Crystal Nelson of Iowa State finishes in first place at the 2013 NCAA Cross Country Midwest Regional in Ames, Iowa on November 15, 2013. Photograph by Wesley Winterink.
Story written by Iowa State Athletics Communications student assistant, Kevin Horner
It started as shoulder pain, a defining characteristic of a runner returning back to form. She was a runner, after all.
This particular shoulder soreness, however, didn’t recede. It expanded. The pain, which was initially thought to be a broken rib, crept dangerously over the front of her shoulders toward her heart — and maybe her soul.
The pain returned to senior Crystal Nelson. It was worse this time, though. She couldn’t breathe. With every inhalation came a wave of sharp, debilitating pain.
“It was almost like someone was stabbing me in the chest,” Nelson said.
The doctors diagnosed it as pericarditis, heart inflammation, which for Nelson, a two-time All-American track and cross-country runner, meant at least six months of total rest — no exercise whatsoever. She was a runner who couldn’t run, but after all, she was still a runner.
Nelson had been a runner for her whole life, ever since elementary school physical education class. She was one of the few students who got excited when the mile test arrived. While some may have viewed the mile as an obstacle to get past, Nelson viewed it as an opportunity — an opportunity to beat the boys in her class.
And she beat the boys, but not always easily. Sometimes she’d run so hard that she’d have to throw up afterward. But it was worth it to beat the boys — to win the race.
She was a runner, after all.
Nelson carried her success with her to Ames, Iowa, to run for Iowa State. During her first three years as a Cyclone, Nelson earned All-American honors twice — among other accolades — and became just the second ISU cross-country runner to win an individual Big 12 title.
Nelson’s running career, since that elementary school P.E. class, seemed to have been building up until her senior year. Her level of success had increased from year to year, so naturally her expectations for her final year were high.
Then the pain came — in more ways than one.
The doctors didn’t know, and still don’t know, what caused the lining of Nelson’s heart to inflame. It could’ve been a virus. It could’ve been the hole in her heart that had been there since birth.
Nelson’s mind ran the gamut of emotions from shock to anger to depression as she tried to process the news.
“The entire cross-country season, I was seeing everyone doing the thing that I loved,” Nelson said. “And I wanted them to succeed, but at the same time, I was jealous because I wanted to be on the field with them, running for Iowa State.”
In her mind, Nelson was still a runner, but that mindset — the adamancy to remain something she couldn’t be at that time — began to have negative consequences. Her sole motivation was to return to her sport, her element, and, as a result, her grades began to drop.
“I felt like, ‘I’m [at ISU] for running,’” Nelson said. “I was recruited to run here. I felt like I wasn’t really here for academics, so I kind of let it go and didn’t really care.”
It made sense to Nelson. Nearly her entire life — her time, her money, her effort — had been dedicated to this sport. Now that running had been taken from her, the only logical option seemed to be to wait it out — wait until she could run again, be herself once again.
Nelson isolated herself from everyone around her. She was diagnosed and struggled with depression earlier in her career, and those thoughts began to amplify.
“My world just started crumbling,” Nelson said. “I felt like I was in this deep, dark hole that I could not get out of. I just felt hopeless. I felt like I wasn’t anyone.”
Everything seemed to move a bit slower for Kristen DeCosta as she touched down in Iowa to begin her gymnastics career at Iowa State.
Ames didn’t have the pace of Dallas, DeCosta’s hometown.
The Midwest had DeCosta out of her element, but that’s what she’d expected. She knew she would have to make sacrifices. She knew it might be rough, but she chose it.
She had moved out of her geographical element to remain in her personal element — gymnastics.
She began her freshman season focused — focused on proving herself, on keeping her scholarship, on being a successful gymnast.
DeCosta’s hands released the high bar during her bars routine as she launched herself into the air during an early season practice. She was attempting a jaeger — a flip on the uneven bars — but when she reached out to catch the bar at the end of her skill, it wasn’t there.
With a thud, DeCosta smacked the mat below, face first, as frustration boiled to the surface of her emotions. It was still early, but she had yet to prove herself. At least she wasn’t hurt, she thought. She’d have another chance tomorrow.
DeCosta awoke the next morning with a headache. She’d had headaches before, but not like this. This one was more powerful, more consuming. She had trouble concentrating. She could hardly keep herself awake.
“It felt like I was in someone else’s body,” DeCosta said.
She had to push these physical obstacles aside, DeCosta thought to herself. This was her time to prove herself — to show that she belonged as a Division I gymnast. She needed to know that she didn’t move across the country for nothing.
DeCosta struggled to walk straight at practice. She couldn’t stay on the beam. She couldn’t flip through the air. A couple of times, she got “lost in a skill,” DeCosta said. During a skill — mid-air, mid-flip — her mind would shut down, her body would stop its motion and she would fall to the ground. It was as if a gap had been created in her memory.
After athletic trainers tested her, it was evident that DeCosta had suffered a concussion. This evidence wasn’t limited to the gym either. Light and noise were amplified inside of DeCosta’s head. Homework became almost an impossibility because she couldn’t focus for more than 20 minutes at a time. Those weren’t DeCosta’s main concerns at the time, however.
“As a freshman, it is really difficult to be out of competition,” DeCosta said. “You don’t know much about how the system works, so you believe that the sole reason you are here is for your gymnastics. When you get taken out of that, it becomes a really scary situation.”
