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Molly Carlson Found Eating Disorder Relief in Cliff Diving: ‘Didn't Matter What My Body Looked Like’ (Exclusive)

The 24-year-old Red Bull athlete opens up to PEOPLE about how she overcame her anxiety and eating disorder to spread positivity and continue her diving career

<p>Luis Adrian Reyes/Instagram </p> Molly Carlson

Luis Adrian Reyes/Instagram

Molly Carlson

In 2016, Molly Carlson’s only goal was to qualify for Canada’s Olympic diving team. She shaped her mind and her body around making it to Rio that summer. She mercilessly compared herself to other competitors. Carlson–then just 17 years old–was riddled with anxiety, plunging further and further down into what she remembers as the darkest time of her life.

“I was a taller diver, my competitors were all 5-foot-2, and I'm out here being 5-foot-8. So to me, the only way I could get on their level is to get skinnier, to get smaller and to weigh the same so that I could make the dives the same,” Carlson, now 24, tells PEOPLE, looking back on the mindset that sent her spiraling into a binge-eating disorder, body dysmorphia and debilitating anxiety.

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The 2016 Olympic trials did prove to be a light at the end of Carlson’s dark tunnel, but not because she landed a spot on Team Canada. The Ontario native came in fourth place, and only the top two divers qualified for the Olympics. Carlson reacted with mixed emotions, but the one that stood out most surprised her: she felt relieved.

<p>Romina Amato/Red Bull Content Pool</p> Molly Carlson

Romina Amato/Red Bull Content Pool

Molly Carlson

“That was definitely the moment of, ‘Okay, let's turn my life around and love myself again,’” she recalls. “Because if you're going to hate yourself and still not make the Olympics, you might as well love yourself.”

Today, over seven years later, she’s managed to lower her anxiety and raise her self-esteem without stepping off the diving board. In fact, Carlson has climbed to even higher platforms–she’s now a competitive cliff diver for Red Bull Canada. When training for the Rio Olympics in 2016, she was jumping from 10-meter platforms (about 33 feet high); she now leaps into pools, oceans, rivers and more bodies of water around the world from an astounding 20 meters up (about 65 feet high).

But like her breathtaking dives, Carlson’s confidence didn’t come as naturally as it may seem on her candid, upbeat social media accounts. After her high school graduation in 2016, she went on to study psychology at Florida State University and continued her 10-meter diving career on their NCAA Division I team. Luckily her school’s athletic program was well-equipped to help Carlson work through her mental health struggles and eating disorder. “They're really good with their athletes there and their sports psychologists and dieticians. So I worked with all of those right away. I knew I needed help,” she says.

<p>Joseph Roby</p> Molly Carlson

Joseph Roby

Molly Carlson

Her switch to high diving came after college, though. The COVID-19 pandemic hit during her senior year, ending her collegiate athletic career early and leaving Carlson unfulfilled. But she found her next chapter when Diving Canada reached out to see if the star athlete wanted to give new heights a try. The towering platform piqued her interest, and it was love at first splash.

“When I joined high diving, it was like I was standing up on this terrifying platform and nothing else mattered but me in that moment. It didn't matter what my body looked like, it didn't matter who I was being compared to,” Carlson says. “Just being there, being so proud of my body and being so proud of myself for having the courage to do this crazy sport was probably the coolest feeling.”

Carlson documented her mid-pandemic pivot to high diving on social media and was overwhelmed by feedback and brand new followers, most of whom were blown away by her apparent fearlessness.

“Thousands and thousands of comments were just like, ‘She's so brave. I want to be brave like her. How can I achieve this level of bravery?’” Carlson remembers. Even though she is one of just around 10 girls in the world who compete in the sport, she wanted to find a way to connect with the 3 million new followers inspired by her courage.

Carlson’s mom suggested she start a hashtag to create a community for her online fans. After tossing around a few names, they landed on #BraveGang. The diver immediately turned to TikTok and asked her followers to use the tag and share their own acts of bravery. Thanks to the hashtag, Carlson has gotten to hear and see the ways her community tries to be brave in their own lives.

<p>Romina Amato/Red Bull Content Pool</p> Molly Carlson of Canada

Romina Amato/Red Bull Content Pool

Molly Carlson of Canada

“It inspires me every day to do what I do. I think that's the biggest thing,” she says. “Every time you're up [on the diving platform], you're 20 meters high, you're dangling in the ceiling, you're like, ‘Obviously this is unsafe.’ How do you get over that barrier? You have to be so brave to do it…and if I'm not feeling ready for it, I just think about [the #BraveGang].”

With her strong online community behind her and the support of her family, her coach Stéphane Lapointe and her boyfriend, fellow RedBull high diver Aidan Heslop, Carlson has been able to travel and compete around the world. This summer she finished in second place at the aquatics world championships in Fukuoka, Japan.

Looking further ahead, Carlson wants to bring her diving journey full circle: she wants to compete in the first-ever high diving event at the 2028 Olympics. Since 20-meter platforms aren’t currently featured by Olympic pools, the high diving community still has to push for their sport to become an official event. According to Carlson, her athletic community is getting close to meeting the threshold for Olympic qualification.

“That would just be a dream to be the first in the world to compete at a high dive Olympics,” she tells PEOPLE. “I think it would just prove to myself and so many others you don't need to look a certain way to achieve your dreams.”

<p>Joseph Roby</p>

Joseph Roby

Beyond all of the dauntless feats she attempts every day, the medals she wins and her big Olympic goals on the horizon, Carlson stays grounded in what she tries to teach her #BraveGang followers: true bravery is accepting yourself for who you are, not trying to force yourself into a mold that doesn’t fit.

“I think as soon as you can do that, it doesn't matter what you do that day–you are being kind to yourself. You are supporting yourself,” the world-class diver says. “Overall, the bravest thing you can do is love yourself.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with  an eating disorder, please go to NationalEatingDisorders.org.

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Read the original article on People.