In this post, I give you a complete narrative of my personal track and field experience. I document the highs, the lows, and the (eventually career-ending) injuries. I describe the successes, the failures, and everything in between; the mental health battles, the sacrifices, the brutal scrutiny, the love/hate relationships that developed, the exhaustion and physical agony, and I try not to spare you any details.
Full disclosure… I initially wrote this for myself. I didn’t really intend for it to go anywhere (until I did). In the effort of participating in the trend of “full transparency,” I – after much deliberation – decided to post this for those that were interested. I want people to understand that the reality of being a high-level college athlete is far from pretty. Stop glamorizing it. I know good and well that some of you could use a behind-the-scenes anecdote to solidify that idea.
Anyway, let’s get to it. I’d like to begin boldly with the statement that, coming into college, I bought into the idea of being a college athlete. I absolutely submitted myself to track and field; I felt like I’d become borderline enslaved to the NCAA for the last three years of my life. Ooh, three years, woo-hoo. “That’s not very long – you’ve still got your whole life in front of you,” most experienced adults would tell me. Mmhmm, sure. But my three years is a bigger percentage of my life than theirs. It feels longer.
Let’s go back. I want to start you off with a timeline. I’d been high jumping since I was 12 or 13. Now that I’m 21, we’ll call it eight years of high jump total – although when I was younger, my time and attention was certainly not focused on it. So, five years of track along with other sports, then my three collegiate years of only competing in the high jump. Hours of practice a day, roughly six days a week, for three years.
Here comes my statistics brain...
I’ll say I averaged 2.5 hours a day of practice (including warm-up, workout, event specific training, lifting, and core/prehab). This is probably a generously low underestimate. I’m not counting all the other things that went into being a high-level athlete at Georgia. The countless meetings, video sessions, treatment (!!!), medical appointments, nutritional scans and consultations, sport psychology and counseling/therapy, travel, competition preparation, and who knows what else? Not counted. The amount of time my mind was consumed by the sport – lying in bed at night, in class, watching film on my own? Not counted. Okay, you get the picture. Let’s continue with my generously low time estimate. 2.5 hours a day, 6 days a week, about 45 weeks a year, for 3 years. It comes out to about 2,000 hours. Of just practice. I’ll let you estimate all the other factors I mentioned but didn’t include.
In this world, time is money. And for some of my teammates and friends, I watched the time they put into the sport turn into money. Time turned into success, which turned into money. Not that money is the end-all-be-all, but in a sport like women’s track and field… there’s not much money in it anyway. So, it became even more impressive as I watched my teammates, friends, and the pros that we trained with experience lots of great successes over the years: NCAA champions, Olympic teams, collegiate records, national records, etc. The list goes on and on.
While I’m on the record, I do want to get one thing straight. I truly never desired to go pro in this sport. Sure, there were moments where I caught glimpses of that dream – the day I jumped 1.90 in practice, the day I competed with the pros at the Olympic trials – but it was never my dream. Frankly, I had seen the raw, ugly truth of being a professional track athlete up close, and it was not pretty. Have you ever wondered why all the best female track athletes are models, too? Ever wondered why the successful ones are not always the best in their event, but the most well-known? Why some incredible athletes go under the radar for years and are eventually forced to retire because they can’t make any money? The short answer: it’s a popularity contest. And I wanted no part in that.
So, yes, I knew my track career would come to an end sooner rather than later. And I was okay with that.
Contrary to how it may sound, I’m not bitter. I realize that I’m fortunate; I know that I fared better than most young athletes around the world in my sport. During the peak of my high jump career, I was consistently ranked in the top 100 female high jumpers in the world. Of any age – high school, college, or professional – and of any nationality. I competed for Team USA in Finland at the U20 World Championships in 2018 and again in 2019 at the Pan-American Championships in Costa Rica. I qualified for the US Olympic Trials and held my own as just a teenager amongst the pros. I have numerous All-American statuses (whatever that means) and I jumped my collegiate personal best for 5th in the U.S. in the best track and field stadium in the world. I’ve gotten to travel all over the country, consistently, competing in this sport. I promise you, I’m very grateful. My faith community, which I clung to all through high school and college, urged me to be constantly, whole-heartedly, actively thankful for the opportunities I was presented with and where they led me. All the glory to the Lord.
