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Paige Engel: Navigating Grief in Championship Season

TW: death

I got the news that one of my high school best friends died in a car accident after our last fall practice my freshman year. After only a few months of trying to find my footing and navigate life on a division 1 rowing team, my whole world collapsed. 

Freshman year was supposed to be fun and carefree. A place where students learn how to balance their education and become champions in their sports all while navigating the never-ending social aspects of college. After receiving the news, I was unable to do any of the “normal” college activities. Everyday tasks soon became impossible. I could barely drag myself to class and eat breakfast let alone wake up at 4 am to go to practice with a cheerful, go-getter attitude. 

The thing is, I’m a coxswain. I’m supposed to be the leader in the boat–the person who holds everything together. My role was to be the heartbeat, the rhythm that flows between rowers and gives meaning to each stroke. However, how was I supposed to keep eight girls together for an entire practice when it felt like I could barely keep my own heart beating? I had just lost one of my favorite people in the entire world and I couldn’t grasp how anything else was supposed to matter anymore.

Soon winter came around and although I had a whole team of coaches and friends who reached out to me, I had never felt so alone. I was so afraid of failure in my sport that I failed to even make an effort in taking care of myself. 

I remember one time during an indoor training session, I was running when all of a sudden I couldn’t hold back tears and collapsed into my friend’s arms. I hadn’t gotten more than four hours of sleep a night for over a month and I was exhausted. The grief I so desperately tried to bury resurfaced every single night as I spiraled thinking about both my friend and how I was going to survive practice in a few hours. 

Every athlete at some point in their life hears the same phrase: “leave your personal life outside of practice. Just get out there, do your job and forget about everything else.” Every day that winter I went to practice with puffy eyes and tried to put on a mask of happiness because I thought that's what was most important. My job was to be the motivator, to push the rowers towards the best versions of themselves. I thought I had to push aside my own feelings if I wanted to be respected as a coxswain. That in order to be the best, I had to let go of myself. 

I started to hate it. I dreaded going to practice every morning because I didn’t want to let myself and my teammates down by performing poorly. I felt like my best efforts weren’t good enough anymore, and it seemed like I was losing all of my progress I worked so hard to earn during the fall season. Even though I tried so hard, it felt like I would never be successful because I wasn’t able to come to practice and “let it go.”

Grief isn’t something that anyone anticipates going through. Over the past year I’ve struggled with the fact that my 100% looks different every day. Some days, my grief feels like it did that first day, while other times I’m able to breathe just a little more. Most importantly, I’ve learned that it’s okay to take a step back to take care of myself. 

When I first lost Danielle, everyone told me to keep going for her, to use every sad thought as motivation to live in her honor. At first, it seemed impossible. I hated the idea of using my dead friend as motivation just to get through another practice or race. All I wanted was for her to be here with me. But now, a year later, I try just a little more each day to keep going for her. 

Since then, I’ve taken every race as an opportunity to make her and myself proud. I finished my freshman year racing at our conference championship and took third place in our event. I finally started loving rowing, and myself again. 

Before every race, I write “for Danielle” on the back of my hand as a reminder that I have someone to fight for. The grief hasn’t gotten any easier, but I’m learning that I can still live a fulfilling life even through hard moments. At one point, I thought being the perfect coxswain was the key to success, but this past year has shown me that I have so much more to work towards. Taking time to heal from the injuries no one else can see is just as important as winning that gold medal.

Now, I try to make an effort to check in with my teammates because you truly never know what someone else is going through. Without my team’s support, I wouldn’t be where I am today and I hope every athlete who is struggling with grief finds the courage to speak up and keep fighting for their person. Even though every day is hard, I smile when I look down and see her name on the back of my hand because I know she’s proud, and I am too. 



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