HERMOSA BEACH, California — Four straight points had Savvy Simo given up in the final round of the Stare Jablonki Challenge qualifier when the colorful language of a perpetual and audible self-talking beach volleyball player began to flow. Four-letter words of every variety, loud enough for the smattering of fellow USA players at the end of the court to respond with words of encouragement. She was fine! Simo and Abby Van Winkle were still well in control of their second-round qualifying match vs. China’s Jie Dong and Jingzhe Wang.

The positivity shocked Simo. Not because she didn’t necessarily expect support from her friends. It’s just that she hadn’t really been thinking about the match at all. She barely recognized the fact that the lead was dwindling and she was playing well below her usually lofty standards.

In that moment, Savvy Simo was focused, simply, on putting one foot in front of the other, battling an inner dialogue in which she “thought,” she said afterwards, that “I was going to die.”


That moment in Poland was unusual but not an uncommon one.

Simo has suffered from panic attacks, which come on quick as a hiccup and remain for an unconscionably long time, for as long as she can remember. As a child of 4 or 5 years old, as she remembers it, whenever her parents would leave home, go out to dinner, visit friends, and she would call to check in, if they didn’t answer the phone, she’d think they died in a car accident. This would, of course, cause her heart rate to elevate, accelerating the oncoming panic attack “and then,” she says, “I think I’m going to die even more.”

Soon, this spread into nearly every area of her life.

Headache? “I’m having a brain aneurism.”

Chest hurts? “Heart attack.”

“There’s no in between,” she said. “Crazy stuff like that.”

She’s 20 years or so past the first time she can recall having a panic attack. She’s better at managing them now, keen on seeing the warning signs and nipping them before they roil into full on tempests. But there are also certain days and occasions and moments when Simo, try as she might, can do nothing to stop the oncoming storm.

“It ebbs and flows,” she says. “Certain phases of my life are worse where I feel crippled by this. There are some days that are worse than others where I’m exhausted and I just need to go sleep.”

In an age where mental health is coming to the forefront not just to the sports psychology discussion but also to the population as a whole, Simo knows it’s still difficult for most to wrap their heads around how an educated, affluent, successful, otherwise healthy young woman could suffer from a panic attack.

“It’s hard to explain to people who have never had panic attacks before,” she said. “These are things that have been happening to me for years. I’ve gotten super good at managing.”

It’s exactly why she took the final 45 minutes of a conversation on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter to talk about it.

“A passion of mine is helping people and I didn’t realize how big this was, for me and the majority of the population goes through anxiety, depression, panic, to some extent,” she said. “I’ve been trying to find an image. Evan [Cory, her boyfriend and fellow professional beach volleyball player] has his blue nose thing. That’s his thing. I’ve been trying to find mine and I think it’s this niche and this topic of mental health. I want to be able to share my stories and help people through support groups and workshops. Sometimes just sharing your experience goes a really long way.”

Indeed. Simo has opened up a number of times on social media about the topic, but never before has she gone into such depth, detail, and length on it. The catalyst for it was an unenviable one, the rare occurrence where Simo, while competing in a high-stakes environment in Poland, could think nothing of passing and setting and siding out and defense but, simply, “just taking steps,” she said. “I thought I was going to collapse. When you’re thinking about taking every breath, breathing, walking, you’re not thinking about volleyball.”

The panic attack that happened in Poland didn’t start anywhere near those telegenic woods in Stare Jablonki, but several days prior, at a night many, including Simo, would describe as perfect. An evening of wine and cheese on the beach with her boyfriend and good friends? At sunset?


“It just sounded like the best night ever,” Simo said.

She wasn’t hungover the next morning. Not really. But she knew, both from data from her Oura Ring and her own anecdotal experience, that alcohol serves as a regular harbinger of a panic attack. Add onto that an international flight and it suddenly becomes a potent combo.

So it was.

The inflammation from the alcohol only worsened with the flight, and about four hours in, just as the plane was beginning to fly over the ocean for another four or so hours, with no safe emergency landing available, Simo’s chest began to constrict, her brain doing its devilish imaginations of the worst possible outcomes.

“My legs were so swollen. I was so uncomfortable, my shoulders felt swollen, and I’m like ‘What is wrong with me?’ ” Simo recalled. In truth, nothing was wrong with her, and deep down, the rational side of her knew as much. She knew the voice in her head telling her that something was terribly wrong, that death was just around the corner, that blood clots could form and she could die, wasn’t in any way accurate.

But the voice was still there.

And it was convincing.

Made all the more so when a flight attendant confirmed that blood clots can indeed be dangerous things on flights, with potentially fatal consequences.

“I lost it,” Simo said. “I’m going to die!”

She took laps. Took some more. Woke up Van Winkle to talk it out. Chatted with grandma Van Winkle in business class, too. They talked her down but Simo was still shaken up, her mind still racing about the possibilities.

“We get there, everything is fine,” Simo said, save for one thing: She can’t sleep. And “whenever I don’t sleep, I get more anxious,” she said. “It’s this horrible, spiral thing that happens. But then I panic because I’m not sleeping.”

Savvy Simo/Allen Szto Photography

“I feel like a crazy person.”