This isn’t just about the athletic experiences; I received a free college education, too. The value of my education is unmatched. Honestly, it’s why I decided to participate in college track in the first place. It saved me from debt. On the days when I really didn’t want to go to practice, I’d remind myself that being an athlete is like a full-time job. I had to show up to work to get the paycheck – my undergraduate education. I could talk endlessly about how grateful I am to have been able to use my God-given athletic ability to pay for my college education, but I’ll save you. Just know that I’m quite appreciative of the doors that high jumping opened for me; it meant a great deal to me.
I got an education, phenomenal friendships, stellar connections; I learned grit and determination, leadership skills, mental toughness, seemingly impossible time management, how to deal with all different types of people, how to display the type of passion that motivates others, and more. I got enlightened by my involvement in this sport. But I also got mental health battles that I never saw myself struggling with. And the icing on the cake? I got injured.
Not the teeny weeny my-leg-hurts-and-I-need-a-month-off type of injured, but I got chronically injured. Painfully injured. I got the there’s-not-really-a-solution-to-it injured. The you’ll-just-be-in-pain-all-the-time-and-have-to-deal-with-it type of injured. The best kind, obviously.
I could write a book on my experience with this stupid injury and how I handled it. Or – more realistically – how it handled me. I really could. For the purpose of giving you a behind-the-scenes look at college athletics, however, I’ll just try to summarize it and integrate it into my narrative as best I can. I mean, I wouldn’t be in this position – writing this – if the injury didn’t occur. Okay. Bear with me.
It began in December of my first year in college, 2019. I went to my trainers complaining about back pain – when I was lifting, when I was practicing, when I was sitting for extended periods of time – and they sent me to get scans. They told me nothing really came back on the X-rays, so I got an MRI. When I met with the “football” doctor (the PA on staff that works with UGA Athletics), he essentially informed me that my scans came back clean. Little things were mentioned, such as the possible overextension in high jumping and incorrect lifting form, which he said most likely contributed to my excessive muscle tightness, spinal inflammation, and back pain. I was prescribed strong anti-inflammatories and sent home.
Let’s fast-forward a year. This is not to say nothing happened in that year… it was the beginning of COVID-19. My back hurt on and off that year, but nothing I couldn’t handle. I’ve constantly been told by doctors and medical staff that my pain tolerance was high. In high school I had my first knee surgery on a torn meniscus that I got scanned after a year of running, jumping, and playing volleyball on it. It took me a year to go to the doctor, who was absolutely appalled that I could even walk because my cartilage was shredded. So I say, light-heartedly, that at the time I thought there truly was nothing wrong with my back. The outdoor season was canceled that year because of COVID, and hardly anyone was in Athens to train. Training became lower volume and less aggressive on the body.
As we came back to school in the fall of 2020, I went through another year of intense fall training. And heavy, heavy lifting. Imagine being sore and exhausted almost 100% of your days. “Oh, but this week is recovery week!” my parents would say when I complained about how bad I was hurting on the phone. I shudder just thinking about it. “Recovery weeks,” which came around once every 4-5 weeks, were almost worse. Yes, they were lighter, lower volume – but your body would be aching trying to rebuild your muscles and catch up with the beating it had taken. And then… a smooth 7 days later, you’d be back to the grind.
Again, in the interest of giving you a true perspective of the ugliness that is college sports – picture a bunch of very young, athletic people. Now imagine these folks completely passed out after workouts, unable to walk out of practice. I vividly remember one of those workouts in that treacherous late summer Georgia heat.
