Blog

Part 3: How consistency made me a more confident athlete

One of the phrases that my coach Derick uses a lot is “consistency breeds confidence.” When we first started working together in the summer of 2017, I didn’t fully understand what he meant by that. It was rare for me to miss a workout, so I mistakenly thought that I was already perfectly consistent. However, consistency does not just refer to frequency; it includes quality as well. By the latter standard, my training was far from consistent. I’d have great days and terrible days, but not a lot in between. I’d have periods where my cycling was phenomenal and my running was a mess, but rarely felt like all cylinders were firing. The constant ups and downs were not only exhausting to manage; they also made it hard to feel truly confident in my fitness.

Of course, establishing consistency in quality is easier said than done. Being in a group training environment at the Olympic Training Center – being told where to be and when to be there, as well as eliminating the logistics around commuting and post-training nutrition – certainly helped by freeing up brain space that was once spent on ancillary details, allowing me to be 100% focused on the workout at hand. But there were two bigger, more challenging things I had to do to achieve the consistency we were after.

First, I had to develop more of a long-term mindset. As athletes, it’s really easy to get caught up in the short-term. A bad workout can lead us down a rabbit hole of dwelling; a couple days of bad workouts can leave us questioning everything we’re doing; and all this dwelling and questioning sets us up to fail at the next workout, continuing the vicious cycle. But one of the points that Derick really drove home with me is that success doesn’t come from a couple great workouts here and there. It comes from stringing along many average workouts, day after day, week after week, year after year. And it takes time and it takes trust and there’s nothing sexy about it. But the cumulative effect of all those average days compounded – that’s where big results happen.

With Derick’s encouragement, I slowly started to adopt that long-term mindset. I stopped allowing individual workouts or races to carry so much weight. Instead of feeling defeated by a bad workout, I would brush it off and focus my energy on coming back stronger the next day. Instead of getting strung out after a disappointing race result, I would look at it as an opportunity to learn what I needed to do differently in pursuit of my long-term goal: Tokyo 2020. With that long-term vision operating in the background, I found it much easier to manage the inevitable ups and downs of training.

The other thing I needed to do in order to establish more consistency was address my own fears and self-doubt that were holding me back. Up until this year, I didn’t think I was capable of handling a consistently heavy training load. After falling into the dark hole of overtraining earlier in my career, I was terrified of pushing my body to that dangerous point again. I became a proponent of listening to my body, and had no shame in shutting a workout down if my body wasn’t feeling it. Don’t get me wrong — I still think it’s important to be in tune with what the body needs and be willing to make adjustments to training when warranted. However there is such thing as doing it too often, and I can see now that I was guilty of doing just that in an effort to safeguard myself from harm.

I can pinpoint the exact moment that I became aware of the self-sabotage I was doing. It happened this April, a tough and exhausting period where I was just beginning to adapt to the heavy training load that was to become my norm. At the end of one particularly hard week, all of my physical and mental fatigue culminated into an epic disaster of a tempo run. I felt like a zombie on the warmup, and remember thinking if I closed my eyes for even a moment, I would fall asleep and fall right off the treadmill. I decided to shut it down just minutes into the mainset, called Derick, and told him my body just didn’t have it today.

His response shocked me. His voice took on a sternness I hadn’t heard before as he told me I needed to do this run today. He said there’s a time to scale back and a time to push, and this was one of those times where I needed to push. Then things got real. “I think you have a tendency to let yourself off the hook too easily,” he said. “But you are stronger than you give yourself credit for. Now’s the chance for you to prove that to yourself.”

If I’m being honest, I was livid when I hung up the phone (I think because, deep down, I knew he was right). But I composed myself, came back to the treadmill a few hours later, and absolutely nailed it.

I’ll never forget the way I felt in the last ½ mile of that run when I realized that I was going to finish it. To have been at rock bottom just hours earlier, and then to come back and complete a workout I believed was impossible – it doesn’t get much more empowering than that. I truly surprised myself that day, and I realized that my coach was on to something when he said that I was capable of more than I believed. As difficult as Derick’s words were to hear, they were probably the most important words he’s ever said to me.

From there, Derick continued to give me increasingly harder workouts. Every morning I would read the workouts for the day on my phone and think there’s no way in hell I can do that. And then I would do it. Session after session. Day after day. Week after week. It took time, but these daily successes earned my trust both in Derick’s ability to keep me healthy, and by own ability to execute. For the first time, I experienced what consistent, quality training felt like.

