A former Olympic bobsleigh who committed suicide last year had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the researchers concluded, the same degenerative brain disease that has been found in former football players and other athletes who have participated in violent contact sports.
Pavle Jovanovic hanged himself in his family’s metalwork shop in central New Jersey in May 2020. He was 43 years old. He is believed to be the first bobsledder and the first athlete in an Olympic sliding sport to be found with CTE Debilitating brain disease results from multiple head injuries and can cause severe brain degeneration, often well before the stage of life, when the population as a whole suffers from brain disorders, such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
The discovery of CTE in Jovanovic’s brain is likely to send shockwaves through a sport that is only now beginning to understand the dangers of what participants casually refer to as “sledhead.” Athletes have long used the term to describe the exhausted fog, dizziness, and headaches that even a routine run can cause.
Jovanovic was the third North American elite bobsledder to commit suicide since 2013. In recent years, a growing number of current and retired boardsports athletes, particularly bobsleigh and skeleton, have reported chronic pain. many of the same symptoms that plague soccer players. and other contact sports athletes. They face constant headaches, increased sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises, forgetfulness, and psychological issues.
Jovanovic ran the track and played high school football and saw limited action for two college football seasons, but he stopped attending Rutgers University full time in 1997 to pursue bobsledding. He spent about a decade competing in international bobsleigh competitions, a sport that requires athletes to hurtle down an ice track at 80 miles an hour and endure a spitting experience that researchers have likened to baby syndrome. shaken.
Catastrophic collisions that cause athletes to squeeze through the ice under overturned sleds are not uncommon. But a combination of speed and vibration, especially in the tight corners of a sliding track, can damage the brain even when crashes don’t happen, experts say.
The discovery of CTE was made in March by Dr. Ann McKee, a leading neuropathologist and director of the CTE Center at Boston University, who discovered the disease in brains donated by dozens of deceased soccer players. At this time, CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously. In Jovanovic’s case, she was only able to study a small sample of the brain, but that was enough to indicate “moderate illness,” McKee wrote.
A finding of moderate illness is similar to that of former NFL Junior Seau players Dave Duerson and Aaron Hernandez, who all died by suicide.
“It doesn’t allow me to conclude, but it does allow me to understand who my brother was and who he has become, and that was someone else,” said Nick Jovanovic, Pavle’s older brother.
Jovanovic pushed sleds that excelled in World Cup competitions and represented the United States at the 2006 Olympics. By the time of his death, he had been undergoing several years of treatment for psychiatric disorders, addiction and symptoms, including uncontrollable shaking and tremors similar to Parkinson’s disease.
Degenerative brain problems and their debilitating effects have become an increasingly open secret in the tight-knit world of bobsleigh and its sister sport, skeleton, in which competitors glide headfirst on small metal and fiber snowmobiles. of carbon.
Aside from Jovanovic, Adam Wood, whose wife recorded his anguished calls as his mental health deteriorated so there is said to be a record, committed suicide in 2013 at the age of 32. Travis Bell, who competed for the United States in the late 1990s, committed suicide at age 42.
Additionally, Steven Holcomb, who in 2010 piloted the sled known as the Night Train until the United States’ first gold medal in bobsleigh in 62 years, died alone of an overdose in 2017 after years of fighting depression. He was 37 years old. Another Olympic medalist, Bill Schuffenhauer, attempted suicide in 2016 by slitting his wrist, but was saved by his girlfriend.
Holcomb, the most famous American bobsleigh, had arranged to donate his brain to a scientific study and told close friends that he might be suffering from CTE. But the researchers couldn’t find the disease when they dissected his brain. They also did not find a CTE in Adam Wood’s brain.
The absence of a CTE result does not mean that an athlete in a sport with high speed collisions does not suffer from symptoms caused by repeated traumatic impacts to the brain and concussions, Dr. Robert Stern, neuropsychologist and director of clinical research for The CTE Center at Boston University, said in an interview last year.
In board sports, researchers say much of the damage can occur even during routine hiking.
Nick Jovanovic said Pavle started shaking and shaking uncontrollably in the middle of the night as early as 2013. He had recently stopped competing in bobsleigh. After injuries that kept him from making the US team at the 2010 Olympics, Jovanovic competed in 2011 and 2012 for Serbia, the country his father immigrated to when he was young.
The next seven years were painful for Jovanovic and everyone around him. Despite having an engineering degree from Rutgers which he obtained in 2010, Jovanovic slowly lost the ability to do simple mathematical calculations in his head.
He drank a lot and got moody. He got into a fight at local bars and restaurants near his home in Toms River, New Jersey, and even attacked his brother in their steel fabrication office. The local police have accumulated a long record of complaints about him.
He had a series of stays at a mental health center, where he was treated for alcoholism, depression and bipolar disorder. At the time of his death, he was taking prescription medication to treat his mental health issues as well as the tremors and tremors that people with Parkinson’s disease often experience or who take antipsychotics.
“He wanted to win,” said Nick Jovanovic, “and he lost everything.”