My NCAA Story as a Gamecock

At the University of South Carolina

Audio version - expierence as a D1 athlete at the University of South Carolina

My NCAA experience at the University of South Carolina

I am doing Track and Field since I am 4 years old. I have always been an active, happy kid who had the most joy in competing (and ofc. I enjoyed the winning part too), more in about me. Despite some injuries during my time as an athlete, I never lost the vision of competing on an international level and never lost the belief in myself – until now?

The years 2018-2020 were challenging because I had too many stress reactions and stress fractures in my foot, and regular training wasn’t possible… However, I still believed in myself and wanted to see what I could really achieve, with the ultimate goal of competing in the 2024 Olympics (a goal of mine since I was 12 or 13 years old!). So I decided to move to the USA to compete in the NCAA for the University of South Carolina, to take advantage of the facilities and opportunities I didn’t have in Germany – with the motivation to reach my full potential in the 400m hurdles… Simply because the hole sports system in the US gives athletes way better options to do both, academics and high level sport…

In short: It didn’t work out that way, and it ended up being one of the most challenging times I’ve ever had. Today, I would like to give more insight into my experience in the USA and share the highs and the lows.

This reflection of my experience may seem quite negative, especially in the beginning, where I talk about my time competing, but I really hope everyone reads all three parts to see the hole story. I will reflect on everything that happened, and so far, I can say that I have learned so much from my experiences (especially the bad ones and I have grown tremendously as a person from them). I also don’t want to point to one particular person as the reason for what happened to me – as this was all just an unfortunate confluence of many different things happening coming from different people, including me. Lastly, before I start, I would also like to highlight that I don’t regret that step, and I would do it again with the knowledge I had in 2021. Even with the knowledge I have now, I still believe that the NCAA can help athletes grow to their full potential! However, with all the knowledge I have now, I would definitely have made my decision based on other things than I did 3 years ago – by for example paying more attention to the environment and noMy experience – like everyone’s – is unique and based on my individual experiences, and besides not being what I had hoped for, it was a time of growth, friendships and joy as well as tears and down times. But one thing I can say for sure, I will always be grateful for each and every experience that made me who I am today, and I would not want to miss anyone from my journey. So have fun reading!

After visiting 3 universities in the fall of 2021, I committed to the University of South Carolina in February 2022. I was so excited to start a new chapter as a graduate student there. In August 2022, I moved to Columbia, South Carolina, started my Masters in Biomedical Science, and practiced with the track and field team.

I knew that the transportation system in the USA is not the same as the one I am used to in Germany (even though we complain a lot that the train and the bus are always late, it is better to be late than not to be there at all…). This made the start even more challenging, as I had to find a car to take me to the medical campus. While the first few weeks were challenging in terms of adjusting to a new environment, culture, language and becoming part of the team, I was happy with the progress I was making on the track. This positive trend I saw in practice kept me motivated, and I regularly told myself that despite the challenges of finding my place in the team and the new environment, the reason I am here (improving in Track and Field) is working right now!

I wasn’t used to an entire indoor season. With my main event being the 400m hurdles, an event that isn’t offered indoors, the indoor season is not a primary focus for me. Still, it is an excellent opportunity to improve my speed in the 400m flat, which will eventually help me get better in the 400m hurdles for the summer season. I was excited as there are a lot of great indoor facilities, and I got the chance to compete and see the results in competitions now. With a good start to the indoor season and my second-fastest 400m ever to open the indoor season with an indoor PR, I was looking forward to more. However, the stress increased due to having a meet basically every weekend, traveling to many meets by plane or long bus rides and having way less time for school work.

In the following meets, I didn’t do great all the time – but not awful either – but I started to feel a lot more pressure that I had to improve my time, and my hamstrings were tender from the new impact and racing every week while continuing high-intensity workouts. Tenderness isn’t an injury, right? So I kept running on it… As it got worse, we changed the event from 400m to 800m because the pace is generally slower in the 800m, so my hamstring could handle the pace better – but shockingly, it didn’t get better either. Still, I was pleased with the results as I ran a huge 800m PR, even though that was not the plan in my preparation. Seeing these improvements, I was excited to start the outdoor season and finally compete in my event – the 400m hurdles.

However, I still wouldn’t say that I really felt like I fit in with the team environment, nor did I enjoy living in the US in such a small town where you basically can’t do anything. I had made a few good friends by then, so that was a plus, but I just wasn’t able to enjoy it as much because it was a lot overall. So, in addition to the outside pressure to prove that I was the right person to get a scholarship, I also put a lot of pressure on myself to do well – because I was only there to improve my track times, and this environment was the price for that. Because of all that, I became primarily fixated on my performance…

The outdoor season started in March with a track meet in the Bahamas – yeah, that was pretty awesome! – but when I started sprinting again, my hamstring started giving me problems again (what a surprise?!). So, in the first two meets, I ran the 400m hurdles and the relay, but I was thinking about my hamstring problems all the time and was afraid that I would pull a muscle at any moment. I managed to get decent times, but not times that made me or the coaching staff happy because we all wanted more – but my hamstring and my mental state at that point didn’t allow that… So finally, since I couldn’t run without pain anymore, we took a break and let my hamstring rest for two weeks, which finally helped – what rest can do is incredible, and sometimes just what you need… – but of course, it wasn’t perfect for the season, because I missed practices and meets.

