I know there’s been a lot of personal sharing here on SR lately, but with the 40th anniversary of Title IX this week, Salty asked me to share my experience as a young female athlete. If nothing else, I hope it motivates you to support a young woman in your life, whether in sports, academics, the arts or any other pursuit.
When I was fourteen I spent the entire summer working toward running three miles just so I could join my high school cross-country team. I had never been athletic before and was absolutely terrified to go to the first practice but thankfully my big sister put me in the car and made me go.
I was by far the slowest runner on the team and even had trouble keeping up with the other girls on warm-ups; my big, work-my-butt-off goal that year was to run a 5k in under 30 minutes, where the next slowest girl was easily logging 28:xx at the beginning of the season. There was no way I was competitive, I wasn’t going to win the team any trophies and I could barely fit in the largest uniform, but I had one incredible thing going for me: my coach, Patrick.
Patrick was an amazing high school coach. He cheered hard and made sure to be in the desolate spots on race courses to help us when things got toughest. When I showed up at my first race and was excited that I ran a 15 minute mile he celebrated with me because he could see what so many other people couldn’t: I might not have been fast, but I was working as hard as anyone on the team. That first year I never did break 30 minutes, but I kept working through the winter, through track season and all summer long, knowing I had someone who really believed in me, knowing I had a partner who was as invested in my success as I was.
When I showed up to practice sophomore year I discovered Patrick had left for a different school, and the track coaches Mr. Y. and Ms. Z had taken over. I was sad but nonetheless approached my workouts with the same zeal as before, running my first race of that season in 26:32. Patrick was there on the sidelines for his team and when he saw me he was so surprised at my fast pace he started jumping up and down and screaming his lungs off! He met me at the finish and gave me a big hug.
It was great, but it made me realize something about our new coaches … I wasn’t getting any of that support. In fact, I was pretty much being ignored. Several new runners had joined our team and they were really fast. Mr. Y. spent his breath on those runners, not on the tail end of the pack. And whether she meant to or not, Ms. Z always seemed annoyed with my very presence. It made me feel terrible, to the point of tears.
Things changed for me after that. I became embarrassed and withdrawn, which only made things worse when I never had a partner for stretching and nobody to chat with in the locker room. I tried hard to hide the difficulty of our team warm-ups, but I often just didn’t feel like part of the team anyway so I’d fall behind. I wanted really bad to make friends with my teammates but I felt so different, separated by my lack of speed. This wonderful thing that had been the best part of a miserable adolescence had become just as lonely and miserable as everything else.
My junior year I was as slow as I had been my first year, and sometimes slower. My depression had gotten pretty bad by this time and I had gained weight and had a lot of anxiety about wearing those ugly blue shorts with the slits up the sides. I started the year off with a terrible car accident, missing our first race and it made me feel bad because I loved running so much. The coaches were even more distant with me. They barely talked to me, and if I had to talk to them they acted like I was bothering them. The alienation got worse but my heart told me I needed to hang on, especially since I felt like I was going crazy with all the sadness inside me. I knew cross-country was the one good thing going for me in high school but it really hurt that my one good thing was so lonely.
When track started up I finally got angry. I quit early on (because of the coaches) and ran on my own instead. I didn’t like their piddly little 800s anyway–I wanted mileage! I wanted to get that feeling back from when Patrick was jumping up and down for me, being my biggest fan. I wanted it really bad and if they wouldn’t give it to me then I was going to give it to myself! So I went back my senior year. I stopped caring so much about what anyone else thought and just enjoyed running. I even got back to my fast(ish) sophomore year glory! On both the boys’ and girls’ teams I was the only runner in the class of 1999 who ran all four years, and at the little award ceremony at the end of the season they gave me a three-year runner award.
*record scratch* WHAT?
They said my junior year didn’t count because I’d missed races (I missed two – one because of the car accident and one because of a conflicting mandatory school event), even though I’d gotten a three-year patch then and even though nobody had communicated any of this to me. After treating a teenaged girl like she was worthless for years they had the audacity to say she didn’t count, but not the courage to say it to her face. I was not only sad, I was furious! I even fought it with the athletic director but somehow, mind-bogglingly, I lost.
I’m still angry about it to this day. I often wonder what could have been for me if Patrick had stuck around, or if our new coach had been supportive of me. Would I have lost more of the weight that was such a huge part of my introversion and depression? Would I have broken 25:00, or run more races outside of school, maybe even continued into college instead of quitting and turning to a party lifestyle? I’ve found such happiness and peace from running now that I’m older; maybe I would have found it back then?
It’s futile to wonder what could have been, of course, but it’s also important to me that today’s coaches understand the profound effects they can have on their athletes’ entire lives. If Mr. Y had been the cross-country coach my freshman year I almost certainly would have quit and maybe never run again. As it is, I lacked the guidance necessary to thrive and reach my potential as a high school athlete, despite an intense passion for my sport and a dream of running in college. The only reason I didn’t pursue that dream is that I believed I wasn’t good enough.
Coaches, parents, and anyone else who deals with young athletes, please know that everything you say and do can affect their entire lives! It’s so important that we all work together to encourage young women in sport, because it’s so easy for them to get the wrong message. I’m lucky that I at least had a good coach experience to help offset my bad ones, but I know there are kids out there who are quitting every day because they don’t believe they can ever be good enough, especially girls, who are twice as likely than boys to quit sports in their teens.
I wish those coaches could see me now–not to show them how fast I can run, but to show them that they didn’t count. They lost and Patrick won, because he taught me to believe in myself and others! Not only am I faster than I ever would have dreamed back in high school, but I’m a runner who supports other runners and encourages them to be their best. I’m a runner who wears ugly shorts with pride, who loves track workouts and shouts a happy greeting to difficult hills, who wears silly socks just to make people smile, who jumps up and down cheering like a crazy person for people she doesn’t even know. I’m a runner who has succeeded just by knowing I can be great at any pace, and I will always thank my first coach for that!
What were your high school coaches like in running or other sports? Did you have to fight to stay positive in a competitive environment?