That’s not to say I always felt great. In fact, most days I felt exhausted. But I came to see that I could begin a workout feeling like I had nothing in me to give, and somehow manage to nail it. That even on the days when I wasn’t feeling 100%, I could still execute pretty close to 100%. And sure enough, after stringing many of these days together, my confidence naturally followed. The confidence that I gained through my consistency in training impacted everything I did. I started to feel more comfortable taking risks in training, more open to trying to new things with my equipment, and more receptive to feedback in general.

Perhaps most significant is how this confidence manifested in racing. The confidence I gained through training took away a lot of the anxiety that I used to have on race day. The reality was, I showed up every single day for many consecutive days and did some really hard things. I woke up most mornings feeling like crap and still did those hard things. So I knew that no matter what was thrown at me on race day, I’d still be able to get the job done. All I had to do was do what I do every day in training.

Similar to how I didn’t know what true consistency was until I established it, I had no idea what true confidence was until I gained it. And I believe that when you find both, there is no limit to what you can do.

Thanks so much for reading, check back next week for Part 4: How changing my story made me a faster swimmer.

Advertisements

Part 2: How the draft horse effect made me a better teammate

When my triathlon season ended in September and I began to reflect on the year, I concluded that 2018 was a year of breakthroughs. Some of those breakthroughs were so big, that it was hard to explain how they could have happened. Then my friend Robyn told me about this phenomenon that exists in Belgian draft horse racing, and suddenly everything made more sense. Dave Ramsey describes the concept in his book, EntreLeadership.

“[O]ne Belgian [draft horse] can pull 8 thousand pounds. The weird thing is if you put two Belgian horses in the harness who are strangers to each other, together they can pull 20-24 thousand pounds…not twice as much as one, but three times as much as one. This example represents the power of synergy. However, if the two horses are raised and trained together they learn to pull and think as one. The trained, and therefore unified, pair can pull…30-32 thousand pounds. The unified pair can pull four times as much as a single horse…but unity is never simple or easy.”

I absolutely love this passage, in part, because it is nearly identical to my experience being on the US Paratriathlon Resident Team. When Mohamed, Howie, Allysa and I joined Resident Team in April, we all came in with different strengths, growth edges, experience levels, personalities, and communication styles. We knew each other well from years of racing together, but I don’t think any of us realized how much the squad environment would bond us.

Much like the Belgian draft horses, establishing group synergy was easy. It was the natural byproduct of being on a team. Synergy is why we could all be doing four completely different workouts and still be doing them faster than we would if we were alone. It’s why simply seeing Mohamed’s smile across the track (yes, that boy’s smile is so big that you can see it from 100 meters away) would be enough to propel me forward a little bit quicker.

image_6483441

Unity, however, was never a given. Unity is harder to establish because it takes continuous work. It takes long-term vision. It requires everyone to sacrifice a little bit of ego with the understanding that it will go towards the larger goal of elevating the entire group.

Before I joined the Resident Team, I thought the idea of unity was one of those things that sounded cool in theory, but didn’t actually exist in the real world. I didn’t think you could put athletes who compete against one another in the same training environment and expect any good to come out of it. I thought trying to coach in that dynamic would be too messy, that the daily training would breed toxicity, and that it would make any kind of personal relationship between athletes impossible.

As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. While I may not have started the program with the most team minded attitude, it quickly changed when it became clear that the culture we were creating was one of encouragement and support. We developed this shared understanding that we would elevate ourselves to new levels of excellence by raising each other up. The foundation was simple: if a) the way to being a better athlete is by raising the bar of what is expected, and b) when I support my teammates, they will advance forward and effectively raise that bar, then c) the new, higher bar will ask more from me, forcing me to stretch my own horizons and become a better athlete. It’s enlightened self-interest in action.

IMG_4645   IMG_4764

Within a month of training together as a team, all of us had made big performance gains simply from being surrounded by each other. And our unity only got stronger from there, as each of us used our strengths to help develop each other’s growth edges. As the season progressed, you’d see Allysa jump in with me in the last 200 meters of a track workout and tell me to stay on her shoulder. In turn, you’d see me start a few seconds behind Allysa on a bike interval and tell her not to let me catch her. You’d see Mohamed set the pace in the pool as Allysa and I fought to stay on his feet, to the point where she and I could swim next to each other, stroke for stroke, perfectly in sync, for hundreds of meters at a time. Like draft horses pulling four times their weight.

