what I have learned as a college athlete

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“Hold still, Mary,” Ernesto said as he adjusted the lens of his very spiffy camera. “This is the last time I bring you a pumpkin spice latte before the photoshoot.”

I was jittery.

Cold sunlight was just beginning to break over the concrete tips of the football stadium and where we stood on the red and gold turfed endzone it was still chilly. My cross country uniform wasn’t doing much for warmth and the PSL hadn’t settled my nerves the way we had both hoped it would.

“I just feels weird,” I said as Ernesto finished setting up the lighting tripod. “The whole team is wearing this uniform right now because they’re at an actual race, and here I am with the uniform on getting my photo taken like a fake, wanna-be athlete.”

“The school thanks you,” said Ernesto crisply. He works for the PR department and was doing a favor for his latest project. We’ll see in a few months how much I’m going to regret it.

“What’s it like anyway?” he asked me, adjusting some knobs on his camera and then directing me to stand closer to the lighting pod.

He must think it’s odd, watching me make the transition from fully-fledged nerdling to almost-athlete. Those are two different worlds and we’ve both spent a long time in one, giving quizzical looks at the other.

“I mean,” I paused. “It’s different. I’ve been injured for most of it so it’s hard to say.”

“What have you been learning?” he asked as he directed me into position. “Tilt your head. Besides running, of course. Hand on your hip. Or do they even teach you that? What do they do? What do you do at practice? Okay, too much hip, Mary. Calm down.

I let him push me around from this angle to that and thought about his question. What have I been doing? What have I been learning?

It’s a question that has followed me into every practice, every ice bath, every hot shower, every evening class I sit through with nothing but food and sleep on my mind. And, eight short weeks later, as I sat on a sunny slope in Irvine, the bib number from my very last race still pinned to my jersey, it was there still.

For weeks since then, I have tried to write everything down. I’ve tried to explain what this season has meant to me. And I can’t. There just aren’t words for it.

So instead, for the sake of just finally getting this off my chest, I’m going to answer Ernesto’s question as best I can in just a few highlights.

As a nerd, trying to be an athlete, this is what I’ve learned from one semester of college cross country.

Firstly, ice is amazing.

Ice is the great healer. Pulled a muscle? Ice it. Feeling sore? Ice it. Shin splints? Ice it. Break a leg? WHY DO YOU KEEP GETTING INJURED? GET YOURSELF TOGETHER, KID!

I have been injured so much this semester, so I would know. It’s painful, strapping an ice pack to your leg for twenty minutes or immersing your body in a frigid whirlpool till your skin is all red and numb. But I guess sometimes the healing process requires a little pain before the gain. And there is so much to gain.

Secondly, the “Dumb Jock” stereotype is a lie.

My grades have really taken a hit this semester. ‘A’s used to come so easily to me. This semester I’m relieved if I pull out a ‘B’. I used to think that athletes who were allowed to slide by with ‘C’s were just “dumb jocks” – probably just laziness or poor priorities or too many hits to the helmet region. I was wrong. It’s hard to be a student athlete! It’s not just that you’re losing three to four hours every day for practice that you could be using to do homework or study, it’s that after practice, all you want to do is eat and sleep! I don’t think I’ve been awake for a full biology lecture all semester and I spend half of Spanish class distracted by how hungry I am. I eat all the time and I feel like I should be sleeping a lot more than I have time to.

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Exhausted after a race.

Last week, I heard some of the football guys talking about how stupid they all were. I turned immediately and reminded them that anyone who balances athletics and academics is superhuman and they should all be super proud of themselves. Someone had to say it.

Thirdly, every second counts.

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Sprinting the finish of the Pacific Coast Conference Championship.

After every race this season, I have spent the next several days reliving each moment, trying to scrape out the missing seconds. Where could I have gone faster? Where could I have pushed harder? The obvious truth is that every step of the race matters. This becomes painfully clear when you look at winning times separated by fractions of seconds. You think, why didn’t he just push a little harder during mile two? Why didn’t she concentrate on her technique a little more – over the course of a 5K, that would have made a winnable difference!

Learning this lesson on the course has been brutal, but applying it to life has become a joy for me this semester. Details mean a lot in the real world too. If every day is a long run that you have to get through, technique becomes important and it is produced by force of habit and continual concentration. Things like being nice to people. Assuming the best. Trying your hardest. If remembering to pace your breathing gives you an extra edge on your race, appreciating the pina-colada scented shampoo in the girls’ locker rooms is the extra edge your day needs. So are fresh towels and packed lunches and Sergio, the rubber ducky who floats in the ice baths in the trainer’s room. Little things make a winnable difference.

