Kendall Ellis at the 2020 New Balance Indoor Grand Prix (© Getty Images)
Anxiety is not the same thing as nerves. It is not butterflies in your stomach. It is all-consuming. Debilitating. Paralyzing. Crippling.
Two days before my opening round at the 2022 World Athletics Championships, I was wracked with so much anxiety, I was paralyzed in bed — I physically could not move or get up for a few torturous minutes. Trapped under the sheets, I realized this was probably the most severe my anxiety had ever been. Anxiety is mental, but makes itself known physically.
Shortness of breath.
It’s not being able to brush my teeth in the morning without gagging, and waking up in the middle of the night over and over again, panicked about what’s to come. It can be so emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing that by the time I get to the starting line, I’m so fatigued that it feels like I’ve already run the race and then some.
2022 was a year of joy on and off the track. It was long-lost childlike enjoyment, new relationships, new experiences, and finally learning what it means to be truly carefree.
It was also the year I heavily contemplated retirement.
For the first time in my life it simply felt no longer worth it. Phone calls and texts to friends and mentors saying, “I don’t want to run anymore,” were abundant. Before I even stepped on the line at the USA team trials, I had made peace with deciding I would be done with the sport that had given way to so many opportunities.
But I still got to the line.
And I made the team, as I’ve done every time since 2017.
Everyone is a mental health advocate until their favorite source of entertainment fails to live up to their expectations. I’m well aware of what people think of me — unsolicited opinions are rampant on social media.
Imagine you have a tough day at work. You make a mistake. Your boss knows, maybe a few colleagues. No biggie. Professional athletes have a tough day at work and the whole world sees. Comments. Discussions on podcasts. Twitter threads. It lives on the internet forever. Yet athletes still show up time and time again to try to put on a show.
If you’ve never experienced anxiety, I understand how difficult it may be to conceptualize the feeling. How difficult it is to rationalize how something mental becomes physical. To even begin to understand how a person can feel impending doom doing something they love.
So why bother? Why continue to put myself in the very setting that induces my anxiety? Because I am very good at what I do. Great actually, in spite of the anxiety. I’ve made every senior US team I’ve gone to trials for (three world teams and an Olympic team). I have multiple records to my name, consistently ranked amongst the world’s best, and a relay leg that’s forever etched in college history.
But more importantly, I continue to make myself uncomfortable, because I’m not quite finished yet.
Let me emphasize that this is not a pity post, but a moment of vulnerability, transparency, and honesty so no one else has to feel as alone as I do in those moments. I will keep putting my failures and successes on public display to encourage others fighting their own battles to continue to show up.
And to those watching — have some empathy. Show some kindness. Don’t be so quick to judge. We give physical injuries a pass, but are so quick to dismiss the mental ones.
As for me, I will continue to show up. I will continue to fight. And I will keep pushing myself to get to the line every time, for those who feel like they can’t.