So my first competition back wasn’t good, and I cried so much as this was all I focused on… That day was my grandmother’s birthday, and I called to congratulate her. I remember she asked me how I was doing, and I told her about my bad competition and that I was disappointed in myself and my performance. I’ll never forget her answer, how she said that she was sorry to hear that and that she didn’t want me to be sad, but that a bad competition was not the end of the world. She was proud of me and loves me no matter my time I run. She thinks it is excellent that I have the opportunity to have the experience of living in the USA and traveling to so many different places while doing what I love (and enjoyed…)—knowing that at my age, she would never have had those opportunities. This call showed me that at the end of the day, the people who love you care about your happiness and not your results in a competition.

However, that didn’t sink in yet, so when my hamstring was back to normal, I had to catch up – if that truly makes sense, I won’t go into it here (shortly, NO it doesn’t) – and just a few weeks later, I developed pain in my foot… After a week of constant pain, I talked to the ATS and my coach, but at that point, we were about to finish the regular season, and the championship season started… An MRI recommended by a doctor was postponed until after the season was over – and my pain started to get worse every day while I trained on it – what a surprise again…

The week before Regionals (this meet is the meet where you can qualify for NCAA Nationals, which is the biggest meet in the NCAA and a world-class meet!!), my pain became the worst it has ever been. I really could not walk a step without pain, so I was humping outside of practice and trying to walk and run as normal as possible in practice. For my pre-meet workout, I like to do 2-3 hurdles two or three times. To this day, I remember the pain I had after the second rep when I hit the ground after the second hurdle. It was a pain I don’t wish anyone, and after that, I cried: – 1. because of the pain 2 because I knew at that point that my foot was broken, and 3. Because I was afraid that I would not be able to finish the race that was in only two days. I couldn’t even stand properly.

So, I talked to my ATs and my coach separately. Both gave me the same answer: I let the pain get in my head too much, and I need to work on my mindset instead of focusing on the pain I have. Crying isn’t going to help, and I shouldn’t hump as my competitors can see that. Also pain that develops right before a championship season is often just pain that our brains make up because of stress. So the message I got was: Don’t listen to your body; you don’t have that much pain, and I’m just imagining the pain because I’m anxious about the race and looking for an excuse… So, I started asking myself if I really have pain or if I’m overdramatizing it?

At that point, I didn’t feel like I could speak up anymore, and I just sucked the pain in and did what I was asked to do. And that was to run the 400m hurdles preliminaries, the final, and the 4 x 400m, crying after every race because of the pain without anyone seeing me.

I also feel sorry for my parents, who flew all the way from Germany to the US to watch me run and instead had to see me in pain step by step, race by race. I can just imagine how much that must break every parent’s heart (Sorry!!); thank you for being there for me!

Shortly after that, I had an MRI and was diagnosed with a Grade IV stress fracture in my navicular bone, which required surgery 3 weeks later. Before I get into what happened next, I would like to reflect on what happened to me:

Reflection:

At the point when I developed pain in my foot and knew it was bone pain – because I had experienced it before – I should have stood up for myself and clearly said NO, I am not competing. I did not do that. This is my fault because I wasn’t brave enough to put myself and my health before the pressure and the need to compete for my school because I was afraid of losing my scholarship. It was always in the back of my mind that if I didn’t get the results that were expected of me, I might lose my scholarship – but that shouldn’t happen and shouldn’t be a fear for anyone because I was told that my scholarship was secure for two years. However, a somewhat natural, anxious, overthinking person could have that thought – ME -. So I wasn’t brave enough to say, “Stop, I want to get an MRI,” but I could and should have done that. In retrospect, this is easier said than done.

However, every athlete should know that your body is your body. You know what you feel, and if you feel pain, it is real, and it is not your role to question if it is really pain. It most likely is pain, and whoever you tell that you’re in pain, it’s their job to believe you – because they can’t feel what you’re feeling, right? A coach, doctor, or athletic trainer is never in the role of questioning your pain; this is a big no-go, and everyone has to learn and also respect the bodies of athletes first before thinking of performance. So while I should have set my own boundaries better, this is easier to do in an environment where you feel like you can speak up, and the staff should work on creating a safe environment for athletes!

Unfortunately, we all only have that one body we are given, and even though we want to perform as well as possible, we shouldn’t put our bodys health below our performance. Quite frankly, if you are injured, I can tell you that you will not perform at your best either. So, putting your physical health first is in line with wanting to reach your highest potential and perform the best!

