Editor’s note: This story contains sensitive material that could be a potential trigger for some readers. Read with care and caution.
I break leaves underfoot in controlled rhythms. The crystallization of my breath entangled in the crisp autumn air is proof that I am living, but I am not alive. A cold breeze cuts my lungs, but the air does not hurt as much as the bruises that speckle my torso. While these clothes protect me from the elements, the brush of fabric on my skin reminds me that this run will never hurt as much as the secrets I carry.
The miles do nothing to alleviate the crushing pain that my body feels. Still, I keep running and running and running. I have no choice. Someday, these miles will be my way out.
What does it mean to cross many finish lines on top, but never winning the race nobody knows you’re running? In high school, time and time again, race after race, I pushed myself to the brink. Exhausted, I would cross the finish line in first, second, or third and collapse. “That’s the runner we want,” everyone would say, “the one that knows how to push through the pain with a relentless determination for victory.”
Nobody knew that the pain of racing paled in comparison to what I endured. It was blissful on the track. I could forget— temporarily— but when I crossed the finish line, I would smack into my wall of secrets. Bouncing off this invisible and seemingly unbreakable barrier, its steely force would throw my body to the ground.
Unlike many athletes, I could never look to the stands for a support group. The constant reminder that I was utterly alone on this journey was glaring.
Applause and bits of track searing the flesh on my shoulder blades would awaken me to reality. Slowly the wall that only I could see would disappear. My body continued to become one with the track as I avoided the reality of a victory lap or post-race interview. Another record-breaking performance — but what could I say? I was given a microphone dozens of times, but nobody heard me. I was tired of running this race.
My body broke under-weight of medals. “Please,” I’d think, “can everyone just let me crumble at the finish line?”
“Stop calling it glory — it’s pain.”
During my high school career I stood on top of countless podiums. A string of top U.S. times, throughout both the indoor and outdoor seasons, cemented my place among the best in the nation. I traveled from coast to coast, running at meets like Brooks PR, Simplot Games, and New Balance Nationals.
Nearly 80 recruiting letters from all the top schools flooded my mailbox. I met with dozens of top college coaches and received a full-ride scholarship. I was the next great thing, they all told me. A beautiful runner with a vat of untapped potential. Running was my God-given gift. I was only beginning to see the fruits of my labor, but it’s lonely at the top.
For all who saw me, nobody really saw me.
As I expelled my demons in the trash can at practice, coaches would marvel at how much I was willing to take to become the best. The beads of sweat that dripped from my perfectly chiseled physique were the tears I could not cry. Practice was merely a test; a space to prove to myself that I could endure pain. Yet, it was never the workouts that hurt. It was the bruises. It was the psychological mind-games. It was the child abuse.
As a white girl from suburbia, I grew up doing (most) things by the books. I struggled in high school, but nobody attributed it to my home life.
I was the big-time athlete — checking all the boxes of someone that came from a good family and a loving home.
‘Star Athlete’ was a label that inevitably made sense of the less-than-desirable classroom performances. My first disclosure of the abuse occurred in elementary school. It should’ve been the last. In a single moment, I dared to trust an adult who had the power to change my life and get me to safety. This adult refused to believe me, and it murdered my spirit in depths that I still cannot articulate.
I didn’t look like what most people perceive to be an abused child. My disclosure was chalked up to seeking attention, and nothing but humiliation ever came of it.
How could I, the white child who comes to school dressed, fed, and well-kept, possibly be abused?
Years later, I learned that society avoided frank conversations on child abuse out of discomfort. I was taught, as a child, that my reality made people uncomfortable. Abuse couldn’t happen in our safe, quaint, white community. And yet, child abuse is a reality that many American children live with.
Statistically, 2.9 million cases of child abuse are reported each year in the United States. That does not account for children like me, whose disclosures fall on deaf ears or those who never disclose at all. The abandonment and re-traumatization I experienced from that disclosure endangered my life in various capacities.
Children who are exposed or subject to violence, whether physical and/or psychological, are 1200% more likely to attempt suicide. Young people who experience abuse are, on average, two to four times more likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol.
As a child, I thought I had learned one thing from the failed disclosure: nobody would save me — only I would save me.
More than a decade passed between my first disclosure and my accidental disclosure to a very attentive professor on my campus. Within that decade, I would attempt suicide. I know it is only by the grace of God that I survived.
Through a series of events, God guided me to my escape plan. At a well-loved track, surrounded by a rusty metal fence, I nurtured my gift. Running became my addiction. I poured my mind, body, heart, and soul into this sport.