Like Ramsey observed, “unity is never simple or easy.” Achieving and sustaining team unity take constant work. The thing is, it’s not always easy to show up and be supportive of the larger goal. In fact, there were a lot of days where I just felt like being selfish. But being part of this group taught me that when those days came around, I needed to put my own self interests aside and show up anyway; to encourage others even when I wasn’t feeling good; to be proud of my teammates’ efforts even if I was disappointed with my own. That’s what my squad expected from me, and I expected the same from them. We were all willing to put in the work to be a unified team, and it shows. It shows in the performance gains each of us have made, and in the fact that we, collectively, played a large role in raising the level of competition at international events.

There have been so many touching moments throughout the season where my squad mates showed up for me; at times, they were so powerful that they brought me to tears. Day after day, we pushed each other to be the best versions of ourselves, both physically and interpersonally. I’ve said it before, but the entire reason that I do this sport is because I believe it’s a medium for personal growth. This team has helped me grow in ways that I never could have foreseen, and I’m grateful for all of the ways that they’ve made me a better human being.

Thanks for reading, and catch you back here next week for Part 3: How consistency made me a more confident athlete.

Part 1: How taming my emotions made me a smarter competitor

This is part one of a four (or maybe five – I haven’t decided yet) part series that details some of the biggest and most influential lessons that I learned over the course of my 2018 triathlon season. These posts are pretty personal and will expose details that many people in my position probably wouldn’t talk about. But I believe in being transparent about my process, and if it can resonate with someone else and help them navigate their life with a little more clarity, I’ve done my job. The universe has been good to me, and I think it’s important to put some of that good energy back into the universe. So here we go.

Exactly one year ago, I picked up my life in Chicago and moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. I did this in order to join the Paratriathlon Resident Program, an initiative born under the philosophy that athletic potential is maximized when athletes are living and training together in a squad environment. The program, which formally began in April 2018, attracted some of USA’s top paratriathletes all training under Coach Derick Williamson.

The inaugural Resident Team is a small but mighty group of four athletes, two men and two women. The other woman on the team is Allysa, my chief competitor and the one who has been setting the standard in our class for the last few years. I’ll be honest: before the daily group training started, I was nervous about how it would go. Among my top concerns was that training with Allysa essentially meant that I would be racing every single day.

Racing can be a really emotionally charged experience. There’s a reason they are scheduled sporadically throughout the year – they’re simply too physically and mentally taxing to take on too frequently. I personally have a history of letting my emotions get so out of control that they inhibit my ability to execute. The inflated impact of my emotions on my racing stemmed from an inaccurate yet pervasive association I had drawn in my mind: that my performance was a direct reflection of my worth.

And so for the first week of group training, I went into every single session with the nerves that were once only reserved for race day. I would overthink everything before, during and after the workout (“why does this pace feel so hard and how is she going so much faster and how much time is she going to beat me by and why am I even doing this and maybe I should just retire right now and what should I do as my backup career since this clearly isn’t working out?”). Being the last one to touch the wall felt like a slap in the face. Getting passed on the run path would provoke the same emotional response as being told that I’m inferior.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that my M.O. of letting my emotions hijack me in high-pressure, race-like environments wasn’t going to work here. It simply wasn’t sustainable. If I was going to survive in this training group, my only option was to limit the amount of power that this stressful environment had on me — to make racing a little less emotional.

My sport psychologist, Sara helped me do that by honing my ability to redirect my attentional focus. We came up with specific, task-oriented foci (my head position on the swim, my cadence on the bike, driving my arms on the run) that I could direct my awareness to when I was in one of these high-pressure workouts. Having these internal cues to come back to relieved some of the stress of training alongside my competitor, and helped me avoid going down the rabbit hole of unproductive thoughts. I adopted a mantra of “don’t think, just do” to remind me to come back to my internal task cues. By focusing on the things that I could control in that moment, I simply didn’t have the brain space to be affected by the emotions associated with competition.

