By Kaitlynn Merritt - Stanford University '20
I'm proud of you.
I know you haven't heard that from me for a while, and I'm sorry. I see that bright smile you are hiding behind. You are trying so hard to make it genuine, and even I almost believed that brave face you have on.
You just got back to that room sectioned off by the thin curtain. They tell you that the surgeon will be ready in an hour, then leave you with your thoughts. Maybe there are too many emotions to process, maybe you are too used to pushing through pain, or maybe you've been wrapped in a blanket of love from all the family and friends who have texted today, but there is now a strange sense of peace about you.
All the questions that kept you awake last night seem to have been laid to rest. Who was telling you the truth? Was it the first surgeon that told you that you would likely not return to pole vaulting if you underwent this surgery, or the surgeon who is about to operate on your foot? Was she just trying to make you feel better when she said that her surgery is different and innovative--she's had good results? Should you have settled for the short step you are still able to tolerate instead of risking the surgery? Would that limit your potential? What is your potential--are you even the same vaulter you once were? Or did you leave that person behind when you left high school to become a Stanford Cardinal?
Of course, I now know we made it back to vaulting, and I think a part of you always knew that too. But there will be times when that part of you seems to be stolen by doubt. My advice is to lean into others when you start to lose faith in your comeback. After all, it was your family and friends who first taught you to believe in yourself. Borrow their belief until it becomes your own.
Like last night as you sat awake and mourned the pole vaulter you once were and questioned if you'd ever be her again. I wish I could have wrapped you in a hug when your mind drifted back to the last meet you competed in and shuddered at the thought that it might have been your actual last meet.
Late May in Seattle is always a toss-up. The day before you competed in PAC 12s was absolutely beautiful, cloudless skies. However, the day of PAC 12s, the rain steadily misted the runway, just enough to make pole vaulting that much harder, but not enough to postpone the competition.
Coach bounded over with a huge smile on his face. "Isn't this great?" he gestured at the sky as you stared at him confused as to why he was so excited about crappy conditions. "You jump great in bad conditions, or at least comparatively. It will probably only take 13-feet to get third today." You forced a smile, but definitely did not share in his optimism about the day.
My advice is to lean into others when you start to lose faith in your comeback. After all, it was your family and friends who first taught you to believe in yourself. Borrow their belief until it becomes your own.
You found it comical that the one data point he used to assert that "you jump great in bad conditions" was the only meet that you had actually jumped like your high school self that whole freshman season. That meet was Sacramento State, the first outdoor meet and the day before you got to go back home for a week. You finally had relieved yourself of the pressure of needing to jump high, and knew that no matter the result, you would get to go home at the end of the day. You didn't even feel the side wind that coach claims was roaring that day. Your body took over because your mind was 450 miles away, already at home.
"Welcome Back!" Coach had beamed after that competition.
You finally had jumped like yourself again. Both of you left for break optimistic that you had broken through and were finding your rhythm. However, upon coming back from break you now made it your mission to prove that you were back. You went back to the straining and trying so hard to prove yourself that plagued your indoor season.
Your muscles tensed every time you stepped on that runway and tried to force a perfect jump together, keeping you from the mobility and finesse a great technical jump actually requires. Your mind too was filled with fear of missing the bar, of being a disappointment. You were the one that the coaches had put belief in. They thought you could place at NCAAs your first year of college, and despite your straining and giving 120-percent of your effort, you were fraying.
Not only were you consistently jumping 1.5 to 2 feet under your personal record, but this sport that had once been a passion felt like a burden. The person who used to effortlessly maneuver her body over 13 foot, 9 inch bars with a poor technical jump and would walk off the pit laughing, would barely squeak her way over 12-3 and rarely smiled when she walked off the pit anymore. You felt like an imposter.
This was the mental state you were in at PAC 12s, the only freshman they had brought from the jump squad. You were one of the limited 28 spots available to the women's team, and you were expected to score. Everyone was hoping that the Kaitlyn of old would return to the runway, the one that had briefly shown her face at Sacramento. However, what they did not know was that you had just taken four advil and put on icy hot, but it still did not come close to masking the pain in your foot.
You had hidden the severity when you told them about it. You'd had a sudden sharp pain during take-off a couple of weeks ago. You'd told them the pain was dull and hoped they could not hear the heartbeat throbbing in your foot.They needed you, you told yourself, so you silently increased the number of Advil rather than your number on the pain scale.
It was right in your midfoot-- "Come back if you ever get pain in your midfoot. Your foot structure puts you at risk for a navicular fracture, and that is something you want to get on top of right away," your PT had told you after you healed from your first stress fracture in the fall. You were confident that is just what it was.
When she had looked at your foot a week ago and suggested it might be a tendon, ligament, or ... and drifted off. You knew exactly what that meant.
However, when she asked you what you thought it was, you just shrugged your shoulders. With championship season upon you, you decided to hold off on imaging and try to compete in PAC 12s. You did nothing for the two weeks before except one shortened pole vault practice that you limped away from quietly yet determined.
You told Coach that it was a four on the pain scale, and he seemed relieved. Little did he know that four was the highest number, up to that point, you had ever chosen.
