Letter to Newcomers (in the University of Akron Zips)
London, 22 November 2008
(Slightly edited version of my original letter.)
I was invited to put on paper thoughts about my experience as an Akron Zip. I have been thinking about what I could tell you, students and athletes at Akron, that could be worthwhile and perhaps helpful. I don’t wish to preach to you — I suspect you probably get enough of that anyway :-) — nor do I want to give you advice for which you didn’t ask. I can only share my story.
I came to Akron in August 2002, as a 20-year-old. I came from Poland, where I was born and grew up, only travelling abroad for short holidays. Before applying, I had never heard of Akron, and I didn’t know anyone there. I must mention here that back home, the US is, or at least was at the time, portrayed as a ‘better world’, where dreams are made reality, THE PLACE to be, where everybody is happy, affluent and where you can achieve your full potential. Originally, I intended to stay for only one school year, so I booked a return ticket for June 2003. (This meant Christmas away from my family for the first time as the ticket was just too expensive). I came to Akron full of hope, motivated, bold, audacious, curious and ready to embrace new experiences. I thought of it as an adventure; I would continue my studies in Poland after it was over in less than 12 months.
The first couple of weeks at Akron were easy and pleasant. People were helpful and taking care of me as I arrived alone. It all seemed a bit incredible and surreal… From the sheer idea of studying abroad (and not only abroad but in the US!), through the application process that involved lots of travelling around Poland, bureaucratic form filling and multiple exams, to the plane trip itself which started at 3 am and took 24 hours before I finally arrived at Akron-Canton airport! I was never so tired in my life and never as alert at the same time, trying not to get lost at various airports, asking people for directions with my broken English.
Then it all started. Classes, practice every day at 3:15 pm, competition and travel nearly every weekend, physio after practice, homework, team meetings, pasta dinners… Add on top of that learning English and studying in English simultaneously, trying to organize a new place to live, a phone line, dealing with countless formalities as an international student, and most importantly, trying to perform well in every race. At the time, I was by far the fastest distance girl on the team. I felt I was running away from the other girls trying to catch me up in workouts and races. Instead of confidently embracing who I was and what I was capable of, I feared losing my position. I was not yearning to achieve more, and I didn’t really believe I could be a better runner, despite all the inspirational ‘sermons’ of Head Coach Mitchell ;-). I felt under enormous pressure knowing people counted on me winning races. Very quickly, I realized that being a foreign student-athlete was very tough going, quite literally blood, sweat and tears. It was hard work every day, leaving little time for anything else. (By the way, the tight schedule is in my view also a deliberate strategy to create a system of control). An ambitious and nervous person by nature, I put pressure on myself to rise to every challenge and, soon, I found myself overly worrying about everything and never being able to relax. I could hear the clock ticking in my ear. This made me stressed, anxious and robbed me of all sense of humour. I had issues sleeping and eating, and I was consuming huge quantities of diet coke and other sugar-free soda. I broke down in tears seeing a doctor for a small injury — he said I was mildly depressed and offered some pills. I refused. By Christmas, all I wished for was to hide somewhere where I could be left alone to just be.
Despite difficulties dealing with the new reality, I had an excellent cross country season, still running on batteries charged up during my 20 years growing up in Poland on my Mum’s good food. I qualified for the NCAAs Cross Country Championships in November 2002 and had a great race despite an unsatisfying 49th place. Then, the indoor track season started, and soon after the outdoor season, with a measly two-week rest in between. Distance runners have a rough ride having to practice and compete August through June, leaving little time to recuperate before preparing for the next season. My outdoor 2003 season was also good, with a 10km personal best of 34:30 at Penn Relays — my only, but special PB that season. (Perhaps, if we had more opportunities to compete in quality distance races as opposed to attending meets where we could score the most points as a team in all various distances — this translates to budget allowance the following year — there would have been more BPs for me and all of the distance team; this is what ultimately matters most to a runner…). I qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in 10km, but by June, I developed a chronic groin injury from running around the track always in the same direction (10km is 25 laps!). I continued to train and went to the NCAAs. Nineteen minutes into the race, my groin cramped up badly, I dropped out and was taken off the track.