The skills I worked on with Sara proved helpful in my workouts, but there was another, deeper thing I had to do if I wanted to strip my emotions from the power that they held over me. I had to cut the mental association that existed between my performance in a race/workout and my worth as a person. I’ve long been aware that this link existed, and while I knew it needed to be severed, I had a hard time actually doing it. And quite honestly, I’m not sure I would have had I not put myself in an environment where I was forced to confront it on a daily basis. But being in a training group with my competitor worked similar to exposure therapy. Since every day was a high-pressure day, over time, the pressure no longer had so much power over me. As the months went by, I stopped taking racing dynamics — bridging, passing and surging — so personally. I recognized that some days I would be faster and some days I would be slower, but as long as I was doing the work, none of it really mattered. With a limited number of proverbial shits to give, I had to save them for when they were really warranted.

This change wasn’t one that happened overnight (it’s not fully resolved either, as I still slip up occasionally). But I gradually got a little bit better at brushing things off until one day I realized that I was not the same athlete that I was when I started. I was enjoying the process more. I was happier and less stressed. I was more confident. And I was performing better than I ever had before.

I feel it’s important to mention that learning how to better manage my emotions doesn’t mean that I am void of them. I’ve always identified as someone who feels things strongly, and I considered that passion to be one of my strongest attributes. Throughout this process, I worried that gaining control over my emotions meant that I would lose that important part of myself. I now see that I can be passionate and express my feelings healthily AND exercise control so that my emotions don’t completely overrun my life.

Through all of this, it was my coach, Derick who really drove home the message that I could minimize the extent to which my emotions negatively impacted me. He did this through leading by example, and through the subtle but intentional ways that he chose to speak with me. Instead of matching my energy level when I came to him with a concern, he would remain even-keeled, subduing my anxiety rather than fueling it. He encouraged me to look at everything from time trials to body comp evaluations not as a reflection of who I am, but as mere data points. He showed me that I didn’t have to spiral out of control every time something went wrong, and taught me to evaluate races and training sessions in more logical, objective ways. I’ve heard it said that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with; the fact that my demeanor has grown to more closely resemble Derick’s is enough for me to believe that this philosophy is true.

What’s really cool is that my ability to manage emotions under stress has carried over into areas of my life outside of training. As strange as it may sound, I think that falling victim to big emotional swings and getting stuck in negative thoughts had become so much a part of my experience, that they served as a security blanket of sorts. It was only after I started to get a feel for what life felt like when my emotions were tamed that I realized my security blanket was actually suffocating me. So while I certainly still have my triggers, I’ve found that in general, things just don’t seem to bother me as much as they used to. I’ve  gotten better at recognizing stressful environments before they come triggering, understanding that I have control over my reaction, and managing the situation accordingly. It has truly brought a sense of ease to everything I do.

There’s more to come in this series, but none of the subsequent lessons would have been possible without this first one, as it pretty much underlies everything. I hope you check back over the next few weeks for more insights from my season, including next week’s: “How the draft horse effect made me a better teammate.”

“What happened to your leg?” — why I’m done answering

Last night, I went out to ice cream with another para athlete from the training center. We’d both had long, hard weeks and were looking forward to unwinding with a delicious dipped cone in the parking lot of an old school drive-in. There was a long line of eager Colorado Springsians waiting outside on this perfect summer night; the shop must have anticipated this, because there was also a guy in a goofy suit making balloon animals for the kids as they waited.

*I should preface this by acknowledging my own bias. I’m slightly traumatized by balloon-makers, having been the recipient of many unwanted balloon dogs and poorly-timed jokes from the oblivious-to-social-cues clown who roamed the oncology floor the year I was on treatment.

I had a feeling when balloon guy approached us that it wasn’t going to be a great encounter, but what came out of his mouth still surprised me.

“Sooo are you two friends because of this, or is it just a coincidence?” he asked, gesturing towards both of our prosthetics.

Never one to have been praised for my poker face, I couldn’t hide my look of disdain. Thankfully, my friend jumped in with a deadpan retort that we were in the same accident (which actually made me smile because it sent balloon guy on a nice little guilt trip). I let my friend handle the rest of the dialogue, then just as the guy was getting ready to leave us alone, he dug a little deeper.

“Well you’re both beautiful. All of this aside, you’re still beautiful,” again gesturing at our legs. The implication was that attractiveness and physical challenges are mutually exclusive; that we had to compensate for having one leg by looking good in other ways.

I was fuming on the inside, and as much as I wanted to tell this guy off, I stayed silent. But the interaction struck a chord, bothering me the rest of the night and into this morning. It caused me to break into tears when I recounted the story to my mom on the phone today. It also caused me to sit in my car for 20 minutes before today’s run, dreading the start of it because I knew the likelihood of hearing another triggering comment like the one I heard last night is highest when I’m out running. What a terrible feeling, being temporarily robbed of the thing that makes me feel the most free by the knowledge that there’s a world of people out there ready to draw attention to my body.

