Kelly Catlin and Ellie Soutter never met, but they had a lot in common.
Both were commanding athletes: Catlin, a US track cyclist, was a three-times world champion and Olympic silver medalist, and Soutter, a snowboarder, was tipped to be one of Team Great Britain’s strongest contenders for the 2022 Winter Olympics, having already won a bronze medal at the 2017 European Youth Olympic Festival.
Both were incredibly smart – Catlin was studying for a master’s degree in computational and mathematical engineering at Stanford University, while Soutter learned to speak French in about six months, according to her father.
At times they almost seemed superhuman. In 2013, after only three weeks of formal training and having broken her wrist, Soutter became British Champion with her arm in a cast. Meanwhile, Catlin, who had a tenderness for children, once rode 80 miles through sleet and snow to speak to a grade school about her Olympic experience.
Yet these two women’s lives were tragically cut short after they sustained serious head injuries in their pursuit of sporting greatness and then took their own lives. Catlin was 23, while Soutter died by suicide on her 18th birthday.
Females may be more susceptible to concussion, and they also have worse and prolonged symptoms after their injury than men, according to a review of 25 studies of sport-related concussion published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.
However, women remain significantly underrepresented within sport and exercise science research. This, leading experts warn, means they often do not get the treatment or aftercare they need following a head injury.
Women’s sports have historically not received the same attention or funding as men’s sports, Dr. Ann McKee, Director of the Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center told CNN.
“It’s been shown that women athletes are more likely to get a concussion, they tend to have longer recovery periods,” McKee added.
“We do not have enough information about what happens in the female brain. We don’t know if women are biologically more susceptible to these injuries,” she said, adding that some research suggests the size and musculature of women’s necks could play a part.
Before becoming a track cyclist, Catlin, a triplet, was a national champion road cyclist and time trial national champion, her father Mark, told CNN. After winning a Canadian international race at 17 she was invited to an Olympic training camp for a try out, where, impressed by her performance numbers, coaches immediately offered her a position on the track pursuit team.
Catlin’s father, Mark, told CNN, that his daughter was “intense” and “ambitious,” attributes she channeled into her sporting life.
Her life changed irrevocably in January 2019. Practicing fast downhill descents in the hills near Los Angeles, she crashed and went skidding down the road. Despite suffering road rash, Catlin got back on her bike, and finished the ride. It wasn’t her first crash – she had experienced 4 or 5 hard crashes before this, her father said, and after the latest, she didn’t have any symptoms at the time.
But soon after, at a World Cup track event in Berlin, Catlin was gripped by a sudden and severe headache.
“She couldn’t compete,” her father said. “Kelly is kind of this stoical individual. And if she’s rolling around on the ground, clutching her head, it has to be a severe thing.”
On closer inspection, Catlin’s helmet from LA had dents in it. Her father told CNN that this, coupled with her symptoms, caused her family to become aware she had suffered a concussion, which was later confirmed with a diagnosis from Stanford’s Health Centre.
A concussion is a brain injury which happens after a hit to the head or body causes the brain to move back and forth inside the skull, according to the CDC.
When Catlin returned to the US, her father says she was examined by the track training center in Colorado. It was confirmed she suffered a concussion, and a return to training protocol was advised, but not implemented or communicated to her coach, he said.
“There wasn’t any follow-up from Colorado after this. I believe they assumed she would seek care at Stanford,” he told CNN.
CNN has reached out to Stanford and USA Cycling for comment.
Catlin’s symptoms didn’t improve, and in weekly phone calls with her parents, she admitted she was struggling with schoolwork and was unable to concentrate.
Stanford Health Center, having diagnosed Catlin with concussion with ongoing symptoms, recommended that she decrease her training for 2 weeks and then gradually build back up and start sessions with an athletic trainer, medical documents sent to CNN by her father show. She was referred to a concussion specialist, the document adds.
She tried to train, but “she would have to stop because she got a severe headache just from walking,” according to her father. Her heart rate would also accelerate rapidly from even the smallest exertion, leaving her with “no exercise tolerance whatsoever,” he added.
Her injury had other consequences.
“As far as we knew she was never a person that suffered from depression. She had an interesting sense of humor. She was always upbeat and bubbly about things,” her father told CNN.
“She basically thought her life was over. She was no longer able to be the athlete that she was, she was failing her teammates. And she wasn’t able to succeed in school now. And I think ultimately, that’s why she took her life, because she thought her life was over,” he added.
At the end of January, Catlin made a serious but non-fatal suicide attempt, and was involuntarily admitted to the locked psychiatric ward at Stanford, her father told CNN.
A month after that attempt, she took her own life.
Soutter’s father Tony said there were many dimensions to his young daughter – not only was she an “adrenaline junkie,” but she was “very conscientious” and excelled in school, even after moving from England to France.
Aged 12, Soutter took up snowboarding at school – and just months later, she was spotted in her hometown resort of Les Gets and trialed by Team Great Britain in February 2013.
“It was quite obvious why she kept winning competitions because she just made it easy,” her father said. “She just made it look graceful and beautiful.”
But training took its toll – Soutter told CNN that his daughter suffered seven major concussions in five years, between 2013 and 2018.
“I was being advised by doctors “Oh, don’t worry, she’s young enough she’ll bounce back. As she progressed, becoming an elite athlete starting on the World Cup circuit, every time she had another concussion, they got worse, and they took longer to recover from,” he told CNN.
“With every concussion, with the exception of a few minor knocks, Ellie saw a doctor in person,” he added. “I was always told that she was young enough to bounce back to full health after each case and therefore never consulted with the doctors that I met, about any previous concussions.”
But Soutter’s final concussion was so “huge” that she spent two nights in the hospital.
“When I got there, she didn’t even know who I was or where she was,” her father said.
Soutter was then selected for the Junior Snowboard World Championships in New Zealand August 2018. But a month before the competition, she died by suicide.
Her father said a neurologist conducted a CT scan of her brain and reaction tests three months after her final concussion, but said she was “absolutely fine” and could continue competing.
Like Catlin, Soutter had issues with studying and concentrating, becoming more insular as she suffered from crippling headaches. She also started suffering from insomnia.
“She would literally sit with the tutor a good month after a concussion, and suddenly, she’d go blind. She’d not be able to see – everything would go black and dark,” her father said.
After missing a flight to snowboard training, Soutter died by