[CW: This article mentions death and cancer.]
I first started playing field hockey when I was eight years old. My mother had played field hockey at Middlebury College, and she and a close friend of hers started a recreational league in our town. So naturally, when they didn’t have enough people on the teams the first few years, she signed me up to play. At first it was simply an obligation, but after a year or two, I grew to really love the sport.
I continued playing field hockey, along with other sports, throughout my childhood and my high school career. Going into my freshman year, I had to decide if I wanted to continue playing field hockey or soccer, since both were fall sports and I could only try out for one of the teams at my school. I ended up choosing field hockey because I could join the school field hockey team and play for my club soccer team for one more year, and after that it made more sense for me to just continue with field hockey. Despite this anti-climatic transition into my more serious field hockey career, I am incredibly grateful that I chose to pursue this sport because it has shaped me into who I am today.
There are many reasons why I started playing field hockey and why I decided to continue playing it at the collegiate level, reasons that I’m sure are true for every NCAA student-athlete. For one, I am painfully competitive, and the turf is one place where that attitude is accepted and encouraged. Along with this, being part of a team has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Field hockey has surrounded me with people who are driven, hard-working and passionate, and who push me to be the same. Field hockey has taught me to push myself past my limits, and that in order to get better at something you have to truly dedicate yourself to it. The feeling of mastering a new skill or beating a difficult opponent is like no other.
I have always accepted that these are the reasons why I play field hockey, why I spend more time on the field than in the classroom some semesters and why I endure the stress and sometimes sleepless nights of the fall season. I play because I love the game and because my teammates with whom I share it have become my best friends in the world. But an experience I had this past summer gave me a new perspective on my love for sports.
From June 3 to Aug. 16 of this year, I was a member of the 4K for Cancer’s Team Baltimore, a group of 21 college-aged participants running over 4,000 miles from San Francisco to Baltimore to raise money and awareness for young adults with cancer. The 4K for Cancer is part of the Ulman Fund, a foundation dedicated specifically to supporting young adults with cancer, since they are typically an under-resourced age group. For example, most hospitals have pediatric wings but no spaces designated specifically for young adults.
Every morning before we started running, our whole team would create a dedication circle, where we would hear a story of someone who had been involved with the Ulman Fund. We would then go around the circle and say who we were running for that day. These were the names of cancer survivors, people battling cancer at that time, people who had passed away from cancer or even people dealing with some sort of non-cancer-related illness or tragedy. We wrote the names of these people on our legs and arms to honor them and have them guide us through our 49-day journey.
One morning, we read a story about a girl who had participated in the 4K for Cancer a few years before. She died during the trip, and the story we read was written by one of her teammates from that year. We all left the circle that morning crying, and prepared for the 14 miles we would be running that day.
Before we started, one of the girls with whom I was paired said to all of us that rather than saying “we have to,” we should start saying “we get to.” I wrote those words on my arm that day and every day for the rest of the summer, and looked down at both that mantra and the names on the legs of my partners as we ran one of the hilliest routes of the whole summer. Every time we approached the next incline, we all simultaneously glanced at our arms before continuing up the hill, dripping with sweat and out of breath. Although that was one of the most challenging days of my life, both physically and mentally, it was one of my favorites as well. That day, everything I had learned about myself during that summer finally got summed up perfectly in three words: “We get to.”
We got to run up those hills and spend our days in a blistering heat that sometimes reached temperatures above 100 degrees. We got to travel across the country with amazing company and help change the lives of others. We got to wake up every day at 4:30 a.m., run 10 to 16 miles, and then do it all again the next day.
Although this summer was an experience unlike any other, it taught me a lot that I could also apply to my field hockey career. I play field hockey because I am lucky enough to be healthy and have the chance to play at the collegiate level. There are so many people in the world who would give anything to have this opportunity and are unable, for whatever reason, to do so. This has become much clearer to me and has helped change my attitude at practices and games. I have learned to let go of mistakes more easily, to appreciate every moment that I’m playing and to always give 100 percent at every opportunity. It is a privilege to be able to play the sport I love, with people I love.