleeping for 8 to 10 hours.
“It's usually a pretty full day if you accomplish everything necessary to maintain peak physical fitness for exertion at events,” Burns said. ”The exceptions to this are travel days, and we travel a lot. So we try to incorporate rest days into the routine as consistently as possible, usually 4 to 5 days of training, then one day off.”
COVID-19 has made traveling for events more challenging than ever before.
“Almost everything, everywhere is closed,” Burns said. “Ski resorts are open for professional athletes training and competition only. We have bubbles for each country, with specific eating times, workout times, and everything else we do.”
He said there’s been no intermingling of international athletes this year and they’re required to masks everywhere except just before they enter the start gate.
He said that he and his fellow athletes get tested for COVID-19 at least every four days.
“In many cases we cannot travel across international borders without a negative test result no older than 72 hours,” he said.
A community of support
In the offseason, Burns plans to spend time in Mount Shasta and Colorado, where he lives in the offseason, and also visit his girlfriend.
Over the next year before the Winter Olympics, he’ll train consistently, sometimes at his hometown gym, Mountain Fitness in Mount Shasta.
“I will be in the gym 5 to 6 hours a day, maintaining a healthy and rigorous diet, and ensuring that I give myself every opportunity I possibly can to be successful in 2022,” Burns said. “Of course, I will also make time to see loved ones, my whole family, and friends who remain in Siskiyou County. I’ll also be planning a fundraiser for next season. Between planning the fundraiser and getting into the gym six hours a day, five days a week, I will also try and find work. I have no idea what that will be.”
Burns said he wouldn’t be where he is today without the support of the Mt. Shasta area community.
“To all of you back home, you have my gratitude and so much more,” he said. “I look forward to the offseason, to regroup, continue my physical fitness program, and work as if I am going to the next Winter Olympics.”
Burns thanked his family for being “endlessly supportive in the pursuit of my dreams.” His parents, Mike and Donna Burns, his siblings and his nieces and nephews “have seen me through the best and worst of times.”
“Words really won’t do to express the gratitude I have for our little town, and all the wonderful people who live there,” Burns said. “The world over, I have experienced more kindness in our community than any other destination on the map, and that’s a fact.”
Burns said it’s important to keep getting up and moving forward no matter how many times a person falls.
“Life as an athlete is exceptionally rigorous,” Burns said. “It requires passion, commitment, and, of course, hard work. It comes with so much experience – blessed experience. I have traveled the world doing what I love to do, and snowboarding has been a precious vehicle for learning just a little bit more each and every day how to do this thing called life. Snowboarding or not, I hope and pray to continue learning, as long as I possibly can.”