After set two of whatever circuit we were doing that day, I picked my head up off the grass to see if my teammates were taking it as hard as I was. One of my teammates was lying motionless face down on the field. One physically couldn’t breathe, and the trainers were rushing to hook her up to the oxygen tank. One had their head in the trash can violently throwing up. One was rolling around on the field (like me) trying to alleviate the pain. I don’t even know if what I saw through the stars floating across in my vision was completely accurate. Let me tell you, I was seeing the light. My roommate came home that day and said the trainers checked her heart rate when she was passed out on the grass, declared it was over 200, and the coach told her to get up and run.
All that to be said, don’t take the words “fall training” lightly. Boy, we went through it. But you’d be in the best shape of your life when Thanksgiving came around. That was typically when we started doing event-specific training, since the indoor season started in January.
By the end of that year’s fall training, I was hurting. My back was in shambles. I was in so much pain that I could hardly function. I couldn’t sit in class, I couldn’t do a light power clean, I couldn’t run, I couldn’t do my schoolwork, I couldn’t sleep at night. I did schoolwork in 10- or 15-minute increments at the desk in my room, because I simply couldn’t sit for longer than that. In between, I’d foam roll, stretch, reheat my heating pack, tighten my back brace, and shed a tear or two. Big sigh, then back to work. The back pain was unreal, and there was no relief from it. There was no sitting, standing, laying position that I could find to give me relief from the pain. Each day at practice made it worse. My lifting became justifiably pathetic. I finally went to the medical staff and convinced them that something was very wrong.
A few X-rays and MRI’s later, I was back in the doctor’s office looking at my images. This was around November 2020, nearly one year after my previous appointments. He informed me that my simple stress fracture from last year had morphed into a much more serious issue called spondylolisthesis. Essentially, one of the vertebrae in my lower back had slid forward and slipped out of place onto the vertebra beneath it. It was treatable, but in my event… it would be an ongoing problem. The entire preface of high jump is overextending your back over the bar. Throughout the next couple of months, we experimented with treatment plans to mitigate the pain. With constant rehab, limitations in the weight room, and modifications at high jump practices, I was able to lessen the level of pain I was in during my everyday life. Not to say that it was pleasant, but it was manageable.
I jumped both indoor and outdoor seasons that year. At practices, I did everything in my power to avoid physically high jumping, and instead, I would do drills. The act of arching myself over the bar – backwards – and landing in the pit on my neck (as I, unfortunately, tend to do) was excruciating. It would have me posted up in the training room and laid up in bed as much as possible for the following few days.
Yes, I jumped that entire season. But no, it was not fun. It was far from pleasant. It took a toll on me. I had many nights, alone in my room, filled with misery, questioning, regret, and a sprinkle of anger. I lay in bed awake for hours and hours because the pain was too foul to go to sleep.
Over time, I learned the cycle. I knew what I could do to manage the pain after practices and meets. I knew what treatment did help and didn’t help. I knew what meds to take, when to take them, and how many days before a competition I needed to start taking the strong stuff for it to be at least somewhat effective. That year, I was on a lot of drugs. Pain meds. Anything and everything. I had to clean out cabinet space in my room to make space for the whole frickin’ pharmacy that I collected.
I competed at every meet that season. I jumped pretty averagely – good enough to stay competitive, but bad enough for me to be constantly frustrated with myself. I successfully made it to NCAA indoor nationals in March, finishing 13th with a lousy 5’9.5” jump, and then NCAA outdoor nationals in June, finishing 5th with the best jump of my college career, 6’0.5”. There was nothing quite like jumping in one of the best track and field stadiums in the world. Track Town USA: Eugene, Oregon.
We, Georgia women’s track and field, finished third that day. Third in the country! We brought home a trophy back to Athens, and all six of us – yes, it just took six athletes – worked incredibly hard for those points. I was proud of my team.
Next up, Olympic Trials. Biggest meet of my career, also in Eugene, Oregon. I could elaborate quite a bit about my experience at the Trials, but that’s not the point of this post. It’s simple, really; I was beyond ecstatic to have even qualified, to have a chance to jump with the pros and compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. However, I had to jump at the Trials less than 6 days after I jumped at NCAA’s… and boy was I hurting. I did the best I could with the hand I was dealt, but I never expected to beat the pros (broken back or not). They had years of experience on me. It was an honor to simply be competing.
