[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I was invited to give a speech to the student-athletes from the conference I went to high school in. The speech is below-enjoy!
Thanks for having me. It's really good to be back home, I grew up outside of Colfax and it wasn't so long ago that I was sitting in a room like this, listening to someone like me talk about who knows what.
I graduated from Colfax High School in 2011. Just like you all, I was a scholar athlete. I was valedictorian of my class, ran cross country/track and played basketball as well. I was asked here today to talk to you about being a scholar athlete-what that means, what that takes, and how I’ve used the skills I learned as a scholar athlete in my life and in my career.
I started running in sixth grade, mostly out of boredom. At the time, I didn’t know what cross country was, but one of my friends asked me to join so I did. I’m really glad I did because I loved running. I loved how free it felt and how strong my body felt after a few months of training. I live in California now, and when I tell people that I graduated high school with 60 people, they can’t believe it. Sometimes they laugh. Sometimes they make jokes about me growing up in the boondocks, in a tiny redneck town far from everything they know and care about. Sometimes, they wonder what it must have been like to grow up in such a small place, where everything is contained and where the edges are always within reach.
What a lot of people don't realize though, is that being in a smaller school meant that there was continuity in my life that might not have been there otherwise. I was coached by Joe Doucette from sixth grade all the way through my high school career, and I’ve told a million people this, but he is, to this day, the best coach I’ve ever had. He was committed to helping every athlete achieve their full potential. If we showed up, he showed up. I remember training for the Footlocker National Championships which was a cross country race that happened after the normal cross-country season was over. So, one Saturday morning, I went to basketball practice and stayed after to run. Coach Doucette stayed with me and even ran with me as I did 1,000 meter repeats behind the school. Good coaches are rare, and I hope you all have experienced what having a good coach is like.
You might not fully understand, right now, the opportunities that lie ahead of you. When you’re young, there are a million doors you could walk through, a million choices you could make that can influence the rest of your life. Having a solid foundation, a solid community to turn to when you’re confused or need direction, will be invaluable to you. That’s the benefit of being in a small school that many people will never truly understand.
I was recruited by a lot of different colleges and ended up choosing Bradley University, in Peoria IL, where I ran cross country and track on a full scholarship. My scholarship was not entirely athletic though. It was about 60 percent athletic and 40 percent academic. School was always just as important to me as performing well athletically and having discipline in training naturally spilled over to having discipline in the classroom. I’m not actually sure which came first.
Being recruited by dozens of different schools was a heady and confusing experience. Every coach and athletic program was putting their best foot forward, showing me highlight reels, promising me that they could make me better. I spent a lot of time weighing my options, trying to figure out which school would be the best fit for me. There were dozens of doors I could have chosen, and I chose Bradley for a few reasons aside from their athletic program. I also wanted a smaller Division 1 school because all the large schools I visited felt overwhelming. And I wanted strong academics because I knew I probably wouldn't be making a living from running. After one of my visits to campus, I knew Bradley was a good fit. Sometimes we forget to listen to our guts instinct, and as you traverse the rest of your high school career and decide what to do with the rest of your life, I encourage you to check in with yourself. Lean into whatever interests and excites you, and step through those doors. Avoid the doors you feel pushed toward out of obligation or a sense of safety, even. Safety is sort of a lie we tell ourselves. Nothing is predictable, and life is too short to play it safe.
My college career ended up being a little different than I thought. I had some great successes my first three years before tearing the labrum in my right hip, which required surgery and a long break from running. I had never been seriously injured before. The coaches I had at Bradley were not the best and fostered a culture that resulted in a lot of us getting injured or developing eating disorders. They blamed poor performances on the size of our bodies and encouraged us to drop too much weight. I ended up not only with a bum hip but with a full-blown eating disorder that took years of treatment and therapy to recover from. Another thing that you might all understand more than most people is the pressure that comes with performing at a high level. Athletics is just as much mental as it is physical, and I encourage you all to take care of your brain just as much as your body. And, resist placing trust in others before you place trust in yourself.