Fourthly, the human body is literally just so cool.

I eat a lot these days. I have portioned out a part of my budget for protein bars and gatorade and calcium supplements. I fastidiously pack lunches every night. I stretch. I do yoga. I sleep literally whenever life doesn’t insist on my being conscious. The harder I run, the more I realize where and how my body needs to be strengthened. And I think that’s pretty cool. Despite the injuries, despite the exhaustion and the extra work of trying to care for this body that I’m running into the ground, the decrepitation has been delightful. God gave me this amazing body that functions like a machine – the better the materials I put in, the better the product that comes out. I don’t take it for granted anymore when all my muscles and joints work, when nothing hurts. I don’t take it for granted that I can run right now. What a precious gift, to have a body that allows me to do that.

Fifthly, ego is not your friend.

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You may have picked up on the fact that I’ve been injured most of the season. I don’t know, maybe I’ve mentioned it a few times.

I’m super competitive and I joined Cross Country to compete. And I compete to win. It’s not like I’m expecting first place (though that is always what I aim for, and I’ve had visions of crossing the finish line for a first place medal since June), but my “reasonable target” was to make the top twenty in a race. I need about a seven-minute mile for that. With hard work and blood and sweat and tons of tears (because it’s me, and I cry over everything), I thought a seven-minute mile was doable.

Well guess what. It’s not actually super doable if you spent the whole season sitting on ice packs in the trainer’s room.

This season has not lived up to my hopes for what it could be. Mostly because when I am able to run with the team, I’m not fit enough to keep up with them, and I’m always nursing an injury so I haven’t been able to chase after their times.

This has been one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned this season. My ego – my desire to be running with the front of the pack – will not help me win a race and it will not help me heal my legs. Why? Because ego is what stands between you and the critique you need from a coach to improve. Ego is what stands between you and the rest you need to power up. Ego is what stands between you and the people who could be your friends, friends you will need when the race gets tough and the season gets long.

Let passion be your fuel, and wisdom your coach, and leave your ego off the field. There is no place for it here.

Sixthly, everyone has a voice inside their head.

The few times this season I have been functioning well enough to join in team practices have been the few times we have been doing the most ridiculous workouts. Sprinting up the football stadium’s sixteen stairwells for forty-five minutes (that’s how I got my second injury this season. Goodbye soleus!), 500 meter sprints, Indian runs, etc. I think that’s when I began to appreciate how hard Cross Country really is. It’s not just running. It’s not just endurance. It’s not just toning and speed and technique. Cross country is a mind game, and you can be prepared for the distance, the heat, the waves of competition, but you cannot begin to understand the battle that will happen in your mind until you’ve been in it. This incredibly loud, convincingly desperate voice will tell you to hold back, to take it easy, to give it your all next time, to stop, to quit, to give up. It will tell you that you cannot do it. You must prove it wrong.

Seventh-ly? They’re not kidding about team bonding.

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Picture day! Trying out our new uniforms for the first time.

It’s hard to explain the dynamic of team spirit. It sounds like such a cliche. I never would have thought that genuine friendship could actually infuse strength and energy into a team, but it does. As soon as we all started making an effort to get to know each other, to spend time together outside of practice, to invest in each other, our times started improving. Our energy picked up. Our drive improved. It was like, suddenly, instead of being alone on the course, there were these forces of goodwill pulling me along, insisting that I believe in myself, because they do.

There has not been a single day this season when someone from the team hasn’t come up alongside me and shown me what it means to be a teammate. Sergio taught me how to spit while I’m running. Janet taught me how to breath properly. Jesse taught me to fight through the injury. Cristal taught me to keep pushing. Joe taught me how to pull my shoulders back. Agustin taught me how to open my stride. Melissa has beaten self-confidence into me with a horsewhip and then given me a good kick just to make sure it sticks. And everyone else has just been there, every day, all season.

So I make time for the outings. They want to go play laser tag on Saturday or carb up at a restaurant before a race? Count me in. Weekend runs? Let’s do it. Heck, they even talked me into getting a Snapchat, which I more or less regret. But there’s just not a lot I wouldn’t do for these guys. They’re my team. They’re the first one I’ve really ever had. And they mean a lot to me.

Lastly, disappointment and failure are not the same.

