The Longest Mile
Trigger Warning: This is about my experience with an eating disorder and may be triggering to those who have struggled with eating.
If you asked me last year where I would be today, I would not have told you that I would be rowing at UNC. Back then, all I could think about was breaking the school record on my high school track team and waiting to hear back from the Naval Academy. But to understand everything, we have to go back to my freshman year of high school.
I have been an athlete all my life, and I have always been incredibly competitive and driven to succeed. It was always my nature in both athletics and academics. Because of this, I knew from a young age that the Naval Academy was the perfect school for me. It was prestigious, academically challenging, and would provide me with a sense of purpose as I prepared to serve my country. I did everything I could to get in, one of which was to be heavily involved in sports.
I tried many sports before my freshman year of high school. But having always been a decent runner, my parents encouraged me to try out for cross country and track. I closely followed the training plan that summer while also training up to twice a day for triathlons, going to extra weightlifting practices, and continuing to play on my travel softball team. By the end of the summer, I was unable to stand up after my runs because my shins hurt so bad. I limped my way through tryouts. They hurt so bad that I had to go to the doctor, where I found out I had several stress fractures up and down both my shins due to overtraining. Even though I made the team, I lost my cross country season and the chance to do winter track. During the next two seasons, I suffered the same fate. I battled a broken elbow, more stress fractures, and a broken ankle. I barely raced at all over the course of my freshman and sophomore years.
By the time I made it to my junior year, I felt extremely defeated. I lost my confidence and competitive edge. I had also loaded up my schedule academically, was in leadership positions in clubs, and had a job. I put too much on my plate. I was petrified of not meeting the expectations of my coaches and myself on the track, so I started making excuses for myself. I told myself that I was injured and that I was not able to compete or train because of that. I would have panic attacks at hard practices and races, and I failed to perform. During my junior year, I qualified for states in the 1000m run, but I never came close to beating my qualifying time again that year. Mentally, I had deteriorated.
I became increasingly more overwhelmed, and my grades and times worsened. I typically looked to these numbers for validation, but when I didn’t get the results I wanted, my self-esteem plummeted.
My coach pulled me from the post-season of spring track that year. Although I was disappointed, I became determined to use the summer to fall back in love with running. I wanted to give myself time to gain my confidence back. I thought the way to do this was to train even harder on my own. Between my intense training and summer job, I wasn’t eating much. I started to lose weight exponentially— I began to spiral. I started counting calories, weighing my food, and I became obsessed with only eating foods that the internet deemed healthy.
My attempt to control my results on the track through my weight became out of control and developed into an eating disorder.
Although, I didn’t know I had an eating disorder at this time.
I noticed how much faster I was feeling in pre-season workouts. I had the best winter track season yet. I continued dropping time, and weight, all the way until the spring track season. My confidence went through the roof and I was convinced that the twenty pounds I had lost were why I was running faster. The scale was another number for me to focus on and control. I was trapped, and I didn’t even realize it. The problem was that I was seeing results on the track, and I went without injury for the first time ever in my track career. I was so desperate to hold onto my success that I did not want to admit I had a serious problem.
In the spring, I ran the 800m. We had a new coach that season, and she pushed me to hit times in races that I had never attempted to achieve. After the first meet of the season, I dropped eight seconds off my previous record in the 800m run. I began to set my sights on breaking the school record. I also started thinking about reaching out to college coaches— specifically the track coach at the Naval Academy, as it had remained my biggest dream.
In late March, I got an email from Navy telling me that I had gotten in. I was ready to accept my appointment and email the track coach about my late-season success and my plans to walk onto their track and cross country team. The next day, however, I had an appointment to discuss my weight loss. That day I was diagnosed with anorexia.
I was nearly hospitalized for my extremely low heart rate, and I was told that I was not allowed to exercise whatsoever.
I disobeyed my doctor’s orders and continued to go to practice. However, I did change my eating habits and managed to gain enough weight for my doctors to allow me to finish my season. Although I was gaining weight, I continued to drop time— I felt ecstatic. Seeing my performance improve and how much more powerful my body became with healthy eating made recovery easier. If I hadn't been able to run track and become comfortable with gaining weight, I don't think I would have been able to start the recovery process as easily. I was excited and ready to go to the Naval Academy as a healthy, strong track athlete.
Then, on April 30th, just two days before the May 1st decision day, I was medically disqualified from the Naval Academy and my appointment was rescinded. I had to pick a new school and UNC was the only school where I hadn’t declined my admission offer, so by default, I ended up here.
