This July at the Tokyo Olympics, Virginia "Ginny" Fuchs will be one step closer to her dream of winning a gold medal for Team USA as a flyweight boxer. But as PBS's four-hour series "Mysteries of Mental Illness" reveals, she'll be competing while managing her obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which she was diagnosed with in eighth grade.
"I was actually in an in-patient treatment center for anorexia," Fuchs said in an interview with Salon. "The therapist I was working with discovered the underlying cause of my anorexia, and what I was really struggling with was my OCD."
Over the next 20 years, OCD would be a constant in Fuchs' life, which she describes as "a battle every day." OCD is characterized by unreasonable thoughts, fears and obsessions that lead to compulsive behaviors, and it's estimated that 2.2 million adults or 1% of the U.S. population struggle with OCD. For Fuchs, who struggles with the fear of contamination, she has spoken about how this manifests in compulsive rituals like washing her hands in a specific pattern for a prolonged period of time, or as long as it takes to attain a specific feeling of cleanliness. Her other "rituals" include regularly washing and bleaching her shoes, or using several toothbrushes while brushing her teeth.
Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, where Fuchs will compete in women's boxing for the 112-pound weight category, the Olympic athlete has opened up about how her struggles with OCD coexist with her quest for athletic greatness, including in Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry's Apple TV+ series on mental health, "The Me You Can't See," which released last month, and PBS' "Mysteries of Mental Illness," which examines the history of our understanding of mental health in today's context.
Since Fuchs first started boxing at LSU, everything has been leading up to her debut Olympic performance in Tokyo. She spoke to Salon about the importance of prioritizing both mental and physical health in sports, the transformative power of asking for help, and what she's most looking forward to in her Olympic debut in a few weeks.
You'll be participating in the Tokyo Olympics next month — how exciting! What was the process like to get here?
For me, I've been trying to get to the Olympics since the 2012 London games when they first introduced women's boxing to the Olympics. It's been a journey, and I finally qualified for the Tokyo games after the past five years have been dedicated to getting to this moment. Pretty much just fighting, all around, all over the world, every year building my stats at 112 [112 pound category], building my ranking. There's the Asian qualifiers, the European qualifiers, the American qualifiers, but because of COVID, our qualifiers got canceled, so they went off the rankings of the Pan-Am games in 2016, which I got silver in, and it was a top five that would qualify.
So, that's how I got my ticket to Tokyo. And that's why it was important for me to have all of these fights all over the world these past five years, because of this moment, and how we never predicted COVID would happen. There's a lot of people that won the Olympic trials that aren't going to Tokyo because they hadn't been on the team consistently each year, fighting around the world with the team.
When are you traveling to Tokyo? Are any friends and family going with you? Is there anything you're looking forward to there?
Right now we leave June 30th to go to Misaki, Japan, to finish camp there with Germany, France, Japan, Ireland and Australia. And then we'll head to the Olympic Village on July 17th. No family or friends are allowed to even be in Japan unfortunately because of COVID. The protocols are very, very tight and strict for the games, obviously, so it's going to be a totally different Olympics than has ever been.
I actually got to go to Rio — I didn't compete, but I got to be there and experience it. This is going to be a much different experience. We'll see how it goes. It's not going to be the same. We won't even have an audience when I fight. Things like that are going to be very different. What I'm most looking forward to: winning the gold medal. I didn't get to fight in Rio, so I'm just excited to actually be competing in the Olympics!
You've talked before about your struggles with OCD, how you've sought therapy, and how boxing has helped you with getting out of your head. Can you tell me more about this? What is it about boxing that's been healing or empowering for you?
I've done athletics all my life, as long as I could remember — I learned to swim, I was playing team sports at a young age. So, competition athletics has always been my passion. I got introduced to boxing when I was in college at LSU, by a friend who was a boxer. I actually went to LSU to run cross-country and track, but during my sophomore year I wasn't anymore. So, I kind of wanted to get back into something involving competition. I went to a boxing gym, I just fell in love with it, and my very first coach came up to me the first day I was in the boxing gym and said, "I see a lot of potential in you, I'd love to train you, do you want to fight?" I was just like yes, let's do this, and that's pretty much how it started.
My goal to get to the Olympics for boxing started in 2010 when the IOC [International Olympic Committee] officially announced they were adding women's boxing to the Olympics. Since then, that's always been my goal, my drive and my passion, since I first stepped in the boxing gym. That passion and drive keeps me going day to day even though I struggle with my OCD every day. It's a battle every day. Obviously some days I feel like I'm losing, some days I feel like I'm winning, getting better.
Boxing always helps keep me moving forward, keeps me not feeling like I'm going to be stuck in this OCD prison the rest of my life — at least I have boxing. There's something stronger that can bring me out and let me have this really awesome life, where I get to travel around the world and compete at the highest level there is, and get to show the world this athletic ability I have.
How has it been dealing with your OCD this past year under such different conditions with the pandemic?
It's definitely been difficult, I believe it has been for all of us. But I've also been more comfortable going to the store, going out, because I see in the stores everyone is disinfecting everything constantly, everyone is wearing gloves. So I'm not as anxious or scared to touch things because I know they're being cleaned constantly, and that's pretty much how I live anyway, so I'm feeling like this COVID has brought people a bit into my world, and how I've been living.