At the Ostrava Elite16 a year ago, this went on for five straight days. She tried everything. Hot shower. Cold shower. Reading. Meditating. Breathwork. Melatonin. Magnesium. All of it. Nothing worked. Eventually, after nearly a week, she got a wink and played well, nearly qualifying. Same in Poland, as her perpetually turbo-charged mind alas gave in around 5 a.m.

“But I feel like a crazy person,” she said.

The next night, they switch hotels. New environment. New stimulus. No relaxation. No sleep.

Another panic attack.

Now, still without sleep, she’s playing in a qualifier, thousands of miles from home, her heart rate beating at an unhealthy rate, her breath short, and she’s…winning? Simo and Van Winkle win their first round over Italy, “but it feels like you’re going through the motions,” Simo said. It feels as if a different version of her is on the court.

“I started panicking about it,” she said. “And then during the game against China, we’re warming up, and it’s kind of raining, we’re on these weird courts, the lighting is super weird, and I was having a sensory overload, felt this super spacy feeling.”

To an outside observer, Simo was exactly how she would later describe herself on the court: “On fire, phenomenal.”

But inside?

“I’m literally losing my mind,” she said. Her only thoughts are on putting one foot in front of the other. Siding out? Who cares about siding out? She’s just trying to take a full breath, for goodness sakes.

The adrenaline wears off, the fog returns, and suddenly she’s giving up points — one two three four five in a row. Kim Hildreth, Teegan Van Gunst, Chase Budinger, Miles Evans and Ed Keller can hear her cursing at herself and offer her encouragement from the end line, not understanding that she was cursing at herself not because of her play, but as a sort of wake-up to her mind.

“I felt numb,” she said, “and that feeling is super triggering, it’s a full disassociation from what you’re doing. But I was able to check back in and we won, and after I just crumbled. To have to play a game and win a game when you’re feeling — it’s not like a stomachache, I’m literally losing my mind. And then you give up five points and you’re like ‘F***!’ Now I’m stressing about the game. I thought I was going to die. I was in full survival mode. That’s only happened a few times while I was playing.

“Why do I feel like this? Why am I so tired? Why am I so out of it? Why do I feel like this and then have to go play against the best teams in the world? It’s so stupid and so unfair. I wish I could just go and be nervous about volleyball.”

To just be nervous about the game. What a lovely burden that can seem sometimes. Even with the main draw berth in hand, the anxiety didn’t stop for a moment. Against Zoe Verge-Depre and Esmee Bobner, and then against Laura Ludwig and Louisa Lippmann, “I thought I was going to die the whole match,” she said. “And then I’m getting served every ball against some of the best servers in the world, and I’m also having a panic attack.”

And yet, through it all, “I’m passing well, siding out,” she said, sounding almost surprised herself. “It’s been cool to see how I’ve been able to manage that stuff.”

Savvy Simo
Savvy Simol/Will Chu Photography

“How can I turn anxiety into a superpower?”

It hasn’t come without work, both physiological and psychological. At the beginning of the year, she went 75 days without alcohol, sugar, gluten or dairy and felt as good as she has in her life. She devoured books — David Goggins and Matthew McConaughey and The Confident Mind, a popular book making the rounds through the beach volleyball community. She was as fit as she’d ever been, her mind sharp and settled, her anxiety as low as she could remember. It showed, both on the court and off.

On the court, she stunned Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Mader, Switzerland’s reigning Olympic bronze medalists, in the final round of the Guadalajara Challenge qualifier. In the main draw, she and Van Winkle pushed Nina Brunner and Tanja Huberli and Zoe Verge-Depre and Esmee Bobner — both will be competing at the Paris Olympics — to three. Two weeks later, they’d win gold at a NORCECA in Varadero, Cuba, and two weeks after that, at AVP Huntington Beach, they wouldn’t drop a set in the qualifier and finish ninth, narrowly losing to April Ross and Alix Klineman.

“I feel like we’re playing amazing volleyball. I feel like I’m at the best point I’ve been mentally with my confidence on the court,” Simo said. “My mom, in Huntington, said I’ve never seen you shoot so many different shots. I’ve been working on a lot of different stuff, so it’s been exciting. Results, I would love to get higher finishes, but volleyball wise it’s been really fun. Playing with Abby is exactly what I needed. I’m in a really, really good spot with all this.”

Given those results, and her obvious talent, it is tempting to imagine how good Simo could be if she were able to routinely play without her thoughts being dominated by anxiety and impending death. For years, Simo fell into that trap, growing jealous of those who live their lives free of panic attacks and constantly racing minds.

“For a long time,” she said, “it was ‘why me?’ ”

She’s come to a place of acceptance now, that, yes, it is a burden, but it is also, in some ways, a gift. She has a platform, one of the biggest of any American beach volleyball player, with more than 40,000 followers. At 25, she is at the model spokeswoman of what American social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt has labeled “the anxious generation.”

“I am healthy,” she said. “I may not feel like it. There are way bigger problems than what I’m going through. I may have these issues for the rest of my life but it’s all perspective and shifting your mindset. How can I turn anxiety into a superpower? How can I use it to better myself, better other people, encourage them to follow their dreams? Live your life with something that is so hard?”

By putting one foot in front of the other, even when it seems impossible to do just that.


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