Some may read this and say that I’m being uptight or overly sensitive. But it wasn’t just balloon guy who made me this upset. It was balloon guy as well as every person before him who felt the need to question me about my body before learning my name. I’ve been dealing with situations like these for 15 years. For over half my life, I’ve fielded the question “what happened to you?” on an almost daily basis (this question is usually asked out of the blue, with exactly zero small talk preceding it). For a while it didn’t bother me. I would laugh it off, answer the question, be polite about it. But quite honestly, I’m tired of doing that. 15 years of justifying my appearance has worn me down, and I’m just too exhausted to do it anymore.

While balloon guy’s tactlessness was a little extreme, the more innocent interactions can be just as difficult. Whenever I go out for a run or a ride, it is almost certain that I will hear 2-5 people yell “you’re amazing!” or “you inspire me!” On the surface, this seems nice. But in reality, comments like these have the same effect as balloon guy’s joke or the question “what happened.” They all draw my attention away from whatever it is I am doing and toward the thing that makes me different. The funny thing is, if it weren’t for the people that I encounter in public, I would probably not even think of myself as having a disability. But thanks to their comments, I am constantly reminded of the fact that my body is not normal and never will be.

It’s taken 15 years of unwanted interactions, a couple years of therapy, and even a conversation with an expert on body objectification, but I’ve finally reached some important realizations:

The story of how I lost my leg is a boundary that I get to set. Just because somebody asks, doesn’t mean I have to share. It is not my job to explain my appearance to others. It is not my job to protect strangers’ feelings by providing polite responses to their questions about why I am the way I am. And contrary to the belief espoused by many in the disability community, it is not my job to “educate the world about disability one person at a time.” If I am to use these interactions to educate people, I would rather have it be about appropriate social boundaries than about the personal details of the most painful period of my life.

For a long time I had neither the words nor the courage to respond to strangers’ questions in a way that felt right for me. But I think now I finally do. The next time somebody approaches me out of nowhere and asks what happened to my leg, this is how I plan to respond:

“I’d rather not discuss it with you. I know you’re probably coming from a good place, but that’s a really personal question to ask, and can be traumatizing for a lot of people to answer. In the future, I’d stay away from asking that question of somebody that you don’t know.”

I like this answer because it gives me some of the power back; I am neither staying silent nor submitting to them by giving them the answer they’re looking for. It maintains respect for the other person while also setting a firm boundary, and hopefully, sets them up for more positive interactions in the future. 

For those of you reading this who are wondering what you should say if you see someone you don’t know with a body that deviates from the norm, my answer is simple: don’t say anything. While your intentions may be good, the impact it will have on the person will likely not be. I can guarantee that the person already knows they look different and does not need to be reminded. I can also guarantee that the person has much more important things to be thinking about; they do not need their attention to be directed away from those things.

I think all any of us want is to be really, truly seen. It may be tempting to ask a person about their prosthetic as a way of connecting with them — as a way of telling them that you see them. But I believe that the best way we can show somebody we see them is not through what we say, but through what we don’t say. What you are effectively saying when you leave my leg out of the conversation is that you see me not as an abnormal body with a story to be told, but as a whole person.

So to balloon guy, in the unlikely event that you read this: if you see me again and do feel inclined to engage, ask me how my peanut butter dipped cone is tasting. Because that part of my life matters much more to me than the one that you chose to point out.

Motivation Waves

When I speak to companies and organizations about my Paralympic journey, one of the questions I’m asked most frequently is some variation of this: “how do you stay motivated through the rigors of training?”

For a long time I answered this question in the same way. I explained how I loved my sport; how training was my favorite part of the day; how I was passionate about both my goals and the process of obtaining them, and how when you’re doing something that you’re truly passionate about, motivation is easy.

I was always astutely aware of the sense of disappointment that settled in the room when I gave this answer. I think people wanted to hear real, tangible things they could do to stay motivated through a new fitness routine or withstand challenges in the workplace, and my abstract, rose-colored response was not very satisfying.

Still, even though I knew it was the answer people didn’t necessarily want to hear, I kept giving it. Because at that point in my career, it sincerely felt like the truth; and if there’s one thing I cannot do, it’s stand up in front of a room and speak anything other than my truth.