With my season then over, I hightailed it to New York City for my summer job, where I taught kids to wakeboard and waterski on Jamaica Bay. I chased another passion of mine, and I had a blast doing it. I removed myself from track and field for almost three months before fall workouts began again. It was a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Then I went through fall training for the third time. This time… with an entirely new coaching staff. Over the summer, our head coach left UGA and the new hire pretty much cleaned house. I went into my third year blindly. New head coach, new jumps coach, new operations people, new teammates, new roommates. Many of my old teammates (and friends) had transferred because of the coaching change. All four of my roommates left. I stayed because I wanted to finish my degree (read: I cared about school). But it really felt like I had transferred, too.
After my flight back to Georgia that August, me and my very full suitcase waltzed in the front door of my house the day before classes started, and I met my new roommates. We exchanged shy little “hi’s” and went through the formalities. There were four different girls living in my house. Strange. Not bad, but strange. Facebook really brought me one of my best friends that year, so maybe it was a blessing in disguise.
There’s another aspect of college athletics I’d like to mention now, and I saw a lot of it with five female athletes in one house. In aggregate, I lived with 11 girls by the time I graduated. Through that, and through my teammates and friends, I witnessed my fair share of eating disorders. Food/nutrition is such a huge part of high-level sports, and it’s often overlooked.
Without going into specifics, I observed many athletes that I knew struggle through eating disorders – and most had no idea that they had it. I saw and heard the telltale signs of them. I watched as those athletes wondered why they were always injured, why they couldn’t ever recover, why they had no energy at workouts. I would just lightly encourage better eating behavior. I didn't think it was my business until it began harming the people I cared about. Then, it was partly my business. For the most part, athletes would cyclically work themselves out of the habits, so it was never a huge deal. However… at other schools, and in other sports, I’ve heard some horror stories. Understandably, the sport of track and field is a breeding ground for eating disorders. You have to be in amazing shape to compete, and you’re constantly comparing yourself to the athletes doing better than you. Maybe if I just look more like she does, if I could be built more like her, then I would perform better, you trap yourself into thinking. It’s track, swimming, and gymnastics, I’ve noticed, that had it pretty bad. The sports where how you look matters, to a certain extent. The sports that are individual sports. Your relationship with food can make or break your athletic career. It’s also something to look out for as young athletes grow up in sports.
On a related note… mental health. I’m happy to be a part of the generation where mental health is more openly discussed, but the passive chatter about how important mental health is in sports just doesn’t cut it. I watched my teammates and friends struggle with unnamable issues. I have seen people quit, take necessary breaks, go home, drop out, transfer, etc. all for mental health reasons. Athletes have to be so tough, mentally. You can’t be physically tough if you’re mentally soft. Just imagine keeping it together as you’re on the starting line of the 100m dash at the Olympic Trials, knowing that the next 10-ish seconds will determine the trajectory of your life. Crazy, right? But it’s very real. And for us field events; it’s staying calm, collected, and focused (that’s the hard one) for hours and hours at a meet.
Sports psychologists, counselors, therapists, mental health advocates – you name ‘em, Georgia had ‘em. They were there to help. So we all went to therapy. I don’t think that was the best solution to the problems we were facing, but at least they were trying. My issue was the medications that they seemed to prescribe so easily and happily. Couldn’t sleep at night? Meds. Symptoms of depression? Meds. Signs of ADHD? Meds. Low energy? Meds. It was absolutely absurd. Now, I grew up in an environment that promoted facing and tackling the issue itself, rather than masking it. That was made clear by my parents. Modern solutions also cause modern problems. Maybe that’s traditional of them, maybe not. Either way, all this pill-using was bizarre to me. My parents were also very surprised that I was going to therapy. I’d admit – it was a little out of character for me – but I’ll end my tangent by mentioning that I, personally, had an extremely positive experience with the mental health staff at UGA. I certainly felt like I was falling apart at times, and the guy I saw did wonders for me simply by being a friend.
