This book is heavy. Literally and figuratively. I couldn’t put it down. Literally. I carried it in my pack while hiking for three days. Which is how I know it is literally heavy.
Read this book if you were an athlete, are an athlete or like to watch athletes. Read it if you are a young person, work with young people, know a young person or were a young person. (Did I cover all my bases yet?) Read it if you’ve ever battled with the decision to stop doing something that no longer brings you joy but is ingrained in who you are. Read it if you believe in the dignity of all human beings and want to better understand those who face mental illness; may the sharing of Maddy’s struggle help someone else’s story have a different ending. READ THIS BOOK.
Like the author, Kate Fagan (of ESPN), and its subject Maddy Holleran, I was once a Division 1 college athlete. Some of you know that I failed a class in college. Most people I’ve told this to have forgotten this fact and are surprised when I re-tell it, since I graduated college on time, received awards for academic achievement later in school, and overall have had few achievement-related setbacks.
Like Fagan and Holleran, I found college athletics weren’t quite what I’d had in mind. For me, this happened during my sophomore year when, at the coach’s urging, I stopped competitive distance running (including Cross-Country) to focus on high jumping. In What Made Maddy Run, Fagan delves into the journey leading up to Holleran’s freshmen year of college. Holleran was an avid soccer player who ran track in the spring to stay in shape. With her incredible journalistic and storytelling style, Fagan goes into great detail describing the passion Holleran had for soccer, including quotes from some of her elementary school coaches.
I, likewise, had a passion for Cross-Country. Holleran gave up soccer to run year round. I gave up Cross-Country to train for jumping year-round. I was miserable. Holleran was miserable. Holleran didn’t click with the assistant coach she trained under; she’d loved the head coach who’d recruited her. Similarly, I didn’t click with the assistant coach I trained under when I switched from distance running to high jumping. In fact, I felt singled out by him at times. I found myself wondering if it was all in my head that I couldn’t take his criticism or if I was indeed being criticized more than my teammates.
Holleran tried to quit. Her coach talked her out of it. Fagan sorted out her mixed feelings through counseling and stayed on the team. She writes, “I was terrified of the word “quit.” Within sports, that word is dirty and barely distinguishable from “I can’t.” I had come to view quitting as synonymous with laziness, weakness, selfishness….Could I ever stop?….What was the difference between quitting and stopping, or quitting and retiring, or quitting and making the conscious decision that continuing something was genuinely unhealthy?”
I get it. I spent enough moments agonizing over this to fail a class that semester. Fagan asks, “How much of our happiness is fueled by society’s validation of our choices?”
This is where my story splits from Maddy’s. I quit the track team. Fortunately, it was my sophomore, not my freshman year when I quit so I already had a close relationship with an amazing roommate and understanding friends on campus. I was excited to have more time to spend on other interests like hiking and skiing without fear of getting injured before a meet. True, I grieved the loss of my identity as a student athlete. I missed the routine the workouts provided; the sense of belonging to a team. I still struggle at times to “set the bar low,” as Facebook reminded me just yesterday that I’d posted Nnenna Lynch’s article by that title on running post- competitive years. As I’m writing this, Runner’s World emails me an article “I never expected quitting competitive running would be so hard” by Micaela Young, Clearly, I’m not alone in having grappled with this. Yet, leaving the team when I did was one hundred percent the right decision for me.
My true validation for quitting the team came a couple of years later, when I crossed paths with a former teammate. I didn’t remember her, but she remembered me. “Coach was always so hard on you, I never understood why he singled you out.”
I no longer had to wonder if it’d all been in my head. I was as tough as my teammates, I was just being subjected to something harsher than they were. If I had’t been told this I believe to this day I’d still wonder if I’d all been in my head; if I quit because I wasn’t tough enough. What others think sure does carry a lot of weight.
After this conversation, I pondered if I would’ve stayed on the team at the time if someone had stood up to my coach for me. Or even if someone had just said to me in passing that they noticed his actions; I might’ve kept training knowing that it wasn’t all in my head. If you see something; say something. The sooner, the better.
I wish there were something I could say to Maddy Holleran. That I could validate her pain. That I could tell her it gets better. That you can quit track and be ok. That you can quit track, fail a class and be ok. Or not ok. That it’s ok to not be ok. That it won’t be like this forever.
Fagan discusses the fact that it is never one thing that pushes a mental illness over the edge. There are parts of Holleran’s story that I can’t relate to, and certainly not on the level that she experienced it.
And precisely because our stories are each so unique, this book is so valuable. Fagan’s extensive research into Holleran’s background is interwoven with facts about mental health on college campuses and the story’s of others, including herself. Fagan is an incredible journalist and the importance of telling this story is not lost on her. I hope the importance of reading this book will not be lost on you, and that it may inspire you to new level of empathy.
READ THIS BOOK.