Looking back, I know there were times that despite my love for the sport, motivation did not come easily – I simply didn’t have the self-awareness to see it at the time. For years, I believed that in order to be a successful athlete, I needed to be motivated all the time. So strong was this belief that I learned to feign motivation when I didn’t have it. Over time, I got so good at pretending that I was actually able to convince myself that a lack of desire or willingness to train were issues to which I was immune.

I’ve since come to realize that what I thought was immunity was actually denial, and with that came a more nuanced understanding of how motivation works. I now know that motivation ebbs and flows. No matter how much we love what we do, there are going to be days (or weeks or months), where we’re just not feeling it. And that is okay.

I think the very question “how do you stay motivated” reflects our society’s obsession with positive emotions. We feel like we have to be happy at all times, and if we’re not, we need to actively change it (or at least just give the illusion that we are). We believe motivation must be a permanent fixture, and if god forbid we wake up one morning missing that drive, we must embark on a manhunt to find it (or at least just fake it ‘til we make it).

Not only is sadness—or anger or fear or any other “negative” emotion—okay, it’s necessary. They are central to the human experience, and paradoxically, we simply cannot experience happiness when we deny our ability to feel these more unpleasant emotions. In the same vein, not only are periods of low motivation okay, they are necessary to go through for your long-term sustainability. Show me somebody who is relentlessly motivated 24/7 and I’ll show you somebody who will find themselves on the edge of burnout within the next five years.

It took me years to develop the self-awareness to see what motivation looked like for me, both in its abundance and in its absence. But the real work was—and continues to be—in accepting the fluctuation of motivation as a natural part of the game. That’s not to say that if I’m in a period of low motivation, I’m going to dwell on it. But it’s also not saying that I’m going to force myself out of it, and convince myself that I’m feeling something that I’m not. In almost all cases, simply riding the wave is far more effective than fighting or denying it.

While short phases of low motivation are to be expected, more prolonged periods could be a sign that something needs to change. In instances like this, it’s helpful to zoom out and think about the reasons why you’re dong this thing in the first place. I find that examining the why often lends itself to a resurgence of motivation as I become clearer about my purpose. And if it doesn’t, it’s a hint that I either need to change my why or evaluate whether it’s worth continuing.

Training can be a grind. I used to resist that statement because of that word’s negative connotation and my said desire to only view my training in a positive light. But more recently, I’ve come to be very much inspired by the idea of the grind. About showing up when you’re tired and uninspired. About putting in the work when not a single fiber in you wants to be there. About coming back day after day, even when the process is beating you to the ground. After a long winter of waning motivation, I really started to embrace this idea of the grind. I found that showing up and nailing my sessions – regardless of how I felt on that day – was really empowering. It made me feel like a badass. And that feeling of fulfillment ended up being motivating in itself.

So what’s the real key to staying motivated—or more accurately, to continuing on when you find yourself in an inevitable period of low motivation?

Simple. Show up anyway.

I’m not sure if this answer is much better than my previous one. This too is not an easy fix that people want to hear. But as unglamorous as it is, this is my truth.

Farewell, Chicago

I had no idea when I moved to the Chicago area for college in 2009 that I would stick around for as long as I have. And yet here I am, 8 years later, finally saying goodbye to the city that I’ve grown to love so much, that it’s become a part of me.

Most people love Chicago for the nightlife, the Big 4 sports teams, and the fact that you can walk out your door and get food from anywhere in the world in less than 20 minutes. But my reality is that I go to bed before 10 most nights, I find sports games generally boring, and 9 times out of 10 I just go to Antique Taco. So why exactly do I love this city so much? Why did I stay here for nearly a decade, and why am I finding it so difficult to leave?

Simple. It’s the people.

I have created a community of people here that is greater than anything I ever could have dreamed. People who have been by my side through my greatest triumphs and most devastating failures, and who loved me just the same though both. People I could call for a ride when I got a flat tire, who opened up their homes to me when I was between leases, who showed up at my apartment with soup and pedialyte when I had the flu, and with whom I could comfortably have some of life’s toughest conversations. People whose lives I’ve invested in in return, whom I’m genuinely excited to see each day, for whom I would take the red line to Navy Pier at rush hour (the equivalent of walking through fire). Being engaged in their lives has been my greatest joy, and has provided me with a sense of purpose and meaning.