Fears began to replace focus inside of DeCosta’s mind. Would she keep her scholarship amid her injury? Would she compete at all this season? Was she qualified to still be a gymnast?
Her mind raced. She had moved here to stay within her element, but that’s not how she felt. She didn’t feel within her own mind and body, much less her element.
DeCosta’s concussion amplified seemingly small annoyances — like a homework assignment. This led to frustration, which led to more headaches, which delayed her recovery.
“I completely lost confidence in myself,” DeCosta said. “All I could remember was I did this, I messed up, I was out and it was my own fault.”
Doubts began to dominate DeCosta’s thoughts. She started to feel incompetent as a gymnast. Like Nelson, DeCosta felt isolated from the team as she couldn’t participate in practice or in meets. The team spent most of its nights practicing or competing while DeCosta spent most of hers alone in a dark room.
“Being injured, it is really easy to think, you know, ‘I’m not training. I’m not competing, and [the team] is doing just fine without me,’” DeCosta said. “‘Why am I even here?’”
Division I athletes often choose their paths almost immediately — because early is usually the only option. This path isn’t necessarily available later in life, or in high school even, said Jamie Pollard, ISU director of athletics.
A committed athlete can’t waste time, or he or she may be taken off course without enough time to return. There isn’t much time for anything outside of the particular sport.
“You can’t do [a Division I sport] part-time or ‘half-assed.’ You’ve got to go all-in,” Pollard said. “There isn’t time for study abroad. There isn’t time for internships. And that’s a choice you make.”
It’s a choice that may limit future choices, but it’s the same as any other commitment, Pollard said. If one wants to perform at the highest level, in any area of work, field or sport, one has to commit to that persona, that element, that identity.
With commitment naturally comes risk. The same may apply to student-athletes, Pollard said. If an athlete, who’s been training his or her entire life to compete at a Division I level, suffers a season- or career-ending injury, they might have nowhere to turn.
“[If an athlete suffers an injury], their identity is gone,” Pollard said. “It’s gone because their whole life they’ve been identified as an athlete. That’s unfortunate.”
For this reason, injuries, especially extended injuries, may be more difficult than an outsider might assume. These injuries don’t just postpone or end hobbies or fun activities. These injuries affect athlete’s entire lives and identities. Nelson fell into isolation and depression following her diagnosis. DeCosta questioned whether she should’ve even left Dallas to come to Ames.
“[Getting injured] is heartbreaking,” said Sammie Pearsall, ISU senior gymnast. “Whenever you see someone get injured in the gym, the whole team feels it. It’s like team heartache.”
Injuries don’t have to mean depression or heartache, said Jay Ronayne, ISU gymnastics coach. The injuries themselves don’t define the time away from the sport, but rather, it depends on the response. One might choose to sink into isolation, or one might choose to focus on the positives and new roles to take on the team.
“It’s an individual thing,” Ronayne said. “Probably the worst thing is that you have these plans. You’re making tons of progress, and then all of a sudden, the train comes off the tracks. Mentally, that’s a difficult thing to handle, but every athlete goes through it. How you handle it, that’s an individual thing.”
The response to an injury, however, depends on one’s perceived identity, Pollard said. To open oneself up to positive responses to injury, an athlete has to distinguish his or her identity outside of their sport. If they don’t do that, injuries can be much more than physically dangerous.
“I think most [athletes] are not defined [just by their sport], but some definitely are,” Pollard said. “Is Thomas Pollard [Jamie’s son], is his identity as a runner? I hope not, but it’s pretty hard not to be.”
The time away provided new perspective for both DeCosta and Nelson. These athletes realized they could no longer find their identities solely in their respective sports. They were more than athletes.
DeCosta suffered three more concussions during her ISU career and ended up making the decision to retire from gymnastics prior to her senior season. After her fourth concussion, she said she realized that her life extended past gymnastics. There was more to Kristen DeCosta than a floor routine or a run down the vault, she said.
DeCosta used her time to explore her identity beyond gymnastics. She got an internship, she worked for a campus magazine and she began doing television commentary for Cyclones.tv at the gymnastics home meets. She may have come to Iowa to pursue one path, but she discovered, perhaps the hard way, that she wasn’t limited to one element.
“As a senior, I’ve been able to see that this sport ends and there’s so much more to my life,” DeCosta said. “[Having a life beyond gymnastics] was more important to me than competing one more year.”
Nelson’s story played out differently than DeCosta’s, given she’s had three fewer years to cope with this time away. After slipping into depression, the “deep, dark hole” that she’d mentioned, her teammates and coaches took notice and surrounded her, Nelson said. She came out of that isolation approaching life in new ways.
“When [a sport] gets taken away from you, you start to question, ‘ok. Who am I?’” Nelson said. “‘Why am I here? What’s my purpose? Who really am I outside of a runner?’”
She refocused on her academics and developed a love for her major. She joined clubs, explored new relationships and changed her perception of her identity. Like DeCosta, Nelson discovered she was more than just an athlete — more than just a runner.
Amid this re-identification, Nelson’s condition improved as her chest pain began to recede — hope of running again. A light at the end of a deep, dark tunnel.
Now that six months have passed, Nelson has begun to run again. With the return of her strides, however, so the pain has also returned. That ominously familiar pain that threatened to claim much more than just Nelson’s ability to run.
But this time, things are different. The pain may creep toward her heart, but it can no longer reach her soul — her identity.
She’s more than a runner, after all.