Madison Holleran’s story has been weighing heavily on my mind and heart this past week. For those who may not have heard, Madison was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the varsity cross country and track and field teams, and last Saturday, tragically took her own life in Center City, Philadelphia. I have been both debating whether or not I wanted to share my own perspective and experiences in light of this tragedy, and speaking with friends and classmates about an appropriate campus response to what is now the third student-athlete suicide in the past decade at the University of Pennsylvania. In my time spent debating, I have come across a few other articles from individuals with similar experiences to reports of what Madison was experiencing as she began her second college semester, and similar to my own time at Princeton. While suicide is a less common result, the mental struggles of a student-athlete seem fairly pervasive. While no two experiences are identical and I know of many people, male and female, for whom the college-athlete experience was a very positive one, I am certainly struck by the number of people who can relate to what Madison was going through at least in a small way.
Like Madison, I ran cross country and track and field in high school, was recruited to run at an Ivy League college, and struggled with the transition to a new environment, the pressures to stay on top of my academics and athletics, let alone a social life, and the assault to my identity that came with being an average fish in an extraordinary pond. Now, as a graduate student in Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice, my connection to Madison is one of attempting to make sense and make changes.
In high school, I would wake up on many Sunday mornings to my Dad reading the sports section of the county paper with my (strained-looking) face crossing the finish line plastered across the front. My results were featured many days on the school’s morning announcements, as I conveyed an unconvincing nonchalance, sitting in homeroom. My running was the main focus of questions directed at me at family gatherings, and I received special treatment from my coaches based on my success on the trails and the track.
The way I pieced this all together in my head, running fast had become my worth. And so there was no doubt when I began to receive phone calls from coaches across the country during the spring of my junior year that I would compete in college. Never mind the frequent nausea that would precede high-pressure races (read: all of them), the multiple stress fractures I sustained in my junior and senior years, and my inability to concentrate on anything besides the upcoming race during a school day. (At this stage, the student component of student-athlete was a formality to me, necessary to keep up my main role as runner, but fortunately, something I also happened to be pretty good at.) Obviously I would continue to run at the next level.
I can remember around the time I knew that I didn’t enjoy running anymore (and by running I mean, running in a job-like, pressure-filled sense) and that time was actually before I even began college. Yet this terrible nagging thought I had was not often welcomed in the conscious areas of my brain. Despite not being financially obliged to remain on Princeton’s team (Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships), I forgot that I even had a choice in the matter. In light of the immense outside pressures, which I think are better described as internal pressures projected onto others, it certainly didn’t feel like I did.
I struggled almost immediately upon arriving on Princeton’s campus in the fall of 2006, these insecurities and uncertainties all coming to a head and compounded by a pretty severe case of homesickness. By the end of my not-so-hot cross country season and mediocre first semester of Bs across the board, I was in the midst of a major depressive episode and feeling completely stuck. Should I transfer 20 miles down the road to be with my older sister at Rutgers? Should I take time off of school altogether? Am I even allowed to do that as a member of the track team? What would be the ramifications? I began making visits to the school counseling center, was put on antidepressants and told my coach I would need to give running a break for the spring track season, which was met with as little resistance, as understanding.
I knew I was delaying the inevitable. A break from running was infinitely less threatening than giving it up altogether. After little meaningful contribution to a team that would soon go on to experience its greatest success in program history, I finally stopped doing the only thing that had come to define me, after arriving back on campus in the fall of my sophomore year. I was fortunate enough to find my own twisted path out of a situation that for me was no longer a positive part of my life, but in the months, and yes, years following my decision, I struggled to figure out those things that really defined me and mattered to me—beyond the track and the classroom.
I am very happy to be where I am now, and have the privilege to look back on this experience, for the most part, as a learning experience and with slight sadness for younger Lisa. I graduated Princeton with friends that were amazing writers, opera singers, scientists, violinists, sailors, friends and people, people that I probably wouldn’t have met, were it not for certain choices. But I imagine there are so many more stories like mine out there, male and female, involved in all variety of college sports, and sadly even some stories more similar to Madison’s.
I have been thinking a lot about the many potential precipitants of this issue that so many student-athletes experience, and the potential areas for change. Yes, in large part personality and individual differences play a large role in determining who will thrive in such a high pressure environment and who will struggle most. I have always been a very sensitive person, a homebody, a highly driven, yet failure-fearing person, and maybe I was just not cut out for this environment. Maybe I could have been more insightful about who I was and where I best fit. Maybe our parents and families put too much pressure on us, guiding us down a certain path that is not in our best interest. This was not the case for me, and based on what I can surmise from Madison Holleran’s father’s comments, not the case for her either. I had very supportive and understanding parents, who congratulated me when I succeeded, consoled me when I was disappointed, and genuinely did their best to let me make these choices for myself. And when I chose to give up that part of my life, I was still Lisa to them, even when I wasn’t sure what it meant to be me.
Looking at the problem through a larger lens, maybe these highly competitive academic and athletic environments, both on the high school and college level, are not cut out for us. Maybe they are not equipped for so many of the people that could contribute so greatly to a school if given the right tools and support for their specific needs. Reading other commentaries on this tragedy, a common theme seems to be: if college sports teams have athletic trainers, nutritionists, multiple coaches for subspecialties, sports psychologists (who specialize in improving athletic performance, mind you) then why not add a therapist to that staff? Or an initiative within the school’s counseling and professional services, with an aim at this specific campus subgroup? Not only would this serve the most important purpose of student-athletes having a place to turn when their worlds become too much, but would serve as a means of normalizing the need for mental health services in the athletic community.
And then there is the all-too often cited reason for many of the most pertinent issues in our country: our culture, which also happens to be the most difficult to address. When a girl (or boy) has come to believe that her state championships, SAT scores, and as the media has conveyed in this particular case, looks, are the first things worth mentioning, you have to believe there is something much larger at play. When mental health continues to be on the backburner in all domains of our society, we all suffer. Here’s to not just hoping for change, but to making it happen.
To Madison: May you rest in peace knowing that the world was too briefly but so positively impacted by your presence in it. Not by how fast you could cover the half-mile distance, or by your grade point average, or by your outer beauty, but by being yourself better than anybody else could be. You will be missed.