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The Darker Side of the Track Stars

How far would you push yourself to be the best? Running is a gritty sport that requires determination, focus, and extensive repetitive training. Only those with a strong mentality tend to thrive in this sport, but when does the desire to succeed become obsessive? The intensity that comes with becoming one of the best runners can be stressful, and has a tolling effect on the mental health of individuals in this sport.

Shawnee High School is a South Jersey School that had a distance- running dynasty. In 2018, they were the #4 team in New Jersey. Shawnee Cross Country athlete Laura Mavracic experienced the pressure of high-intensity athletics firsthand, and it damaged her both physically and emotionally.

Starting at the age of 16, Laura began to suffer from a chronic gastrointestinal disease called Chrons. While she was dealing with this ailment, her coach and team continued to put pressure on her to compete, and she continued to push herself despite having a serious health ailment.

“The best runners are the skinniest,” said Mavracic. “I felt I had to under- eat and over-train, I really didn’t want to let my team down.” This led to malnutrition that caused stress fractures in her lower legs. To this day, Laura says “I have not competed in over 3 years and I feel running has destroyed me. My body never fully recovered from it, and I lost my love for the sport.”

Grace Kearns was one of Laura’s teammates in high school, and now runs division 1 for Monmouth University. She said, “I still love cross country, but not like I did in high school. Running for college is much more difficult, and high school already had me feeling burned out. I feel I have to make sacrifices, and don’t get to enjoy life and do social activities that normal people my age do. I’m so preoccupied with what I’m eating and putting into my body, and the rigorous exercise I have to do to keep me in shape. I feel like I’m going insane sometimes.”

Mary Cain once was one of the best female runners in the country. She was running record-breaking times by age 17, and was the youngest athlete to be on a world championship team. The Nike Oregon Project is one of the best track teams in the world, and the coach, Alberto Salazar, recruited her to be on the team.

Cain got slower rather than faster when she joined this team, and suffered back- to back injuries for years. She eventually came out and shared her story of abuse at the hands of her coach in a New York Times feature. The program was so intense that they were pushing her to lose more and more weight, restricting her diet. She developed an eating disorder during her time with Nike, and the malnutrition led to her getting stress fractures in her legs. She eventually came out and shared her story with the world, emphasizing the tolling effects that a sport can have when one is overworked.

According to the NCAA, student athletes are 1.5 times more likely to suffer from poor mental health, and 1 in 10 athletes report feeling so depressed its difficult to function or get out of bed. Athletics can be a positive and motivating experience when it is done healthily, but far too often people test their limits and damage themselves physically and emotionally. It is important as an athlete to be aware of these risks, and advocate for mental and bodily health.

Dr.  Zoe Salaman is a clinical psychiatrist who specializes in and works with athletes who are struggling with their mental health. She said, “The issue many young athletes have is finding balance. Many of the individuals I treat have been athletes from the time they were young, and it is much of what shapes their identity and defines their self- worth. It is important as a coach, fellow teammate, or friend to keep an eye on those who are involved in high- pressure sports activities, because it is easy to go off the deep end.

Dr. Salaman advocates for the NCAA to take the mental health of its athletes more seriously. She suggests that athletes are provided with accessibility to therapists and mental health services that tailor to their needs. She also advocates for NCAA to check the clinical history of athletes that they recruit to make sure they don’t suffer from any serious mental illnesses.

She said, “It is important that athletes are only competing if they are mentally healthy and fit for the challenge. There are far too many suicides amongst young athletes, and there needs to be reform in the system to ensure that sports stay fun, and aren’t detrimental to the health of its participants.”


PHOTO COURTESY of Monmouth University