It was my everything because I had nothing.
In high school, despite being the star athlete, I mostly kept to myself. I got along with many different crowds, but one of the hidden consequences of abuse is it allows you to keep acquaintances and nothing more. While most of my fellow classmates spent their free time going to parties, football games, dances and friend’s houses, I spent my free time away from practice in the boxing ring.
The muscles, bones, and ligaments of my body became something I guarded and cared for fiercely. To aid in my ability to subside the blows delivered to my mother by my drunken father, I spent time in the ring. These hours gave me a unique strength that I still believe provided me with a competitive edge throughout my career.
Years of pounding pavement and hours in the gym finally paid off when I arrived on my college campus. Still, that was only the beginning of a long, unexpectedly difficult journey.
For the first time, the only rules governing my life were my own. To my college coach, I was the typical white runner coming from a family and community of privilege. This statement is correct. I do come from immense privilege.
That privilege was also a roadblock for getting help.
Nobody ever thought or would believe I, the privileged white girl, needed it.
College was the beginning of a long battle that would test me both physically and mentally. It would also gradually renew my hope, faith and trust in humanity. At college, I’d learn that the decade-plus of abuse that had shaped my worldview would present its own set of unique challenges that I couldn’t run away from. When I wasn’t in fights with my coach — that stemmed from a controlling nature from both parties — I was at odds with my teammates over my unconventional behaviors and habits that were hidden protection mechanisms.
I was the butt of jokes, strange looks — that nobody thought I noticed — and ridicule. My coach would make it known how annoying it was when I chose to stay on campus for breaks instead of leaving.
“Why don’t you ever go home? Don’t you get tired of being here?”
The first and last time I went ‘home’ for Christmas, my college town was enjoying a particularly warm winter. When we arrived back on campus, I wore full tights and long sleeves for weeks. My teammates made fun of me for refusing to take off my long sleeves or run in shorts. They were joking at first, but comments proceeded to degrade me to the point where I was very uncomfortable. I laughed it off, saying I was cold, but I was trying to cover the bruises.
You see, it took me three years before I told a professor on campus. She remains the only person on the entire campus that knows my story. I am very careful to keep it that way. And yet, since far too many people don’t understand the invisible battle that abuse forces you to fight every day, reconciling my normal with everyone else’s normal is increasingly frustrating.
This battle, I’d discover, does not go away with a change of scenery. It’s a years long reconstruction process that has forced me to tear down everything I thought was normal. It’s a process that involves letting select people in and trusting that they have my best interest at heart.
It’s not isolating or living life in survival mode because I never know when danger is around the corner. The aspects that would make a successful college athlete and student were the very things I had spent my life living in opposition to.
Eventually, a lifetime of living fight-or-flight mode caught up to me.
As an elite athlete, the health of your mind dictates the health of your body. I have osteopenia and elevated cortisol — both discovered in college. My coach frequently called me a ‘crazy’ and told me I needed to learn to ‘relax’ as a result of my tense demeanor. When you come from a life of child abuse, there is no relaxing. Relaxing could get you killed.
Research shows that childhood maltreatment increases cortisol — otherwise known as your stress hormone levels — over time. Nearly all abuse victims have altered diurnal rhythm in cortisol secretion. That pattern of alteration is predicted by abuse characteristics such as its type, severity, duration and cessation.
Consequently, abused women, men, and children become accustomed to living with an elevated cortisol level well above normal range, which places tremendous stress on the body’s biological systems.
These elevated levels eventually create a new ‘normal’ baseline and force the body to function normally under prolonged stress.
As athletes, we know that prolonged stress can wreak havoc on our bodies. Elevated cortisol levels are known to interfere with osteoblast formation and dramatically decrease bone-building—resulting in reduced bone density.
My lifetime of elevated cortisol levels, resulting from child abuse, directly interfered with my biological ability to build bone density in my most formative years.
The numerous fractures I incurred, seemingly out of nowhere did have an explanation. The randomness of it all contributed to frustrations from my coach and myself, which resulted in a tremendously unhealthy coach-athlete dynamic that mimicked the abusive relationships I had dealt with my entire life. My default was to do what I had always done to survive: shutdown and fight back.
A frustrating contradiction that essentially meant we both stopped speaking to one another.
Why didn’t I tell my coach?
Although we’d like to believe that we’ve come far with athletes addressing their mental health, there is still a culture of tremendous weakness associated with coming forward among coaches and college teams. In the past, I had listened to my coach criticize depression or mental health problems with contempt, sometimes even directly referring to members on our team.