Alright. Tangent over. (If you’ve made it this far, I’m genuinely surprised.) Back to the story.
It was the fall of 2021 and I was going through the hardest fall training of my life with the new coaching staff and administration. For 10 weeks, I was no longer a jumper. I was a sprinter. I’ve got loads of respect for both sprinters and distance runners alike; I mean, imagine showing up to practice every day of your life (for years) and asking Coach what you’re doing that day. The answer would always be the same. “Running.” How terrible.
Needless to say, I died at those workouts. But come Thanksgiving, I was in the best shape of my life. (Only to stop working out with the sprinters and lose my fitness… so what was it all for?) But I felt proud. I didn’t miss a single rep of a single workout all fall. I had no idea that my body was capable of what it did that semester. And then, as we began jump-specific training, I couldn’t do too much because of my broken back. I had all kinds of modifications in the weight room, and when my training group would high jump at practice, I’d just run high jump approaches. It was frustrating watching everyone do what I couldn’t.
In the training room, one of the only things I found that worked for me was needling. Every time I high jumped, I would go to the training room and my paraspinal muscles dry-needled afterwards to try to mitigate the amount of pain looming in my near future. Ten needles, shoved in at an angle towards my spine, left to marinate for a few minutes. I was thankful that I had found something that helped, even in a small way. All other types of treatment had been pretty unsuccessful, so needling became my regular routine.
Not only could I not practice much this year, but I was in painnnnn. Pain pain. My broken spine took a real toll on every aspect of my life… and I hated the fact that athletics bled over into my regular life. I was in pain 24 hours a day. For a while, I couldn’t function without a back brace. I excluded myself from normal college activities because I would rather lay in bed. I lost the desire to be social, and it was an impossible task just to face society. It took everything in me just to sit in class. And when I was sitting in class, the last thing I could do was pay attention. I might as well have just stayed home. But nooooo, I’m a perfectionist. I made myself go to class. I hated missing class.
As an athlete, you miss so much anyway. I missed classes all spring, every year, because we traveled every weekend. I missed out on so many opportunities for summer internships because the season ran through May and June. I missed other teams’ sporting events. I missed out on having a job – earning some kind of an income – in college. I missed out on studying abroad and being able to travel in general. I missed opportunities to gain career experience and build my resumé. I missed out on going home to see my family and friends during some holidays. I missed out on fun activities and events because of early practices. I missed sleep. I missed going to away football games with my friends. I missed out on the chance to go to the college football national championship when Georgia won.
All that – because under no circumstances could I miss a couple days of workouts.
I’ve always been aware of the sacrifices that it takes to be a good athlete. I knew all of that going into it (minus the extra sacrifices that it took because of COVID). I’m not upset that I missed those other opportunities – I wouldn’t know what to do without athletics. Being a regular college kid sounded dull to me. I was happy to make the sacrifices to pursue my dreams of being a great high jumper. It’s just, well, sometimes the Lord has other plans.
I had recurring mental breakdowns in the following months. I realized my athletic potential was deteriorating. I was jumping lower than I had my freshman and sophomore year of high school. How embarrassing. Not only was I not jumping well at all, but it was super painful some days to even practice. And if you can’t practice your sport… well, then it’s extremely hard to be good at your sport. And I was not willing to fully give up my physical health and mental stability just to get a few high jump reps in during training. It was a precarious balance. To make it worse, it seemed like I was losing my friends because I found it so difficult to be social anymore, given how busy (and in pain) I was. I was taking some of the hardest classes of my life, writing a senior thesis, traveling and competing for track, applying to master’s programs, and trying to figure out what to do with my life after my upcoming graduation.
I was spiraling.
Deep down, even before I went in to talk to my trainer that one day in April, I knew that I couldn’t continue high jumping. Over the years, I had learned to tolerate the sport I once loved. It’s depressing, really. It happens. I didn’t want to admit it in those previous few months, but I knew.
