When I graduated high school, I was voted ‘Most Likely to go to the Olympics.’ Well, I’m going. But not in the way I always dreamed.
To be honest, I don’t actually know how old I was when I did my first triathlon (a race comprised of swimming, biking and running). If I had to take a guess, it would probably be six or seven years old. And no, I didn’t instantly fall in love or excel at the sport. I tried just about every sport you could think of before I went back to triathlon.
My first triathlon of significance was when I was in eighth grade. After having a bout of thinking I was destined to be the female Steve Prefontaine and another bout of thinking my big break in swimming was just around the corner, I decided to really TRY triathlon. Both my mom and my dad competed in Ironmans, along with being exceptional athletes throughout their lifetimes.
Throughout high school, I balanced club swimming, running and triathlon. The seasons of life followed the seasons of high school sports. Fall meant cross country, winter meant swimming, spring meant track and for me, summer meant triathlon. All the while, I did my best to maintain training in all three sports. And it worked. I actually began to excel at being a swimmer, a runner and most of all, a triathlete.
By the time the beginning of my senior year rolled around, there was no looking back. I was enamored by triathlon and knew I could succeed if I just dedicated all of my energy to being a triathlete. This meant giving up school dances, weekends with friends, laying out at the pool and so many other typical high school activities, but I did it without thinking twice. Heck, on the day of my senior prom I ran a track race in the morning, went and took pictures, ditched my date, went back to the track to run another race, then rode to prom with my mom. Yeah, that was my life.
In school, I went from being the girl who did triathlons to being the girl who was really good at triathlons. I went to every local race expecting to win and being disappointed if I didn’t. On the junior elite circuit, I put up consistent top-10 finishes in the 2013 season. I was even invited to the US Olympic Training Center for a short training camp.
Then came college. College was supposed to be a place where I would push myself even further in triathlon; where I would truly become the best of the best. But that’s not what happened. Caring about your academic success and training at an elite level without the support of your university’s athletic association simply do not go hand in hand. University athletes have tutors, trainers, doctors, anything you can imagine, right at their disposal. I had nothing but my will to succeed.
After having a terrible first race of the 2104 season, I decided it was time for a ‘traincation.’ During my freshman year spring break, I drove down to Clermont, Florida to train with my coach and do absolutely nothing else. By the end of the week, I was experiencing some tightness and soreness in my back and decided to wrap up a day early to go home and relax. And that’s when my life changed.
A couple days after returning to school from traincation and a week before my departure to Arizona for collegiate nationals, I woke up and wasn’t able to stand up straight. Imagine a wet branch in the woods. You know how you try and break it, but since it isn’t fully dry wood, some strands still hang on at a weird 45 degree angle? Well, that was my back. My legs and hips were just fine, but a sharp pain in my lower back caused me not to be able to stand up straight. This pain escalated so much through the following days, that even rolling over in bed became excruciatingly painful.
I began treatment with a local chiropractor, but as the school year wrapped up, I had no choice but to leave Athens. I was nowhere near complete with treatments, so I spent the entire summer of 2014 driving back and forth between home and Athens, a four hour round trip.
By the end of summer, I finally thought that I was healed. I thought that my back was ready to get back into the same shape it once was. I quickly learned that that was far from the case. As the weeks went on and I tried to get back into the swing of training, it quickly became clear that my clock had run out.
Having something that once meant everything to you ripped out from under feet is one of the hardest things in the world to cope with. And that’s because I placed my identity in my success as an athlete. What was I if I wasn’t the girl who was really good at triathlons?
To this day, I still suffer anxiety from not being able to train. I have severe guilt when a day passes that I don’t exercise- whether it be by choice or fault of my back. When I do run, I feel depression because I am not as fast as I used to be. I struggle with the fact that new people I meet don’t know this cool fact about me and that my body has changed significantly.
I learned that there is a story to tell. Every athlete is made of something different and every athlete has a unique path that led them to where they are today. And those stories deserve to be not only told, but also celebrated.
I have the unique opportunity to tell athlete’s stories through my job and my degree. I would not have found the affinity to share their stories had it not been for my back. And now I get to tell athlete’s stories on the biggest stage in sport: The Olympics.
I’ll spend nearly the entirety of August in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with the U.S. Olympic Committee communications staff reporting what is happening regarding all things Team USA at the games. I may not be competing in the Olympics like athlete me always dreamt of, but now I get to support others as they pursue their dreams. And that’s what the new me dreams of.