What If I Were To Tell You...
What if I were to tell you that you're going to face adversity in college. That your experience would be less than perfect. What if I were to tell you that you would come to hate running. That comparison would suck all the joy out of you. That your one true love would become deadly. But what if your story would eventually help others. Would you still go?
You knew you were good. But the challenge of going to a Division I school excited you. You were having people over to watch a movie in December when you declared your intent over the phone. You just couldn’t wait to be among the best. To come from a high school where only a handful of athletes went on to play a sport in college. You also wanted to be unique coming from a family of four girls. You found something that made you stand out. It was something that you felt gave you the recognition you always wanted and that felt reassuring. You were strong and sound in your identity. Just like John Steinbeck says, " And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good." You didn't feel the need to be perfect or to be a certain way. You flew your own flag and it felt safe. College and everything that was portrayed to you on your recruiting trip sounded like the perfect next step. You felt like your choice was meant to be. The people, the location, the program all made sense to you. You overwhelmingly felt that you were in good hands.
You didn't know what body image was nor did anyone inform you that many things would be different in college. I know when you’re excited you get nervous and quiet, but then you wait for your moment to shine and be silly. You showed up to the first day of pre-season as you always would. You felt confident, excited, and of course nervous underneath it all. You wanted to fit in so badly. You never second-guessed what you wore to run because you were a soccer player first, runner second. You strolled into practice wearing a loose fitted tee-shirt with soccer shorts. Looking around the area where everyone met you noticed all the other girls. You were confused and surprised when you saw other bodies and what people wore. They were different from you. You would have never thought about wearing a sports bra and spandex shorts to run in. Heck, you wore spandex underneath your running shorts when you competed in high school. This atmosphere shocked you. Your confidence remained steady, but your sparkle was dulled.
Your first injury, bet you didn't see that one coming. But then again, no one talked about getting injured on the team. It seemed like everyone was perfect. Developing multiple stress fractures your freshman year and needing surgery for tarsal tunnel syndrome your sophomore year was less than ideal for what you thought your college experience would be like. These injuries were unique, but the first you developed in your running career. After all, you were a low mileage runner in high school. The thought of not running for a year was scary as hell. Like everything you ever loved was ripped out of your hands and you were left all alone to self soothe and manage. A dark shadow crept in your spirit. Not knowing what depression was hurt you. You lived in misery without telling anyone. Smiles on the outside, choas on the inside. It was during that time that you often weighed the value of your life on earth. Your sparkle dulled once more through surgery and all the cross training. There’s only so much fun you can have while aqua jogging all alone at 6AM. You tried your best to stay apart of the team atmosphere. Life wasn’t the same when you couldn’t talk about the “hard workout” or what you’re going to pack for the away meet. Through this place of isolation you wanted control over something, ANYTHING. Food was that something. Depression followed you, but became second place. You became best friends with a friend you didn't want, but couldn't get rid of. You had this overwhelming feeling like you were never enough. That you would never be fast enough or lean enough. The mold you were trying to fill wasn't a mold for you at all.
When you came back from summer break sophomore year after you developed an eating disorder and heard the words, "That's what a real athlete looks like" at pre-season practice, you clung to it. You finally felt like you fit in and what you were doing to your body was paying off. That your body gave you value. Running fast that year meant putting your body through hell on the inside and outside. It meant feeding off any compliments about what your body looked like. It also meant loosing friends and shutting people out. It also meant lying to the people that loved you the most. It also meant going through multiple cycles of injury, depression, and anxiety for the next 6 years of your life. You even almost quit the team after you had an anxiety attack during a workout and felt like you hit rock bottom. The thought of giving up control was scary. Happiness was never hard to find for you. But it was from then on. You looked at yourself in the mirror every day and wanted so badly to be living a different life. To be free.
It was so easy to pretend. It became natural to fake happiness. Being strong and acting like nothing was wrong was part of your identity. You carried the weight of an eating disorder on your own for 10 years. You wanted to be the perfect athlete, to be appreciated, to have meaning. The remainder of your college experience as an athlete was largely a blur. Often a tough experience can purposely be forgotten or shut out from memories. It was a cycle of injuries, maintaining secrecy, and getting by. You graduated feeling unsatisfied, yet relieved. Relieved that maybe there was hope to recover somewhere down the road. For a long time thinking about your collegiate experience was a place of the what-ifs and how fast you could've run. What would it have been like if you were healthy? The conversation about becoming a 2:05 800 meter runner went out the window. As did your hopes and dreams.
Secrecy continued to hurt you. And at that point you were a young professional, still searching for yourself & what you wanted to do for the rest of your life, but still battling an eating disorder that took over your life. It was at that point that your tribe began to form. The tribe of people that aided in your recovery and overall healing. Your faith and hope also created a place of healing. Your husband, family, friends, former teammates, counselors, psychologists, and dieticians became the real life heroes. They were people that genuinely cared about you as a whole person. One thing that you searched for through collegiate running and your relationships was the concept of unconditional love. To be accepted for who you are no matter what. No matter how fast or slow you ran. No matter how much body fat you had. These people changed what worth meant for you. You didn't feel the need to measure up any longer. And from that point on in 2014 you found it safe to start publicly sharing the secret that kept you hindered for so long.
For a while you could only say "body image issues". Eating disorder was too tough and you were afraid. But each opportunity to share became freedom from deep wounds trying to heal. It wasn't easy and still isn't easy, because sharing about hard things take courage. Transparency has changed you. Your journey has been long & difficult at times, but worth the fight. You're so much more than just a runner.
And here you are: recovered, healthy, and happy. Years of counseling sessions and sharing has gotten you here, but the journey never stops. With that became a strong desire and passion to change the culture that changed you. To provide the opportunity for athletes to speak about the topics that are tough. To address the issues that many face as college athletes. To validate each individual's story. To encourage the current and future athletes like you. To preserve the joy that their sport brings. And to build up healthy and safe team environments for athletes to prosper in while competing. Each individual plays an important part on a team including the coaches and staff. Imagine a culture where everyone is invested in the well-being of their teammates. Where there is no weakness in adversity. It’s always easier to share about the good things in life. To post about the successes you’ve had. To show off your six pack abs. But where's the truth in that? All the flaws, injuries, bad days, and issues that we have make us who we are and they are gifts in disguise. To accept them is gold. To use them for the good of the world and others is golden.
So the answer is yes, I would still go.
“I see each of use who are carrying those heavy weights together, for one another, on behalf of one another. And it’s the most beautiful thing I can think of. We’re all so much more similar than we are different. Our secrets are largely the same. Our fears are largely the same.” Shauna Niequist