Undying Self-Belief

Editor's note: McKenzie was a multiple all-state cross country and track & field athlete at Geneva HS with personal best times of 2:16 in the 800m, 4:51 in the 1,600m and 10:39 in the 3,200m. After a brief stint at Syracuse University, McKenzie found her way back home and is a sophomore at Bradley University.

The majority of my collegiate running career has been defined by patience. When I came in as a freshman I was told to not expect success right away because of the increase in competition. When I transferred, I was reassured that my talent would return once my body adjusted to the new training program. And when I got put in a boot this past summer I was told I wouldn't be able to do what I love or put any weight on my foot for months. I was told it would take time for me to get back to an elite level of running and I needed to be patient.

I've spent the past three years waiting and working for the success I had seen in high school to show itself again. For three years I've been fighting off the voice of doubt that told me that maybe I'd never be fast again. For three whole years, I've spent almost every day trying to reassure myself that I could do this, that I could still be good at a sport that I love. But after several weekend's ago I can finally say that I was able to prove to myself, the part deep down that knew better than to give up, that my talent never actually left, it was just waiting.

The collegiate indoors season is wrapping open and my team just finished out ours at the D1 Missouri Valley indoor conference track meet. I ran the first leg (1200m) of our DMR on day one, and the 3k on day two. This was my first time competing an indoor season for Bradley University and I had no idea what to expect, but that didn't stop my coaches and me from setting lofty goals; we wanted to win. This entire season was spent building my speed and my confidence. We knew I had enough endurance from the cross training I had done all summer and throughout the fall, so the goal became to increase my turnover. The logic was that if my endurance could keep me at the front of a race and I was still there with 600m to go, I'd be hard to catch in a kick to the finish. This was pretty much my race plan for the DMR as well as the 3k and overall it was pretty successful. My team took first in the DMR for the first time in school history and I took runner up honors in the 3k. And to put a cherry on top of an already unbelievable weekend, I also earned the Elite 17 award, which honors an all-conference (top 3 in any event) female athlete with the highest GPA.

From the outside, the weekend looked like a massive success, and even I would deem it as such, but what makes me proudest is that I know it didn't come easily. As I stated earlier, I've had to be so patient in my collegiate career. Through a very difficult freshman year, through a transfer, through intense mental health struggles, it has been so hard to not lose faith in myself as a runner. I've been tested in this sport, and this life, more than I ever thought was possible. So this success means more to me than I can describe, not for the metals or the accolades but because of the way I raced.

I'm a big proponent of the power of hard work. I've always believed that in this sport nothing is impossible, no time is unreachable, and no goal is too crazy to believe in, just as long as you work for it. Going into the Missouri Valley Conference Championship, I didn't have the top-ranked time in the 3k. I don't even think I was top three. It was also very likely that my coaches, my close friends, and I were the only ones that would have bet on me winning the race, and that's okay. And quite honestly, it really only matters that I believed I could. Something I've learned is that you can have fifty people screaming in your ear about how amazing you are, but if you don't believe it, their words won't mean anything.

The only reason I had success the championship was that I refused to doubt myself. But this wasn't an ignorant self-belief; this was my choice to foster an understanding that I didn't have to see the people around me as being above me. I realized that the pedestal I had taken myself off of, and put other people on, was entirely man-made and I could break it with a single thought of: "I deserve to be here." Every time I stepped on the line for a race this year I would look around and reassure myself that no one had to be better than me. Yes, their times or their previous accolades may be better than mine but that didn't negate my own ability. And this is where my error had been.

For so long I had been looking at the people around me and seeing them as untouchable. All I saw were times that were better than mine and this drowned me in the idea that I would always be inferior. But that's the catch 22, that mindset is what made me inferior. Everyone struggles. Everyone has worked so incredibly hard to get where they are. And for me, I could only rekindle my success by finding my confidence. This past weekend was the first time in three years that when I made a move to the front in a race I never thought about who might catch me. All I cared about, and all I thought about was that I was going to get to the line first, and I never doubted my ability to do that.

That's why I'm writing about my conference meet, I don't want someone to look at me and only see the success or the medals because that's not what I am. What I am is an athlete who has struggled with mental health and confidence and life, and has still found her way back to running success. And that is why I am proud.