After being diagnosed with my stress fracture, I went back home to spend the summer with my family, boyfriend, and friends. A week later, I got a call from my coach that he had gotten a better job offer from another university that offered him better opportunities for his future and his family – which he deserved! But for me, it meant that one of the main reasons I chose to attend the University of South Carolina would be leaving. A few days later, my head coach announced his well-deserved retirement – but then I started asking myself what it means when the head coach (who is in charge of all the scholarships) changes? Well, it means a lot of changes…

After these changes and a short turnaround, I had to fly back to the US to have surgery. The surgery went well, and the following day, I was in the rehab room, getting all the treatment I could. I got a call from the new head coach, who had just been announced, telling me that he needed to talk to me about “my situation.” I learned that there was a mistake made in the process of my scholarship paperwork, and the scholarship was not renewed for the next year before my old head coach retired. And he doesn’t have a scholarship left for me now, looking at my health status and recovery timeline.

So, as you can imagine, my world fell apart for a second… I was afraid of losing my scholarship all season long if I didn’t do what I was told, so I gave everything I had until I broke my bone and still kept running for the sake of the school – and still, my scholarship wasn’t fully secured…

So my biggest fear came true –it was not nice; it was really awful. But I kept breathing and living, and the world didn’t end.

I got to realize what a support system I got in that year, as everyone who could started helping to find a solution for me to finish my Masters, as at this point, this was really something I wanted to finish. I had a great experience at the School of Medicine and the environment there, as they always treated me as the person I was and saw me as “Elena” and not just an athlete!!! With all the support I got, we found a solution, so I was able to secure the finances to finish my Master’s getting my medical treatment without me having to take any student loans – while not being part of the Track and Field team anymore.

If someone had told me that a year ago, I would have been terrified. I was at the beginning, but I was relieved that there was a solution for finishing my Masters, and it ended up not being that bad; I had to recover from my injury anyway and couldn’t have practice with the team. Was this the reason I moved to the US? NO, it was quite the opposite, and this was not my plan at all, but that was the situation I was in then, and with help from my German- and now also new American support system, I was able to handle it. Fast forward I finished my Masters now and am back in Germany and really happy that I could close that Chapter!

In that time, I learned that I can’t control everything. No matter how hard I try to do things right, it’s just not always in my control. Worrying about it all the time will not take away the risk of something bad happening but rather the joy of the moment, even though nothing bad has happened yet. A lot of the meetings we traveled to, I got to see places I never dreamed I would see, like the Bahamas and New York. But I wasn’t able to live in the moment because I was worried about my performance, if I was good enough, if I really did all I could have done, and so on… I even realized that at the moment, that I wasn’t able to enjoy the present because so many things were uncertain and new, so I told myself that I would enjoy it all next year because this would be my last year – little did I know that there was no next year. That is one thing I regret! Not to live in the moment and enjoy it, but to say to myself, next year I will… Life is not as controllable and plannable as we would like, so you don’t always know what the future will look like. You can’t change the past nor control the future – so it is best to live in the present… (Cheesy but true…). There is only one thing I can always control, and that is my actions and reactions to situations that happen. So I put my energy into the things I can control rather than wasting my energy on worries I can’t control.

Also, as I mentioned before, I now have a support system in two countries! I made some great friendships, and I know that I can visit friends from so many different countries – because I made some really good international friends too. Going to a university with a diverse team is, in my opinion, a great added value for the team, as everyone has the opportunity to get to know different cultures and different people. From my experience, I also made some of my best friends from other countries because they can relate to your experience, as they probably went through similar struggles (you can read some of them in the following posts).

Next, I said that I didn’t feel at home in the environment I was in, which was mostly just the fact that I underestimated the difference between German and American culture in a smaller city. Knowing this now, I would choose a bigger city and probably closer to the coast, because “the closer you get to the coast, the more European it gets,” just to name one example, the food options… While being vegetarian in a city like Columbia, SC, this made the daily food choices more complicated than it would have been in other cities. But also the transportation system, the way cities are built, and the use of weapons are quite different from what I was used to and took for granted in Germany.

Finally, if you are able to visit different universities, do so! When I did this, I didn’t pay as much attention to the team environment and how I felt in the team during the visit and focused more on the times the team ran (which is important, but not everything…). The team environment is at least as important as the times the team runs, because that is the environment you will be in all the time. Ask people what the team environment is like. Talk to internationals on the team about how they like it, as this is the closest insight you can get while visiting. They can give you more insight than other people because they have been through things that you will be going through.

Even though my experience wasn’t the best, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from moving abroad because I learned so much about myself, made some lifelong friends, and got a cat – we basically saved each other’s life’s! However, while you are going through the process, it is important to consider more things than you might immediately think about.

I also think that in order to survive in the NCAA, or anywhere else for that matter, you have to learn to advocate for yourself and learn to read your signals and respect them. While this may be more difficult in some environments than others, it’s still something you have to learn, and I hope you don’t have to learn it the hard way like I did (you can trust me on that, I promise!). Moving to the US may have more risks, but it may also end up being the perfect fit for you, so don’t get discouraged, but rather do it smarter than I did. You can also reach out to me or other athletes if you have any questions and want some tips if you are thinking about making the move.

Thank you very much for reading it till the end. I appreciate each one of you.