By Dani Wexelman
The promise of a bright and exciting future stood at Claire Smith’s heels. She played sports as far back as she can remember, and she always knew they would be a huge part of her life.
In ninth grade, the Pennsylvania native started working with a private coach, and knew if she worked hard enough, her athletic ability could earn her a track and field scholarship to a division one program.
She put the musical instruments and other distractions aside to focus exclusively on track. But, Smith’s path to success certainly was not paved in gold.
Her hard work paid off and she earned a partial scholarship to James Madison University in Virginia. Then, her lifestyle caught up with her.
“I was really excited to go there and then in my freshmen year, I just struggled a lot,” Smith explained.
In high school, Smith developed unhealthy eating habits, which she figures stemmed from being bullied at a younger age.
“I came in with some unusual eating habits and that kind of blossomed into anorexia,” she said. “Then it actually even went further. I was not getting the results I wanted from my restricting, so I decided I was also going to start purging.”
The pressure to perform well came from within. Thinking, if she could only lose a few pounds here or there, she’d run faster and be more competitive. Smith simply wanted to make her parents and coaches proud. Ultimately, she veered too far from her lane.
“I couldn’t just be an athlete who was mediocre,” Smith said. “I really wanted to be good. I wanted to be an All-American. I wanted to be an elite college athlete.”
Realizing she’d gone too far, Smith reached out to the team’s athletic trainer.
“I realized this was out of my control,” she said. “I really wanted to be better.”
For the sake of her life, Smith needed to change gears. She’d lost track of why she fell in love with running and why she loved being an athlete. Once she realized that, she started over.
In her sophomore year, she came back to school in better shape, with a renewed sense of hope for herself. The lingering effects of her unhealthy habits were a constant reminder of where she’d been and how far she’d come.
“I actually can no longer have an empty stomach for a very long period of time. I get sick,” Smith explained.
But, that isn’t what held her back. It was a stress fracture in her foot that betrayed her before her sophomore season. Despite strong support from her coaching staff and counselors, Smith lost control again.
“I was never much of a drinker, and that’s when I started to binge drink,” she said. “I felt incredibly disconnected with my team. I blamed myself for my injury. I was incredibly depressed.”
The inability to be the athlete she so closely identified with led Smith down the wrong path.
“In my head I was failing at school, I was failing at being an athlete, and I did it to myself,” she said.
After discovering another stress fracture in her junior year, the cycle repeated for Smith. She lied to her coaches about a concussion she covered up and James Madison University revoked her scholarship, stripping her of the only person she knew how to be.
That was Smith’s rock bottom.
She came back for one more semester in her senior year, but she couldn’t find the healthy balance she needed to succeed.
After transferring to South Dakota to continue track and field, she developed a fourth stress fracture in her foot.
Eventually this led her back home, to Philadelphia, to finally find the root of the problems. Smith blamed herself for the stress fractures, believing they stemmed from what she put her body through during college. It was a burden she could no longer bear.
“That’s when we found out that it was actually my body, and the structure of my foot,” Smith said. “It all would have happened if I was a happy go-lucky person without an eating disorder in college.”
This was the moment Smith could finally begin to heal, giving herself a new lease on life.
Smith’s story isn’t the only of her kind. She was willing to share her experience so others can learn from her, and she hopes colleges can become more transparent about what’s going on with their student-athletes when it comes to their mental health.
“I think if we can change what the student-athlete is supposed to be, we could really start to have more of an open conversation; that it’s okay to feel bad or not be perfect,” she said.
Today, Smith hopes to have more involvement in the mental health community to share her story, make and impact, and have a positive change in the world.
She’s well on her way.