Despite the ups and downs I experienced as a student-athlete, far more good came out of it than bad. Most of my close friends are people I’ve met through running. Not just friends who catch up every so often, either. I’m talking friends who have seen you at your worst and your best, friends who love when you succeed and hurt when you fail kind of friends. Athletics has pushed me beyond what I ever thought possible. The first time I ran ten miles, I couldn’t believe it. Same thing the first time I ran 20, then 50, then 60, then 100. Athletics challenges you, and when you come out on the winning side of those challenges, there is no better feeling in the world. And when you fail, as you often will, athletics asks that you keep on trying. Failure, to me, is synonymous with persistence. You didn’t fail unless you fail to try again.
I graduated with a bachelors and masters in English from Bradley because I stayed on for a fifth year after healing from my hip surgery. The upside of my injury was my ability to obtain another degree while still on scholarship. On the surface, my injury was devastating, but with time and perspective, I began to think of it as a blessing because I was able to graduate with two degrees without incurring any debt.
After I graduated, I worked in the nonprofit sector, first in Chicago for a housing nonprofit then in California for the American Red Cross. I was putting my degree to use, and raising money for nonprofits, which felt good, but I also outgrew my positions. Just over a year ago, I left the world of fundraising to work in sales for a company called RunSignup/TicketSignup. It’s a race registration/event ticketing platform, so now, I get to marry my skills of selling with my love for endurance sports and events. I never planned this. I simply pursued what I was curious about and kept opening the doors to what I was genuinely interested in.
I know attention spans are short, so here are four things to take with you today.
1. Place trust in yourself before you place trust in anyone else.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust anyone, but I am saying that not everyone is trustworthy. Find good people to mentor you, whether they’re coaches or teachers or people you work with. I’m still in touch with some of my teachers from Colfax, and some of my college professors. I still correspond with the first woman who hired me, and I still find people to look up to, who know more than I do, and who live with integrity.
2. Lean into what interests and excites you.
Most of you could do any job you wanted. You’re smart and dedicated and strong. But if you pursue something you’re not inherently interested in, your life will be a lot less enjoyable than it could be. When I chose to study English, everyone thought I’d be a teacher. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my career, but I knew teaching wasn’t it. In each job I’ve had, I’ve used the skills I learned in school and in athletics; things like discipline, openness to criticism, curiosity, persistence, and leadership skills. You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do for the rest of forever and you can always course correct but lean into what excites you.
3. Take care of your brain just as much as your body.
During my time in treatment for my eating disorder I had to unwind a lot of ideas that I had about mental health. It’s difficult to know when someone is struggling with mental health, because a mental illness looks a lot different than a broken arm or a sprained ankle or a torn ACL. In life you will experience difficulty, uncertainty, setbacks and heartache along with your successes and triumphs. Developing tools to stay mentally strong throughout all the changes life will bring you is an enormous service not just to yourself but also to the people you love.
4. And finally, you didn’t fail unless you fail to try again.
I can’t tell you the number of times I have failed. I’ve dropped out of races. I’ve gotten through five rounds of interviews just to find out that I didn’t get the job. I’ve submitted work to publications only to have every single thing I’ve written be denied. I’ve failed tests (no joke, I didn’t even get my driver’s license until the third time I took the driving test), and I’ve failed in relationship with others. But I came away from each failure with more knowledge about what I could do differently and how I could be better. And I think that’s one of the biggest lessons athletics can teach you; to fail a thousand times but to keep on trying. There are a lot of people willing to give up when they fail. Most people will give up after they fail a dozen times. But some people keep going, and learning, and getting better.
I also encourage all of you to keep pursuing athletics once your high school career is over, not just for fitness and health but for community and for a way to keep challenging yourself. The way I've done this is by running ultramarathons, which is again, not something I necessarily planned on. An ultramarathon is anything over a marathon in distance and so far, I’ve run about 15 of them including a couple of 100 milers. I hope to be running in the mountains for a long time, and I hope you all continue pursuing athletics for a long time too, and find ways to persevere, encourage others, and grow in the process.
I want to thank Michael Hodel and Coach Doucette for inviting me here, and I want to thank all of you for listening to what I had to say. And finally, I want to wish you well in your future endeavors. I don’t really know what I’m doing most of the time but reach out to me if you feel I might be helpful in any way.