This season feels like a disappointment to me. When I first thought about joining the team in March of last year, I had visions of being competitive, of being a dark horse coming from nowhere to sweep up. All summer long, I trained nearly every day, despite travel and extensive time-commitments. And the more I ran, the clearer I could see myself crossing the chalky white finish line to take first. I’ll be honest, a lot of what I saw myself accomplishing may not have actually been physically possible, but I’ve always had my head a bit in the clouds. I may still be telling people I just wanted to be in the top 20, but I wanted first. I compete to win.

So the string of injuries, the missed races, the increasingly frustrating practices made for a long, sad season. And up until the last moment of the last race, I still had my sights set on qualifying for state. As a team, we had qualified for the Southern California Championship, and as we warmed up in the foggy morning, the other girls joked about blowing their times so we wouldn’t have to go to Fresno in two weeks. So many better things to do with a weekend.

“No don’t,” I whimpered, even though I knew they were mostly kidding. “I need you guys to qualify or I won’t be able to go!”

The girls laughed, but I could hear they were tired. They were at the end of a long season, one of many they had had. This was my one and only, and I had only been able to race half of it.

“Qualify as an individual,” they told me. “You only have to be in the top hundred.”

So from the moment the starting signal sounded to the last pounding beat of my heart as I crossed the finish, I argued with that voice in my head. I want this, I said. I want this as much as the girl in front of me. I want it more than she does. I want to go to Fresno.

I finished tenth from the bottom.

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Disoriented after finishing my last race, I was escorted from the finish line to a water table where I promptly threw up behind a nearby tree. What a way to finish.

Coach walked up to me with a smile on his face and said, “Well, did you have fun?” And that’s when I knew my season was over. And this incredible sinking feeling clamped onto my stomach and it hurt.

It hurt because I fell so far from where I had hoped to land. But it also hurt because the end of this season means the end of this time I’ve had as a college athlete, and I have so loved every minute.

Maybe thinking I could jump into college sports was a ridiculous notion. Maybe seeing myself as a state champion was laughable. And maybe the disappointment and the gut-wrenching, anxiety-inducing frustration and heartbreak of this season could have been avoided if I had been realistic from the start.

Why did I even join Cross Country? I thought to myself on that sunny hillside in Irvine, the race finished. I had walked away from the rest of the team, sat down on the edge of the course, and stared out at the big, empty hills in front of me. Ernesto’s question from early September still simmered in the back of my mind. At least this time I wasn’t just wearing the jersey for a photoshoot.

How short the season has been.

I shook my head. It’s easy to feel sorry about the outcome. Easy to fall into despair. Easy to feel like I have nothing but disappointment, foolish hopes and a couple of big “I told you so’s” coming my way. But I know better.

This season of running has challenged me. The struggles with injury have pushed my boundaries, opened me up to new possibilities, helped me forge friendships and inspired me to levels of humility I didn’t know existed. The pursuit of this unachievable goal has driven me to the peaks of self-mastery and instilled in me patience and persistence. The failures, setbacks and losses have taught me kindness and empathy, and I am stronger for it.

I may spend the rest of my life on a continuous wave of disappointments, but this season has taught me for certain that I am a better person for having chased impossible dreams.

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Before you move to Canada

elections2016The last few days have left me confused. Not because of the election results – I saw those coming months ago. And honestly, I have worked hard to stay emotionally checked-out for the last half year because I have strong opinions about our new president-elect and they are radically different from those of the people in whose home I am blessed to live.

Peace-keeping efforts have required me to politely step out of conversations and bite my tongue at the dinner table for weeks, months. They know what I believe and why. We never saw eye-to-eye but they’re family. I’m not going to not love them because of who they voted for. Our family as a whole is more important than our individual beliefs. Our family as a whole is made up of our individual beliefs. And that’s important to remember.

Back to why I’m confused.

I’m confused because of the way my friends have handled the election results.

Let me clarify who I’m addressing this to.

Everyone.

I’m talking to everyone here.

I don’t care if you are out holding a protest sign, crying in my Biology class, or sitting comfortably on facebook condescending those people participating in demonstrations today (and, I realize that by writing this, I fit into that last category. So I’m writing this for myself, too).

The first thing I want to say to you comes directly from the lips of my least favorite president ever, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The only thing to fear is fear itself.”

As a child growing up in a safe neighborhood in a loving, lower-middle class, very typical American family in a safe, free, prosperous country, fear was not a concept I understood.

Bugs. Wolves. Heights. That was fear to me.

