Molly Carlson was in a ‘dark place' prior to Rio Olympics. Now she is inspiring millions to talk about mental health

For most people, jumping off a platform which hangs 66-feet in the air from a cliff with just deep open water below is a terrifying prospect, but for high diver and influencer Molly Carlson it is a…

Molly Carlson was in a ‘dark place' prior to Rio Olympics. Now she is inspiring millions to talk about mental health

Molly Carlson, a high diver who is also an influencer, is not afraid to jump off the platform that hangs 66 feet above a cliff. The water is deep below. It's her time to soar.

These dizzying heights, where the self-described "professional athlete with anxiety" feels most at ease, are her favorite place to be. Cliff diving has helped the 25 year old recover from a 'year of hell', overcoming loneliness and an eating disorder. She says it's 'almost free therapy'

She told CNN Sport that she has enjoyed diving her entire life. 'It's the one time when you must be in the moment, to ensure that you dive safely and survive. You can't think about anything else.'

"My brain shuts down for the first and I finally enjoy my work up here.

"When I am cliff diving, there is nothing else that matters but me and the air. You feel like you are flying.

Carlson isn't just known for her spectacular high-dives. The 25-year old has almost 4 million followers on TikTok, and more than 250,000 on Instagram. She gained these followers not only through documenting her career, but also by being open about her mental well-being.

She said, 'I'm passionate about mental health and have learned so much through my own experience, that it has become my future.'

"I want athletes to know how to prioritize their self-care, and to ask for help if they need it. I don't want anyone else to have to endure the hellish year I had and feel alone and isolated."

Carlson calls her low point her "mental injury" and is unwaveringly honest about her personal struggles, including anxiety and body dysmorphia. She has had a long journey to reach this positive stage, but is now determined to help others.

Carlson was born in Fort Frances in Ontario and raised in Thunder Bay. She began her career as a gymnast, but quickly turned to water or, more specifically, the surface of the water.

Carlson said, 'My sister is a swimmer and I had to watch her practice and it was so boring.' The dive team was in the corner and they were launching themselves off of these insane heights. I looked at her and said, "I have to do this sport."

She began diving at age nine, and two years later, was representing Canada. She says she progressed quickly because she was a "little daredevil."

Carlson, a decorated junior diver who won two Pan American Games titles and competed for Team Canada in Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympics, is a diver of distinction.

Carlson, like every other athlete, has dreamed of competing on the largest stage since she was four.

Her determination to compete in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games had a negative impact on her at the age of 17. Her determination to make the Canadian team led her down a "dark path."

She said that being taller than other divers led to her developing a binge-eating disorder and mental health problems.

Carlson said, "I was 5'8" and my competitors were 5'2". In my mind, I thought, 'I have to be smaller in order to compete at the Olympics.

"Believing that negative thought lead me down this dark path, and I missed the Olympics. Top two went and I was in fourth place."

A lifelong dream not being achieved was a wake up call. She was 'hating' herself and her love of diving had diminished.

She admitted that what she thought would be devastation, was actually relief. It was the first moment I realized that I needed help and I could learn to love diving again if I asked for it.

It was a blessing that I didn't make the Olympic team.

Carlson, who continued diving in college and headed to Florida State University (FSU), is now a diver at FSU.

She was still on her way to recovery when she spoke to her diving coach John Proctor about her mental state as soon as her arrival on campus. "I didn't want to begin my four years of university with a falsehood," she said. Proctor put her immediately in touch with both a mental and nutritional health coach.

Carlson said that the conversation she had with her mentor left her feeling empowered and was a catalyst to her success. She was a Florida State Seminole who had a distinguished career, earning three times the honor of Atlantic Coast Conference Diver of the year and NCAA All-American.

Proctor, whose college career had been put on hold due to the pandemic and multiple wrist injuries, suggested that she switch to high-diving, where you enter the water with your feet first.

Carlson, initially hesitant and looking for more opinions, posted a poll to her Instagram story, asking her followers if she should try cliff diving. The results were 99% positive, with her mother being the only one to vote against it.

