Becoming a Champion

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Lucia Sanchez

Blood, sweat, and tears. That’s what it takes to become a champion, right? 

And then what? After you push yourself until you drop, after you win, after you abuse your body and mind to get to that one place you are so determined to get to, then what? Will happiness appear?

The mentality surrounding most high school sports, especially cross-country, is that you need extreme dedication, determination, strength, willpower, and self-discipline to succeed. Those traits are exactly the ones I have. So, of course, it came as a huge surprise to everyone when they found out in the middle of my high school career, that I was quitting cross-country. 

I was one of the top runners on my team. I had won the most “promising freshman” award in freshman year. By sophomore year, I had been voted team captain for the next season. From the outside, it appeared that I loved cross-country. I would work myself super hard on the workouts, cheer on my teammates smiling and high-fiving, and start to prepare myself 48 hours before each meet. I ran in the varsity meets every single meet. I never once ran for junior varsity, even when I was a freshman. I still remember reading the line-up for my first real high school meet, noticing that I was the youngest runner running with varsity on my team. Of course, I would continue running all throughout high school, right? I mean, how could I not? I had so much potential, so much talent, everyone would tell me. I was going to go so far with this sport.

Nobody was expecting me to fall into the deepest hole I had ever fallen into in my life. I wasn’t expecting it either. But I fell. I fell hard, and cross-country did not save me. In fact, it buried me deeper until I felt I would never get out.

Within the first 4 months of high school, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. I was brought into the hospital and diagnosed there, but a doctor was not necessary to tell that something was wrong with me. Many people noticed, in fact. I had dropped an immense amount of weight, my hair was falling out, my nails were turning blue, my heart rate was way below the healthy range. I, of course, thought I was fine. Yes, I have stopped hanging out with friends and could barely stay awake in class. And yes, I felt extremely anxious and sad all the time. And yes, eating anything sounded extremely scary and painful. But hey! I had just finished a great cross-country season. I had a stress fracture in my leg due to weak bones) but look at me go! I was doing great! In the world of high school sports, I was considered amazing. 

For those who have struggled with an eating disorder or have helped a loved one through an eating disorder, you know that recovery is a long process. I started my recovery journey on December 26,2016, just after my cross-country season in freshman year. I was not allowed to do track during winter and spring. The illness ruined my family. It broke it apart and everyone went through hell watching me fade away and kill myself slowly. 

Summer came and I convinced my family, doctor, and therapist that running cross-country was going to be the answer. I would finally recover once I got back on the team and started doing what I love most! I was still very unhealthy and it was still not safe for me to run, but I somehow managed to work my persuading personality in my favor. So, there I was, back on the team. Back with the mentality of pushing myself very, very hard. Getting mad at myself when I didn’t feel my head spinning or my heart about to bust out of my chest. If I didn’t feel so sickly tired, then I had done a very bad job. I would love to say that this was just me struggling with disordered thoughts, but a lot of people on my team were like this. At least two people cried after every meet because they “hadn’t pushed themselves hard enough.” My health deteriorated drastically during this time. When I was not at practice, I was sleeping because I had so little energy. I talked to few people. I sat in my room hating myself. Hating the way I had run that day, hating the way my body looked, hating the way I was making my family feel. All they wanted was for me to get better. Yet they worried every day that they were going to lose me. All the progress I made since December had been completely lost.

My coaches knew about my illness and tried to help me as much as they could, but they never really understood. I don’t blame them, because eating disorders are extremely difficult to comprehend. They were convinced that I was going to get better and be happier when I was with my team. My team qualified for states for the first time in school history. I still remember the day we qualified. Everyone was so happy. I thought I was happy too, but that day, I realized I forgot what happiness felt like. I had worked so hard for that moment, I thought, “Why am I not ecstatic? Why do I still feel like I am drowning, and nobody can save me?” 

When states came, I remember that day as the worst day of my life. I ran (in my disordered mind) a very bad time. Every part of my body hurt during the entire race. When I finished I dropped to the ground crying. I was not the only one. When I looked up, I saw my mom crying as well. She could not believe my frail, fragile body had just run so intensely. She could see the sadness in my eyes. She could see what the eating disorder was doing to me. I had hit rock bottom. I could barely breathe. Every inch of my body was screaming to please scoop me up and take me home and never let me run on the team ever again. But I got up, wiped my tears, hugged my mom, and told her I was fine. I was used to seeing my family cry. They got scared when they looked at me and saw how sick I was.

I look back now on that day and am baffled as to how I did not drop dead right then and there. 

At the end of that season, I was voted team captain. I faked a huge smile and said I was honored, but inside, I felt nothing. I felt nothing at all, ever. Just a numbness that seems almost impossible to explain. 

My recovery started up again after the season. Again, I was not allowed to run track, and a small part in me was relieved. There was no way I was going to be able to recover with the high school sports mentality of go go go, work work work, push push push. I needed to relax. I needed to find myself and find hobbies that made me feel genuinely good, without the immense amount of pressure and stress that high school sports gave me.

This summer, I decided that I have come far too far in my recovery to go back to cross-country. I was not going to put myself through that pain. “But Lucia, you are so good! How can you just stop?” “It would look so good on your college application that you were cross country team captain!” I would get comments like this all the time. I realized that I don’t want to throw away my life in high school and do something that does me no good, just for the sake of college. I am done with doing things because ‘colleges love that.’ What about what I love? Yes, I love running, but unfortunately, running cross-country for high school takes all the fun out of it for me. It brings me stress that I would once in my life happily deal with, but now I don’t even want to think about.

My health comes first. My health and my happiness. My recovery. I want to enjoy high school. If I go back to cross-country, it won’t matter what my college application looks like, because I will not be mentally and physically capable to even attend college. I am finally at a very good spot. I will not jeopardize it for the sake of college. I am living in the now. In the present. I am a good student, even now that I have reeled back the intensity of my studying. So, I will get into college. Life is not about breaking yourself in high school to get into your dream college. Life is about enjoying every single moment that you can. I now do so much that I love. I continue to play piano, I write, I travel, I do yoga, I hang out way more with my friends, I help  in the community. I recently traveled to Haiti to help build a school and learned and experienced way more than I ever would have running on my cross-country team, stressing out because I am not good enough if I don’t push myself to the limit every single practice and every single meet.

Of course, I wish my team the best of luck. Not just with the season, but with their life and happiness. I hope they all remain healthy and strong, not just physically, but mentally as well. I am grateful to have learned what is best for me, without caring what others think. I am me. I know myself. I know participating in the environment of high school cross-country means there is a great chance my eating disorder will be triggered again, so I will listen to my family and the professionals that helped me when they say that doing that is not the best idea. I still will occasionally run, but never with the pressure that the sport gave me. Simply for enjoyment. For relaxation. Maybe, someday in the future, high school sports will be different. They will not stop you from going on vacation with your family, and they will not keep you from socializing with your friends. They will put the fun back into sports. But for now, I am going to take care of myself and take care of others. 

Blood, sweat, and tears is not necessary to be happy. It is not necessary to be compassionate and helpful and understanding. Hard work is always encouraged, but make sure that you are doing it for something you truly love now, not for some future possibility, like college.

Lucia Sanchez is a junior in high school. She is recovered from anorexia and currently living life to the fullest. She hopes to help as many people as she can recover from eating disorders!