Continue to persevere

Continue to persevere

Haley Menghini

The air glides right by my skin as I leap off the block with every bit of me. Three days prior, I missed my state cut by a few tenths of a second. Now, at the second shave meet, I have the same gut feeling that I’ll miss it again by just that much. I continue to glide through the water thinking about getting to that time of a 59.99 in my 100 yard butterfly. I hit the wall with an exhausted body, knowing that when I look up at the board, the time that appears will fall short of what I’ve been striving for the last two years. Coincidentally my eyes read the 1:00.48, forty nine one-hundreths short of going to state with the rest of my team. 

   That outcome became the defining moment of my whole junior-year season. It didn’t matter that I had put months of practice in, or woke up at 5:15 in the morning to get some yards in, or that I had a season best time. All that mattered was after months of strenuous self-inflicted pressure, I missed my state cut. The more degrading piece… I qualified the year before. 

   This kind of self perceived failure can do a lot to an individual. I couldn’t help but think I did something wrong, I didn’t train hard enough, or I didn’t put my all into a race. 

   What people don’t see in athletes, especially individualized sports, is the mental battle that they fight on and off of the field, track, court, or pool. It’s just not talked about because we’re forced to push that piece aside and be “mentally tough.” But what happens when you have an actual chemical imbalance in your brain, or repetitive thought process that you have no control over? When you can’t just push that battle aside because it’s affecting every aspect of your life? 

   All people saw in that race was simply the fact I swam a race and missed my cut. They didn’t see me crying in my car on the way home from the meet. They didn’t see me scrolling through social media the following weekend upset because all of my teammates were posting pictures of how much fun they were having, and I wasn’t there. They didn’t see the toll it took on me for the next six months. 

   But my former teammate Ian Miskelly once said, you “Continue to persevere.” Ian lived by this quote religiously. He was one of those individuals that you would never know had an internal battle constantly. He claimed multiple state championships, national qualifying times, and a scholarship to swim at the University of Michigan. All while accomplishing these things, he fought depression. Like I said, you would have never known because he was lifting others up, laughing at practice, and keeping up with his schoolwork. 

   That’s the issue. Athletes become masters at hiding their emotions and finishing the job in front of them, despite what may be going on inside their mind. I’ll admit, I’m guilty of it. I try to hide my anxiety, because unfortunately society deems me “weak” if I were to show it after a bad race. Though that constant struggle gets to be too much and there seems to be no way out.

   That’s exactly how I felt. Trapped. Eventually I learned to accept that I missed my state cut junior-year because it got to be too much. Not because I did something wrong, or wasn’t enough. I often find myself explaining to people that anytime I got into the pool I felt like I was swimming with a gun to my head. I simply just couldn’t handle that type of self-inflicted pressure anymore, and that IS okay. No individual should have to suffer through that kind of pressure alone. 

   After losing my former teammate (Ian Miskelly) to depression, I quickly realized that the conversation about mental health needs to be had. It’s difficult, and it’s scary. Especially when society places a toxic stigma around “mental issues.” A “mental issue” is a chemical imbalance in the brain, just like cancer is the reproduction of abnormal cells in the body. Depression is a disease just like cancer, and it needs to be treated, not abandoned. 

   I came forward about my struggle with anxiety to my teammates earlier this year, but on September 10 I went completely public with it. I had individuals reach out to me and thank me for being open about it because for the first time they didn’t feel alone in what they were experiencing. We need more of that. We also need to recognize that just because someone has a good day, doesn’t mean that tomorrow is going to be the same. 

   I’m still learning to navigate my thought process on and off of the pool deck. I’m in the midst of my senior year and I couldn’t help but think about all the pool time I lost due to the pandemic and apply that to the outcome of my season. I went into our conference championship doubting my abilities with the same gut wrenching feeling that I was going to miss my cut again, and I did. I struggled with the idea that for the second year in a row I was going to be the only girl in my senior class to not go to the state meet. But, just like Miskelly, I continued to persevere through every negative thought and qualified for state at our last chance meet. 

   Mental health struggles are not easy, and they never will be. As a community, let’s seek to understand. Mental health disorders are more common than you may think. Especially amongst the people who seem to do nothing but achieve success.