Time and experience have taught me that hate, racism, malice, and danger are alive and well. But all these things, just like bugs, wolves and heights, can be overcome with open eyes, with courageous spirits, with loving hearts.

Fear, however, is a different kind of beast. It is a parasite. I saps us of our strength, our hope. It darkens our vision of the future so that we cannot see the pathway. It shrinks us, stripping us of our power as human beings to show compassion, empathy, mercy and understanding.

Fear stops us from conquering hate, racism, malice and the everyday horrors that plague the world we live in.

Much of the last eighteen months has been a reflection of what a fearful people we have become. Fearful of our abilities to provide for our families. Fearful of the dangers posed from unchecked immigration. Fearful of police brutality. Fearful of hate. Fearful of changes in attitudes that we don’t understand.

So we fight fear with more fear. We claim that our neighbors are the bigger monster. That whoever is standing on the other side of the aisle is the real threat to our livelihoods. We blind ourselves. We bind ourselves. And we exacerbate the problem, becoming one more complicated facet.

I am not here to judge anyone on how they voted. Casting my ballot on Tuesday was an excruciating decision that I dreaded for months. I’m not proud of how I had to vote. But I am proud that I voted.

I am proud of my fellow Americans who voted, who used their voices, who exercised a right that so many in the world still fight and die for. We did it safely, and then we all got stickers.

We live in an incredible country.

And still the results shock us.

For those who are judging a large wave of the population for “overreacting” to Trump’s victory, take a moment to consider where they are coming from.

Trump has spent months showing just how little he cares for immigrants, women, and people with disabilities. Whether or not he is qualified to lead this country, he has spewed a lot of hateful words and words have power.

He has incited a kind of hate in America I did not know still existed. It has been lying dormant. He woke it back up.

There are many who still think these reports are overblown. They think the problem doesn’t exist because it hasn’t happened to them.

So I’m asking you to pause and listen to the demonstrators. Whether or not they are overreacting to the outcome, they are a reflection of a very real hurt in our nation. Americans afraid of deportation because they don’t have the paperwork they need to stay in a country they love. Americans afraid of abuse for being born a certain color or for holding to certain religious practices. Americans worried about what the future now holds for their daughters and how it will shape their sons.

Real things to be afraid of.

To those walking in demonstrations, giving up on college classes and homework for the week, threatening to move to Canada or Mexico…Stop. Stop it.

It was an election. They happen once every four years. They’ve been happening for the last two hundred years, peacefully, which has awed and inspired the world for two centuries now.

We moved from one regime to another without gunfire or bloodshed. Two men with completely different worldviews had lunch together today to begin the process of passing the baton.

We went to polling booths and were not bombed. We watched an election that was fair, unrigged, and open from the start.

Women and minorities, and young people who are not yet property owners were all allowed to vote. We were all given a voice.

Why do we not appreciate that? Do we not see the victory in this? Do we not see how great our country still is?

So let’s talk about the future.

Trump is president, but he is in charge of a government made for the people, by the people, of the people. We are still in charge.

If we respond out of fear in these next few days, we will waste the strength we need for the fights of tomorrow, whatever they may be.

If we respond in fear, we will further isolate the communities of this great nation, alienating our neighbors and the friends we will need so desperately to fight those daily horrors (not all of which will be Trump-related, I promise).

If we respond in fear, we will cloud our judgement, stifle our ability to make wise decisions, and step out dangerously into choppy waters without an anchor to hold us fast.

If we respond in fear, we will continue the cycle of abuse, mistrust, hatred, malice and ignorance that has brought us to this day.

To borrow a term from our former colonizers, keep calm, and carry on.

Our nation as a whole is more important than our individual beliefs. Our nation as a whole is made up of our individual beliefs.  

We are all Americans. We live under the same flag. Let’s not give up on each other. Seek to understand, to empathize, to walk boldly towards peace and unity.

That means, for your personally, taking a deep breath and realizing that it will be okay. And if it’s not okay, we will work together until it is.

That means, for us as a nation, making a concerted effort to find common ground, for reals this time.

Thanksgiving is in two weeks and I will sit at a table with a family I am blessed to belong to. We may or may not talk about politics. I may or may not participate. But we will find a way to understand each other and be grateful for what we’ve been given.

And what have we been given? A country that allows its people to grow and change and broaden the scope of human rights.

A country that, though imperfect, and freckled with the sins of each generation that has tilled its soil, will continue to reach for liberty and equality for all.

A country that does not house a people who are fearful, but is rather a home to the brave.