During the remainder of my senior year, I continued to focus on track and broke the school record in the 800m run three times. I finished third at states before my season ended. I still wanted to run in college, but I was not quite fast enough to run at UNC. I was deeply disappointed because I knew I could have run at some other schools that I applied to, and I knew that I could have run at Navy.
I felt like my eating disorder had taken away another huge piece of my life.
Nonetheless, I got ready to come to UNC and tried to look at new opportunities. I remembered a girl on my high school track team who walked on to the rowing team at UNC. I thought it might be worth a shot to try out. I decided that I did not care what sport I was a part of— I just wanted to be an athlete. I made the team, and I found that it really helped me buy into UNC as a school. It pained me to feel like I was not where I wanted to be, but being an athlete and having teammates again helped. I found that having something to be a part of made adjusting much easier. I was enjoying the structure practice provided, and I thrived on the routine that I created for myself. My grades were good, I had wonderful new friends, and I was somewhere that I belonged. Despite still missing track and thinking about the possibilities at the Naval Academy, the pain started to subside. For the first time in a while, things were looking up.
After winter break, I started spring training and noticed a pinching feeling in my right hip. I chalked it up to bad form at first and tried to fix it, but no matter what I did, my hip killed me after every practice. As the pain continued, I decided that I had to go see sports medicine. After several appointments, I was told that I had a tear in my labrum. The injury was not very serious, but I also learned that my hip structure was deformed. In short, my hip socket was too deep and my femur fit into the socket at an angle, causing the pinching that I was feeling and my labrum to tear. Because of this, I was told it was probably not in my best interest to continue rowing unless I wanted to have hip reconstruction surgery.
I was completely devastated, and I felt my athletic career slowly slipping away. I went to practice that afternoon not knowing how to tell my coach what the doctor had told me. I was prepared to have to medically retire and lose something that had helped me adjust to UNC. To my surprise, my coach told me that I could become a coxswain. For those unfamiliar with rowing terminology, the coxswain is the brain of the boat. They sit without an oar, and they have the responsibility of motivating and giving technical cues to the rowers. I agreed to start coxing, but my disappointment remained. At this point, it had been one setback after another.
I started to believe that if I had been able to attend the Naval Academy and run track, none of this would have happened— that my life would have been better.
The range of motion in the hips required for running is not as wide as the range of motion required for rowing. My hips do not have a wide range of motion due to their improper structure which is why, despite many other injuries, I never had issues with my hips in track.
I obsessed for weeks over how to get away from everything. I felt stuck with so many pieces of my identity shattered. I was no longer going to the Naval Academy, I was no longer running track, and I didn’t even feel like an athlete because I was not physically training. My life felt out of my control, and I struggled to cope. I started to consider other options outside of UNC.
Despite my doubts, I continued to regularly attend practice and classes. I tried my best to push through my obstacles. As I continued coxing, I started to find little things that I enjoyed about it. I loved that my new role involved interaction with more rowers, especially upperclassmen. I also found that I liked the coaching aspect of coxing. I helped my teammates improve their technique and achieve their goals. Over time I started to feel that with practice I could become a decent coxswain. This gave me hope.
I was forced to adapt over the past year and to make the best out of difficult situations. So far, I have learned to prioritize myself and my mental health.
I have learned to use what free time I have to practice self-care and to find things to be thankful for. I now know how important it is to fuel my body, and I have allowed myself to take a break from training. I am trying to understand that my injury was a sign from my body. My body showed me the importance of rest. I started to understand that my life does not depend on numbers— numbers do not give me reassurance or validation for who I am as a person. A faster time in a race, a grade on a test, or a number on the scale has started to matter less to me. I found more clarity in my academic and career goals with an understanding of how much I love being around athletics. I recently declared a biology major with a second degree in exercise and sports science, and I have started thinking about becoming a physical therapist, athletic trainer, or potentially even a coach.
Finding a path for myself and developing a healthier relationship with both my mind and body have helped me immensely.
My team is the most important thing to me. I had quite a bit of uncertainty in myself as a walk-on student-athlete. I felt like I didn’t belong when I was with other athletes in different sports. But I quickly found a sense of belonging with the girls on my team. I never feel like the upperclassmen look down on me or that people are trying to edge me out. I spend the majority of my time with my teammates and that creates a special bond— especially as we work to improve together as a team. They are part of the reason that I am sharing my story now, and they are a large part of why I am still at UNC.
I am still working on accepting everything that has happened to me. I still struggle to deal with the disappointment that I have felt over the past year. Like my story, I am still a work in progress. I am still trying to find the lessons that all of this has served to teach me. But as I continue my journey as a Tar Heel, one thing is true: I have finally found a family here at Carolina— a family that I’ll cherish no matter what my future holds.
- Sarah Overby