Carlson laughed. 'My mum does not like it when I am the first to do something.

"She wouldn't let me watch her do regular diving. She would wait until she heard the clapping, and then celebrate: "You didn't see it!"

I send her videos to boost her confidence. But she has actually been to an event to watch me dive. That is progress.

She was given the chance to participate in the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series 2021 as a wildcard after impressing during practice sessions. Carlson placed second in her first event and third overall in that season.

The following year she improved, now as a professional full-time, and placed second behind Rhiannan Iffland, a five-time champion. She is currently ranked second in the championship going into the final event, which will take place next month.

Carlson trains at Montreal's 20-meter platform indoor, where she first 'fell' in love with the sport.

She said, '[At the beginning] my coach and I did not know what we were going to do, because there are so few people who play this sport, that we were guinea-pigs.' 'We tried every dive that was ever done, and even some that we shouldn't had been doing!

Carlson, who has had a successful career in cliff diving, also has a large following on social media where she shares her everyday life with millions of people.

Carlson's unique content stands out. From standing on the podium with a gold medal around her neck, to having a nervous breakdown in preparation for an important competition Carlson details her mental health and cliff diving journey.

Carlson is inspired by a conversation she had with her college diving coach and her childhood, when the stigma around mental health "was massive," to use her platform in order to bring awareness to a subject that so many people fear to discuss.

Carlson stated, "What I learned from my experience is that as soon as one person talks about mental health, it becomes real."

I used to think Instagram was perfect. When it first came out, everything was the highlight of my life. If it wasn't, I couldn't post it.

It's exciting to hear people say, "Wow, I never knew I could refuse".

She added, 'When I am vulnerable, I think I help my followers be vulnerable.

Carlson realized that her videos can have a powerful impact on the lives of young people after a 12-year old girl messaged her and told her about her struggle to attend school due to her anxiety.

Carlson said, "I feel like I'm a mother watching my children, it's inspiring."

It reminds me of the impact I have on people's lives, and that I should continue to do what I am doing.

She founded the #BraveGang. Videos with this hashtag are viewed over 1 billion times on TikTok. She describes it as a community that allows her followers to support one another by sharing their stories about overcoming fears and talking about mental health.

Carlson is of the opinion that "everyone has a brave story."

BraveGang began in my mother's kitchen. When I was brainstorming my comments and I saw how many times I had read the word 'brave', I thought, "We should incorporate this."

I told my followers that they should use this hashtag when sharing their brave stories. The community would be there to help you.

"And all these inspiring videos of little girls doing their first cartwheel, or coming out to parents - it's such an important thing and they're using mine!"

The Canadian is no stranger to dealing with fears. Carlson was terrified of sharks as a child and struggles with this phobia even today, despite jumping in open water regularly. In an attempt to overcome her fear, she went shark cage-diving in South Africa.

She said, "I'll be afraid forever."

I think it's okay for people to be afraid. I would work on my fear if it prevented me from diving into the water.

High diving is an increasingly popular sport, even though it hasn't yet reached the mainstream.

Carlson, one of those who made the loudest calls, wanted it added to Los Angeles' 2028 Olympics, but it wasn't one of five new sports that were added this month.

Carlson says that the more viral videos we create, the more people will learn about this sport. We've created excitement and shown how much fun the sport can be.

Carlson's participation in the Olympics as a high diver would mean more to her than simply representing the United States on the national level.

It would be a complete circle because I did not love myself when I tried to achieve my Olympic dream in 2016. I also didn't enjoy it. Now that I love myself and have worked on myself, I would like to show people that they can love themselves and achieve their dreams.

The 25-year old's goal is to get her sport in the Games. She also wants to dethrone Iffland, win the World Series and make a splash on land.

Her goal is to make Brave Gang its own brand, and start a foundation. She also wants to speak in public. She is as focused on leaving a legacy as she is about her next dive.

"When I finish diving, that doesn't mean Brave Gang is over. I want to keep the Brave Gang alive for as long as possible."