The difficult part obviously is changing a lot of routines for me, like I was living at the Olympic training center, but when quarantine happened I wasn't even allowed to go back into my room and get my stuff. So I was kind of living like a nomad — I only had a few objects with me at the time, I was living at my friend's house for a minute, and then we were traveling so I was living at some Airbnbs. That's really hard for me, because it wasn't my safe, own environment. I felt like that kind of caused me to adopt different OCD behaviors and rituals that aren't necessarily healthy for me, like with my OCD trying to trick my brain so my anxiety would go down.
But in the long run, these rituals keep getting added on and getting worse. It takes up my time, it takes my peace of mind, it can hurt me financially. Just the fact that everything is out of whack this past year because of COVID, everything is changing, no one knows what's going to happen constantly — that's been the most difficult part with COVID.
What are some of the most common misconceptions you've encountered about OCD?
Well a lot of people think OCD is about people being very neat, and organized, and it's so much beyond that. Yes, mine is contamination fear, but mine is when you're so obsessed with everything being completely clean, it can be like a hurricane as I'm trying to get things clean.
I'm definitely not organized, I'm definitely not neat. It's a feeling, for me — I can spend 30 minutes at the sink washing my hands, because I'm trying to attain this clean feeling, and it might take me 30 minutes to get there. Or, if I clean a counter, I might clean one spot of the counter for 30 minutes. In the process of cleaning, it can be disastrous because you're so focused on that one spot, or so focused on some part of my body, that I'm going through all these supplies, all these paper towels, these Clorox wipes, and it becomes messy.
I don't think people understand that aspect of it, that OCD can trap you in this sense of focusing on this one thing instead of the bigger picture of everything being organized and neat and clean and in the right place. I think that's the biggest misconception, and also, there's various different forms of OCD, there's not just one. There's contamination, there's fear of causing someone to die — it goes beyond just basic neat, organized stigma out there.
You talk at length about your OCD, and your boxing career, in the first episode of "Mysteries of Mental Health." What emboldened you to share your story, both on this docuseries and elsewhere?
The biggest thing that got me to be more open about it was when I made the USA boxing team and started to travel around the world and had to be in camp for weeks and travel and compete. I was rooming with teammates, I couldn't really hide it. I was living with that person for a month, training, eating, sleeping. And so, that kind of forced me to explain to my teammates when they'd be kind of curious why I'd do this, why I'd do that, so it made me open up to them so they could understand.
When I saw how they reacted and wanted to learn and understand it more, it made me feel more comfortable talking about it to people, getting the word out there, helping people understand not just with OCD but mental health in general, there's a lot of people you'll see every day but you don't know what they're struggling with because you don't necessarily see it. If you talk about it and help people understand, it can break that barrier of being "crazy" or "weird," a title people might put on mental health.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka recently withdrew from the French Open due to her mental health struggles. You're sharing your important story of your struggles with OCD. Why is it so important that when we talk about sports, we treat mental health as just as important as physical health?
If your mental health isn't right, it's all related. Your mental health is related to how your physical body responds. It's all combined. Like for me, when I'm unstressed and life is happy and going well, my body feels better, training goes well, I don't feel run-down. But when I'm stressed about something, my OCD flares up, and I can't control my thoughts, I don't get sleep, I'm not taking care of my body so I might get sick. If you don't have a healthy mindset or mental state, it's very hard for your body to be physically healthy, too.
In training for the Olympics, have you felt supported in terms of both your physical and mental health, throughout this process? What supports have you received?
I definitely do feel supported. Ever since 2018, that was probably the most difficult year of my life because of my OCD, and at the end of 2018 is where I really had to be honest with myself and ask for big-time help. I had a mental breakdown and told my coaches I think I need some real help, to go back to in-patient treatment so I can continue this journey to the Olympics. And really, ever since that moment, with in-patient care, I started working with a therapist I still work with today, who is awesome and helps me.
Everybody seeing me struggle like that because it came more to light during that time, I had my best friends, my friends at home, my parents, obviously, my coaches — they all are more understanding and see how much I struggle with it. They're always asking me how I'm doing, looking out for me. If I'm struggling, I know I can count on them, call them, tell them I had a bad day and they can help me through it. I'm lucky to have that big support system, because I know a lot of people who struggle with mental health don't have that. It's very important for anybody struggling with a very debilitating disorder.
What do you hope a young athlete who hears your story, and might be struggling with OCD or another mental health condition, will take away?
Don't be ashamed, don't be embarrassed, don't try to hide it. Speaking about it, letting people know what you're struggling with, helps break that barrier so they get that you're struggling. They might not understand what you're struggling with, but they'll know you're struggling, and be there for you, instead of you feeling separated from them, and them assuming everything is just fine. It's OK to talk about it, let people know. Asking for help is key, because I know a lot of people don't like asking for help and might think it's a weakness, but it's the opposite. That's very brave, and that's the main message I feel people should get out of [my story].
"Mysteries of Mental Illness" is a four-hour docuseries airing over two nights at 9 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 22-23 on PBS. It will be available for streaming afterward.