I didn’t want the coach to have another excuse for why I may be performing poorly, so I did what most athletes do. I sucked it up, put my head down and tried to navigate this new upside-down world.
I was used to doing things alone, but I am learning now that I cannot do this alone.
I had ended my college running career by the time I had my first PTSD episode. After months of injuries and an explosive argument, I made the most difficult decision of my life. I couldn’t keep fighting this silent battle that had become so intertwined with my running. For the first time in over a decade, I stopped running — literally and metaphorically.
I don’t remember much about my first PTSD episode. I do remember being terrified and confused amid the darkness of the night, having no recollection of where I was or how I ended up miles away from campus. When I gathered up enough ability to call the professor I disclosed to, they came to get me (thank you iPhone location sharing).
The next day she took me to my first ever therapy appointment where I began the long journey to healing.
What’s the point of a promising running career cut short? Well, I’m still trying to figure that out. Here’s what I know for sure. We never truly know someone’s story or struggles. What is presented to us, oftentimes, is merely a piece of the whole picture. Many abuse victims don’t recognize the extent of the abuse simply because that is their normal.
When I went to college, the shock of normalcy and watching my teammates interact with their families turned my world upside-down. I didn’t know how to deal with it, and my failed disclosure when I was a child taught me that I couldn’t turn to anyone for help.
Our lives are a series of interconnected events that are shaped by the choices of others. How we react to these choices can profoundly change the trajectory of our existence.
For those who are living under a shadow of abuse, I urge you (if it is safe for you to do so) to tell your story. Coaches, it is your responsibility to listen to your athletes and create a climate where it is safe for them to come forward and receive help without stigmatization. Presently, it is not safe for me to attach a name to this piece. This choice has nothing to do with my coach or institution.
Someday, I will share more with my name. For now, please hear this:
I am calling for all coaches to reevaluate the responsibility they have to their athletes. Their past is not of your making, but you have the power to help them change their future. Do not squander this tremendous privilege and your power.
I am calling on all athletics department staff members to be vigilant. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Do not ignore your gut feeling. To this day, I believe that my coach and other staff might have had an idea what was happening but chose not to act.
I am calling on all athletes to take a hard look at yourself and determine what it means for you to be a compassionate teammate. Be mindful of those who don’t have families present.
I am calling on athletics departments to administer, to all athletes, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Survey. The ACE score helps to determine those who are at-risk. Once these athletes are identified, they must be allowed the option to visit a counselor who will help them figure out how to manage a world that looks very different from their own.
I am calling on athletics departments to instate mandatory child abuse training for coaches. For athletes who have a background of child sexual, psychological, and physical abuse, coaches need to learn how to manage their interactions with these athletes as they begin to heal.
I am calling on athletics departments and the NCAA to recognize and talk about child financial, sexual, psychological, and physical abuse as openly as we discuss date rape, drunk driving and hazing on college campuses.
Each of these actionable items involves the NCAA, coaches, athletes, trainers and athletics departments moving past and leaning into their discomfort. The process of confronting the ills of society will be uncomfortable, but we cannot let the children who make it to adulthood continue to suffer in silence. Many do not come forward simply because mandated reporting on college campuses does not make it safe to do so. We must also access how to provide help to survivors of child abuse in ways that don’t involve immediate action from law enforcement, which has the potential to endanger the lives of those who are facing the abuse.
Today, I am running again.
I will never know what could’ve been of my career, but I know what is. I know that my God-given talent brought me to my college, where I began to confront my very not-normal reality. I’m coming to terms with the idea that is what running was supposed to do for me.
In college, though God’s work, I have been blessed with a new family who loves and protects me like I am their own. They are not perfect, but I am learning through them what love, care, and family can look like.
I am also learning, every day, how to live life unafraid.
I am learning that God gave me this talent to lead me to safety and to use my story to show others what life can be. I no longer hit that wall of secrets when I stop my watch after a run.
That doesn’t mean the days aren’t still difficult or the PTSD has gone away, but I move lighter now, without my body breaking under the weight of abuse.
What does it mean to be free? Is it always draped in golden victory?
Sunlight breaks the horizon, and a late-summer wind accompanies the cicada’s song. I no longer run for medals and records, things that once defined my career. Maybe that kind of victory was never the point. I’m finally winning the quiet battle that I fought for the first half of my life. I could never foresee, as a child, the ways that I would run both from my past and to my future. It is because of this gift that I am safe. I am hopeful. I am loved. I am alive.
I am free.
2x All-American Distance Runner
The Adverse Child Experiences (ACE) Survey:
The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: