Emily Lehman grabbed a piece of paper as she stood in front of a crowd of young athletes in Frederick County on Wednesday night.
She told them she was on a plane back from Florida, and she had written a letter to her younger self. She had “shocked her eyes” as she recounted the challenges she faced – mental health issues, body disorientation and self-doubt – and what she learned from them.
“My dear young lady,” Lyman read from the letter. “You will have mental breakdowns and cry because your worth and your values will be based on your sport and performance,”
She paused, before plunging forward.
“But it doesn’t have to be that,” she continued. “I want you to remember to look for all the beautiful things in life, not just a practice or game you may have had.”
Lehman, an athletic performance coach and mentor leader at Player’s Fitness and Performance, Frederick’s gym, shared her story at “Take Back Control,” a panel discussion and empowering event hosted by the Frederick County Gym and Mental Health Association.
The event was intended to target the stigma surrounding mental health issues, and featured motivational speakers, player fitness and performance coaches, and current and former college athletes who once played in Frederick County.
More than 150 high school and college athletes, their parents and coaches attended the session, which took place at the gym Wednesday night, said Rebecca Lyman, director of marketing and development for the Mental Health Association.
Her daughter plays with Frederic Renegades lacrosse club. Lehmann said her daughter’s coach canceled training on Wednesday so the team could attend.
Members of the Heartbreakers, Frederick’s softball team, also sat among the audience, still wearing their uniforms. They had attended training from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesday. Their coaches encouraged them to come to the event afterward.
“I hope the girls get a lot from it,” said Earl Edwards, assistant coach and recruitment coordinator at Heartbreakers.
The athletes who spoke on Wednesday shared their experiences recovering from injuries and learning to define themselves outside the context of their sport.
They emphasized, one by one, to the young people in the audience that they were much more than just athletes.
“I wish I had heard someone say that when I was your youth,” said Carly Heine, who played lacrosse at Oakdale High School before playing at the University of Michigan.
Heine immediately fell in love with lacrosse when she started playing in the third grade. She knew her “time and there” and wanted to play at the highest level possible as a Lacrosse: Division I.
She worked hard to do so, receiving accolades throughout high school. But the whole time, she could tell that something was wrong. She knew it was not normal for a teenage girl to not feel her legs.
She wasn’t diagnosed with popliteal artery entrapment syndrome until after she started playing in Michigan, an unusual condition in which a patient’s calf muscle compresses the main artery behind his knee, making it difficult for blood to flow down his leg’s foot.
After undergoing a series of treatments, Heine medically retired from her athletic career during her junior year and became a student assistant coach. It was a very difficult decision. It was hard to wrap her head around the idea of never wearing her uniform again. The only way she thought of herself was to be athletic.
She described the beginning of her junior year to the time of her graduation as “rock bottom.”
But she said she has a strong support network in her family and coaches.
She said, “I never step on the field after the end of my freshman year, and my family still travels around the country to see me grab a holster.”
Lyman, who played football all her life, including at the University of Frostburg, decided to move away from the sport she loved.
Her mental health was so low that she knew she needed time to work on herself. She said she became a strength conditioning coach and learned to fight anxiety “the right way,” rather than hiding from herself.
Now she is helping sports overcome obstacles in her “dream job”. Although she still struggled with anxiety, depression, and despair, she continued to grow mentally and physically.
“Dear Emily,” she concluded, “I am so proud of you.”
Follow Angela Roberts on Twitter: @24_angier