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Ellie McGee: Learning How to Unmask


Freshman year at a Division I rowing program, I was the coxswain for the Varsity 8+ at the NCAA Championship. We had won our conference and I was excelling in my sport. I was receiving praise nonstop from my coaches, teammates, and as you can imagine, my family was over the moon with pride.


But what no one knew was how defeated I was mentally. Out of nowhere, I fell into the depths of a depressive episode, during the peak of my freshman racing season. 


After battling with my depression for a few months, one night, I broke. My roommate was the only person who knew what was going on, and I sobbed into her arms until I fell asleep. The one thing I remember saying to her was “I feel like I am drowning. I feel like I am treading water in a pool that I can’t get out of. I am tired.”


This sentiment was all she needed to hear for her to realize I needed help. The day after, I received a call from my mother who had said my roommate had reached out. I remember barely even crying while on the phone with her. I was exhausted, I was numb, and I didn’t know how to fix it, or what was wrong. 


I started counseling nearly immediately after talking with my family and my coaches. One of the biggest things I remember saying in my first therapy session was that I did not know why I felt so sad. I had this incredible team, supportive coaches, and a loving family. I was the coxswain for our team's top boat as a freshman. There was nothing in my life that I needed to be sad about.


Two weeks after meeting my therapist for the first time, I raced at the Atlantic 10 Conference, and we won a bid to the national stage. Even with all my athletic success, I could not get out of the “drowning pool”.


Much of my depression resulted in me sleeping, missing meals, missing classes, and essentially languishing in bed. Nationals came around and I was at my lowest body weight. The day of our first race, I remember shoveling sand into a ziploc bag because I did not meet the minimum requirement for coxswain weigh-ins. As I shoveled that sand, I felt my eyes well up. 


But it was nationals. There are 89 Division I rowing teams in the nation. And 22 of them get to take the national stage. This was everything I had ever dreamed of. I could not let on to anyone that I was disgusted with myself. So I put on the mask of happiness, and I raced. 


Right before the night when I broke down to my roommate, I remember thinking to myself that I could never tell anyone what was going on. I did not want anyone to worry about me. I did not want anyone to feel burdened by my own mental health. Most importantly, I could not let my team down by not being my best. They needed me.


One of the jobs of the coxswain is to motivate the rowers throughout the race. I had become a master in motivating them to fight through the pain of a 2000 meter race, yet somehow I could not motivate myself to get out of bed and brush my teeth.


Throughout the depths of my depression, one of the most consistent feelings I had was shame. I was ashamed that I was letting people down. I felt ashamed because I thought I had no reason to be sad. I had just raced at NCAAs as a freshman. What could I possibly have to complain about? 


One of the biggest things that led me to recovery was when my therapist told me: “You need to learn how to respect yourself as an athlete, and love yourself as a human.”


In the end, I believe there was no “one cause” of my depression. With weekly counseling sessions, medication, and utilizing the tools I was given by my therapist, I slowly felt myself recover. I still see my counselor regularly, I take medication, and I have learned that being vulnerable is a strength. I am now in my junior year, and still coxing in the Varsity 8+. 


I had an incredible roommate, and now best friend, who did not stop until I got help. I had a loving family that wanted nothing but my happiness, and I had an amazing coaching staff that vouched for me to get into counseling. Because of these resources I was privileged enough to have, I am here today.


When we hear names of the athletes who have taken their own lives, I can only think about how they did not feel like they had the support system that I had. I am a Campus Captain with The Hidden Opponent and I am sharing my story in hopes that it will make even just one athlete feel less alone. Feeling weak does not make you weak. Reaching out and asking for help is what makes you stronger than most. Mental health services and support could have saved so many lives, and it will be my passion to fight for those who lost their battle with depression. 

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