While I started to grow tired of the hustle and bustle of the city as early as two years ago, it was my community that caused me to stay. Even though I knew Chicago was not able to provide the best environment for me to excel professionally, I couldn’t imagine how I could excel if I didn’t have my community. But eventually, the less-than-ideal climate, the never-ending logistics, and the stress of living in a densely populated metropolis finally tipped the scale. So when I saw an opportunity to move to Colorado Springs, I decided to take it.

Leaving my Chicago community in order to advance my athletic career is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. The process of saying goodbye to my friends here only validated my belief that these people are some of the greatest souls I will ever know. My friend Kelsea said it best when she said: “Obviously we’re all going to be sad to see you go. But the people who really love you, the people who want what’s best for you — we want you to come back here in three years with a gold medal. And even if you don’t come back with the gold, we want you to come back here knowing that you gave it everything you had. That you left no stone unturned and dedicated yourself 100% to being the best that you could possibly be.”

It’s because of support like this that I am able to go confidently towards this next phase of my journey. As heartbreaking as it is to leave the city that is my home, my friends here have taught me that home is not a physical space. It is not confined to a city or a building. Home is the people who inhabit it. And those people will always be a part of me, no matter how far away I may be. All the memories and experiences that we shared together — those don’t live in Chicago. They live inside of them and they live inside of me.

Chicago will always hold a piece of my heart. From my first garden unit apartment on Southport, to my first “real” job in River North, it’s where I experienced the highs and lows of emerging adulthood. From learning how to run on a blade on the streets surrounding UIC, to completing my first triathlon at 63rd St. Beach, to training for my first Paralympics within the walls of EDGE, it’s where I grew into the athlete I am today. It’s where I began to accept who I really am — including the parts I’m not thrilled about — and where I started to develop into the person I was meant to be. In many ways, it’s where I grew up.

My time in Chicago will always be a part of my life’s journey. And while I don’t know whether or not I’ll come back after 2020, I do know that I will always have a home here.

And so, to my fellow Chicagoans who have made the last 8 years so special: thank you. I don’t think I can ever express just how grateful I am to have been impacted by you.

Onward we go.

The part of being an Olympian that nobody talks about

When most people think of an Olympian, they think of the glory and the glamor. The sculpted muscles and shimmering medals. The inspiring faces of determination, the universal expressions of triumph, the adorable opening ceremony outfits. And the smiles – oh the smiles! I don’t think there’s anything quite like the emotion that’s captured in an Olympian’s smile.

14292348_10210156543688255_8760220550263366167_n-1

But there’s another part of being an Olympian that nobody talks about – and that is what happens after the Games. What happens when the flags in Olympic Park come down; when the buzz of returning home dies off; when we go back to “real life” and realize that, for the first time in many years, it is extraordinarily ordinary.

For many Olympians, this next phase is not so glorious. There is a phenomenon called the post-Olympic depression*, and it’s a lot more common than you may think. If you’ve ever reached a lifelong goal, you may be able to relate: when you’ve spent years being 100% invested in one thing and then it’s over, life kind of turns upside-down.

*A note on semantics. While the severity of depression varies among individual athletes, in this context, post-Olympic depression refers to the entire spectrum, from mild depressive episodes to clinical depression.

Post-Olympic depression can take on many different forms.

For the medalist who just experienced the highest high she ever dreamed of, it’s coming back down and wondering how she’s ever going to top that.

For the athlete who fell short of his expectations, it’s questioning every decision he made that led to him missing a once-in-a-lifetime shot.

For the retiring athlete whose entire identity is intertwined with his sport, it’s wondering how he’s now supposed to see himself.

For the athlete who spent four years working towards this thing that she thought would bring her ultimate happiness, it’s realizing that there is still a piece of her that’s not satisfied – that the void she was trying to fill is still there.

I was warned about the post-Olympic depression (I actually came across an Atlantic article about it a few weeks before Rio, but did not allow myself to read it until the Games were over). But you see, I developed a plan to outsmart it: I signed up for a marathon. I poured all of my energy that was once focused on the Paralympics into this new endeavor, thereby distracting myself from the post-Rio emotions that I hadn’t processed. It was a crafty move (if I may say so myself), and for a few months, I was actually able to convince myself that I had evaded the dark period that follows the Games.

But in reality, all I was really doing was prolonging the inevitable. Then two days after the marathon, I woke up drowning in all of the feelings I had been suppressing. I initially thought the emptiness I felt was a result of my disappointing performance at my marathon, but I soon realized that it ran far deeper. I could run away from the post-Olympic depression all I wanted, but in my particular case, it was a reality I would eventually have to face.