That is pretty much how my running heights and the toughest year of my life ended. I was offered to complete my studies at Akron and decided to come back after summer, but my running was never the same — basically a string of injuries and feeling emotionally drained. I was not able to train properly. I managed to complete a couple of decent races and contributed to team success and two MAC (Mid-American Conference) team titles. Still, individually, I did not achieve much during the rest of my 4-year running career at Akron.
I completed my undergraduate degree in International Business and, in May of 2007, graduated with an MBA in General Management. Soon after I left Akron and moved to London, where I live with my boyfriend, work and run every day. I run according to how I feel and do not check my pace.
From what I wrote above, my Akron experience must seem dire. It wasn’t. It was a precious period in my life. I learnt more than I maybe would have over a lifetime had I never left Poland. I experienced a different world and could now compare it with my life before and with what I had seen on TV. I gained a good education, which is now paying off with job opportunities. I travelled around the US; I have been to more states than probably most ordinary Ohioans! I was able to take my parents on a trip to see a chunk of the US, including the Grand Canyon — a real adventure considering that they lived under a communist regime the majority of their lives and never had great opportunities to travel, and also that my Dad grew up steeped in the nostalgic vision of the wild American West exported via Holywood Westerns to his local movie theatre behind the Iron Curtain. I met some great people and made close friends: Tricia, who took me under her roof; Denis, best discussion partner and mentor, Bobbie, Yohann and Carl — my sparks of light in gloomy times; and many others. I owe a lot to them.
I spent a total of 5 years at Akron, 4 as part of the team. They were tough years, particularly the first one. They were also crucial in shaping who I am today. They changed my understanding of the world and forced me to put my head down humbly. I understood that it was not only about me; it was not about me at all. It was a hard lesson, which I think made me a better person. Despite the tough time I had at Akron, I remember it fondly, and I wouldn’t exchange it for anything else.
I owe a special thanks to coach Scott Jones. He was the only person in Akron I had spoken with before going there, and he was the reason I chose Akron out of the three scholarship offers. He was there for me the whole time, albeit with a large girls distance team to manage as well. I admit, sometimes I hated him for all the things he made me do. I know he must have hated me too at times because I was a rebellious and difficult athlete to deal with. But, I learned a lot from him, and our challenging relationship created a strong bond. Scott, thank you for everything you have done for me. You have a special place in my heart.
I suppose I do have something to tell you after all. If it gets hard, remember that it will only make you a stronger and better person, so don’t give up and do your best. Live your life, time passes quickly, and none of us gets a second shot at it. Enjoy good moments and spend time with people you care about. There is time for everything — study, practice, rest, fun, even craziness — the key is to find balance. Enjoy your college times while they last, soon you will be looking back with nostalgia. Above all, believe in yourself, not in a big-headed way, but embrace your talent and the help you get from your teammates, coaches, the Cross Country and Track programs, your family and friends. You are capable of achieving great things. If you did not have the talent, you would not be a student-athlete at Akron today. The remaining ingredients — hard work and belief — are in your own hands. ‘Success’ is a personal journey. So don’t be afraid of trying with all you’ve got. If it doesn’t go the way you wanted, you can choose what to take away from that experience. You can focus on the negative or turn it into opportunity. Every bad thing brings about something good and beautiful. It is up to you whether you want to see it.
P.S. Thank you, Coach Jones, for asking me to write this letter.
- 3000m: 9:40 (Wroclaw, Poland) & 9:50.19 at Akron (Akron U update)
- 5000m: 16:54.73
- 10,000m: 34:30.25, PENN RELAYS, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, April 24–26, 2003 (pics)
- 2002: Cross Country
- 2003: Cross Country (pics)
- 2005: Cross Country