We talked about medical retirement. We talked about what that would mean for my scholarship. We talked about potential options. We talked about surgery. We talked about what I could (and would have to) do in order to live with this injury for the rest of my life. It was tough to talk about, but it felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders. A light at the end of the tunnel, if you will. I couldn’t imagine a life without constant precautions and pain management, but the thought of being potentially pain-free certainly excited me.
For goodness sakes, I’m twenty-one years old. I sound ancient. “Looking forward to being pain free!” I sound like I’m 75 and just had a total hip replacement. Geez.
Anyway, I made my decision then and there; I was going to medically retire.
I made the decision to pursue other things that excited me and benefitted me; other things that I was good at. I made the decision to remove myself from an environment that had become slowly toxic to me. I made the decision to prioritize my physical and mental health. I decided to go to graduate school and focus on my education. I made that decision with no other influences.
It took some of the pressure off me for the rest of the outdoor season. I officially graduated with my degree in economics and international business (and a minor in Spanish) in just three years. I got to travel, hang out with my team, and compete as a D1 high jumper for the last few months. I tried to have fun with it again. There was nothing at stake. Unfortunately, I never again high jumped very well. I was consistently jumping around 5’10”. I jumped that same bar at almost every meet in the outdoor season. I’d finish the event… say hi to my family briefly if they were there… and go get needled. I learned how to bear it.
The season wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad. I was soaking up my last few moments as an athlete. I certainly cried the last time I hit the pit at regionals. It’s an end and a beginning; bittersweet. I had the wonderful support of my coaches, teammates, and friends. I truly was surrounded by the most incredible people and support system, and I definitely didn’t deserve it. Y’all know who you are. I’m so appreciative of you, so thank you.
To Madie – for urging me to take the leap and put myself first. You reminded me firsthand that athletics isn’t the end-all-be-all. Thank you for being by my side from my freshman year of high school until now. And for paving the way to retirement!
To Christian and Ashlyn – you both consistently supported me from a distance throughout my entire collegiate career, and you did it extremely well. It didn’t go unnoticed, and I’m so thankful.
To my teammates/neighbors/partners in crime – who have become my closest friends – you all mean the world to me. Quite realistically, I wouldn’t have made it without y’all. I’m sad to leave Athens, but I know the friendships will continue! Best of luck next year.
To my parents – from who I received the utmost unwavering support – I appreciate all you have done and continue to do for me. I am who I am because of you! Thanks for always being in my corner.
And to everyone else, I truly had the most amazing support system through some difficult years. So, thank you. If you actually read all this, first of all; wow, that’s impressive. Second of all, I’d love to hear from you. You probably have my phone number or email address if you made it this far. Or you can DM me on Instagram or leave me a comment below this post. I’d really appreciate it.
I’m excited for the next season of my life, and to see where the Lord takes me. For now, I’ve been enjoying retirement at home here on the Tennessee River, waterskiing to my heart’s content. My master’s program starts in July (more on that later).
For those asking about what I’m going to do about my chronic injury… well, sweetheart, it’s chronic. So I’m going to learn to live with it. I’ll spend the next year adjusting to normal life, and then reevaluate how severely my back still bothers me if I’m not high jumping (that overextension motion) and lifting heavy. Then I’ll return to Athens a year from now and discuss surgery or other options. There is a possible surgery where they’d go in and put screws in my spine to secure it back in place, but it doesn’t come without its negative effects and externalities. So, we’ll see.
Hopefully, this post opened at least one person’s eyes to the difficulties faced by college athletes that aren’t visible on the surface. That was my goal, at least.
I learned a lot in my last three years, but lately, I’ve been learning how to be nicer to myself. I’ve spent the last couple of years beating myself up, so now I’ve got to be gentler with myself. This includes putting my mental and physical health first. It also includes accepting the fact that I didn’t reach my goals in college track and field, and that’s okay. I gained valuable experiences and friends along the way. I’m not defined by my successes or failures. If everything turned out exactly as you expected, life would be boring.
I apologize for the sappiness and for the length. It's strange to be vulnerable on the internet. But... I figured if I was going to share my story, I wasn't going to do it halfway.
So, here’s to whatever the future holds.
– Shelby T.