I won’t lie – the last six weeks have been really hard. I’ve felt exhausted much of the time, a combination of physical fatigue and mental burnout. I’ve struggled to get excited about the season ahead, and experienced hopelessness when I couldn’t find the motivation to get even the easiest workouts in.  I’ve been overwhelmed and confused thinking about what I want the next four years to look like, and was terrified to realize that I don’t know who I would be if I wasn’t an athlete. There were a few really bad days: days where I was completely despondent and all I wanted to do was stay in bed. But overall, this time has been characterized by more of just a dulled interest in several aspects of my life. But considering these were the aspects that used to be my greatest sources of joy, dulled interest feels like pretty sharp pain.

When I first started to experience the post-Olympic depression, I tried to force myself out of it. However, I’ve learned that in order to work though this, I need to be patient with my emotions and not pressure myself to change the way I feel. The culmination of the Paralympics is very much a loss, and like any loss, it must be grieved. And so I am going to be generous with myself, listen to what my body needs, and not force a motivation that isn’t there. I will reflect on what else I’m looking to get out of my sport, I will ask myself if my heart is still in it, and I will be honest with my answers. I’ve already found that by giving myself permission grieve at my own pace, I’ve started to feel a lot better. And while I can’t say that I am completely out of the woods just yet, I do believe it’s just around the corner.

So why am I talking about this – this thing that nobody talks about? Why would I come out and write publicly about a stigmatized idea that we like to pretend does not exist? I guess it comes down to two reasons: to normalize and to demystify.

To address the normalization reasoning, it’s worth mentioning the other time in my life that I experienced very similar feelings. When I went to college, I really struggled with the transition. I had a difficult time assimilating myself into a group and never really felt like I fit in. I remember breaking into tears at seemingly random moments throughout my first year. I remember being angry so much of the time, but not being able to explain why.

What made that year even harder was the fact that everyone I knew had told me that college was supposed to be the best time of my life. That dichotomy between others’ expectations and my actual experience was one that I started to internalize; if I was the only person who could go to college and not have fun, there had to be something wrong with me. What I didn’t learn until after I graduated is that the emotions that I felt my freshman year are actually incredibly common. Even some of my friends – the same people who I thought were having the time of their lives – later told me that they felt the way I did that first year.

When I think back to my 18-year old self, the one thing that I wished more than anything was to know that I was not the only one who was hurting so much. That feeling – that burning desire to have my experience validated – was very much on my mind when I decided to write this. I want any other athlete who may be struggling with life post Olympics to know that they are not alone.

More generally, I want any person who has experienced depression – regardless of the duration or severity– to know that they are not alone. And even though it’s rarely discussed, it’s something that affects even the strongest people in the world.

Which leads me to my next reason: to demystify. I think a lot of people view Olympians as being superhuman. In order to reach the limits of human potential, we must be immune to the internal struggles that are central to the human experience.

This notion is further perpetuated by the image of Olympians that is portrayed in the media, an image that I am responsible for contributing to in the buildup to Rio. I conformed to the norm of publicizing my highlight reel while conveniently omitting the bloopers, convincing those around me that everything was perfect. I couldn’t let my competitors know that I was on the brink of overtraining or that I had so much anxiety that I wasn’t sleeping, so I hid those facts from the world while choosing to share the things that made me look better. It felt like something I had to do at the time, but I also hated that I couldn’t be honest about my reality.

The thing is, I don’t want people to think that my life is all wonderful all the time. It’s necessary to talk about the hard stuff, in part because struggle lays the groundwork for success, but more importantly because to not talk about it would feed the false belief that Olympians are beyond ordinary.  The truth is that we Olympians are humans – impacted by feelings, susceptible to pain, capable of doubt.

My goal here is not to expose some dirty little secret of my fellow athletes. I am just one person, and I can only speak to my own experience. But for this particular Paralympian, here’s what I can tell you:

I fall down a lot. Sometimes I get back up immediately, and sometimes I’m down for longer than I’d like to let on.

The internal struggles that we all face – the questions of worth, the uncertainty of my life’s purpose, the disparity between how I feel and how I think I should feel – are battles that I fight every day.

I believe that these shared struggles can connect us to each other in ways more beautiful and more profound than the highlight reels can do.

And I think it’s time we start talking about them.