So there you were on that PAC 12 runway just a week later. You tried to ignore the pain with every step. The pole vault mat seemed much further away today, and you held your breath as you desperately tried to ignore your body screaming warnings to stop jumping off your foot.
You bit your tongue hard with every take off to try to trick your body into thinking that that was the only pain. It didn't work.
Coach Eskind came over as you threw yourself over your last warm-up jump, and he tried not to show his surprise. "Why don't you come in a bar earlier and just get in the rhythm," he suggested. Rhythm was not your problem. After two attempts of crashing down on that bar hard, you no longer could hold back the tears welling up in your eyes as you walked off that pit. At first they ran slowly down your face, "It hurts every step, Coach." It was as if when you finally admitted this the tears would not stop flowing. He wrapped you in a hug as you shook in his arms. "It's ok. It's just a foot," he said.
But it wasn't just a foot, you had made it to this big stage and were a disappointment yet again. You had made your foot worse for no reason. You told the official that you would not take your final jump and walked off the track into your mom's arms as tears from the entire season of frustration and inadequacy reddened your face.
"Have you ever used crutches before?" The nurse asks. You nod, "Ya we tried conservative treatment before this, so I was on crutches for a couple weeks."
You stand up as she adjusts the crutches to your height and watches to make sure you know how to use them properly. "Stanford, huh?" she says as she watches you get the hang of crutching again, "That's my son's dream school." You talk about her 12-year-old son and how much of a self-starter he is. She worries that he will never get in. You just shrug your shoulders and comment that there are so many people who deserve to be there, and it sounds like her son is one of them. She smiles proudly as you suggest that regardless of the school he attends, it already seems like his passions will impact the world. She walks away with a smile to go get your mom from the waiting room. Later, she would tell your surgeon to take extra good care of you. You smile at the pride she has for her son and think back to when you were that 12-year-old with the whole world ahead of you--to that day when you first picked up a pole, and your coach told you that you could be really good at this.
All 65 pounds of you stood on that runway fresh out of gymnastics. They told you that gymnasts make great pole vaulters, so you joined your first practice with no concept of what the sport actually entailed.
The fear you got when you stood at the end of the runway with the pole in your hand faded into pure adrenaline when you planted the pole anyways. Two years later when dad asked you why you pole vault, you told him that you love the rush with the biggest smile on your face.
You carried that love for the sport all the way through high school. You worked hard, but you probably spent as much time dancing around with your teammates between jumps, remixing popular songs with pole vault terms, rolling each other down that grass hill near the pit in that giant tire, and trying to break world records for how fast you could peel and eat three oranges at pole vault camps. When it came time to jump you had a laser focus and determination. However, it was always a game to you. How high could you push your limit? Each meet was just another opportunity to dance around with your friends and see how high you could fly through the air, and success came easily.
You smile at the pride she has for her son and think back to when you were that 12-year-old with the whole world ahead of you--to that day when you first picked up a pole, and your coach told you that you could be really good at this.
I know you've had a lot of time to reflect on your freshman year season when you took June through October off to try to heal your foot conservatively. I know you are frustrated that your foot did not heal. However, you did a lot of healing in this time. I felt you figure out where you lost that girl who loved the rush on your journey. You began to dance between jumps again. You started to treat your jumps like a game. You've begun to smile on the runway and laugh when a jump goes awry. Your love for the sport is slowly returning.
Before you drift off, I want to remind you, I'm proud of you. It's because of your tenacity and resilience that we made it back to the runway. Our smile is genuine now.
It's not over, Smiley, and your love for the sport will only grow. I could tell you about how high we've jumped and whether or not we've qualified for NCAAs, but you'll come to realize that it's not what is important to you in the end.
You will form life-long relationships on this team that will literally put you back on your feet again. You will open up to your teammates and coach about how much pressure you have been putting on this sport and learn how many people are struggling the same fate.
Be patient with yourself, Kaitlyn, you are continually growing.
This collegiate athletic experience will grow you more than anything in your life up to this point. In the end, we will be better for it and how we failed, succeeded, and continued to show up.
Remember to appreciate the small moments of your career, Kaitlyn, and those teammates on your journey with you. Cheer them on from the very depths of your lungs while you are sidelined. Practice gratitude in the highs and resilience in the lows of this sport and keep dancing that slightly off beat dance when you return to that runway.
Be in the sport of lifting others up. At the end of the day, it has always been the people around you that stayed with you late so you could take a few extra jumps, screamed their heads off to get you those extra inches, and believed in you when you lost belief in yourself that have made this sport special. They will come to mean more to you than any bar you could ever jump. Push your limits, commit to your jumps, and let the results fall as they will. Bars will fall and bars will stay. They're part of the game, not a part of you.
Your older (and I like to think, wiser) self
Kaitlyn Merritt, an NCAA Championship qualifier and the Pac-12 runner-up in the pole vault in 2018, is a graduate of Stanford University and Class of 2015 from Santa Margarita Catholic (CA) High School, where she won two CIF State Track and Field Championships. She originally wrote this letter to her sophomore self (at Stanford) during a non-fiction writing class last quarter. She's headed off to Duke University next, where she will be studying physical therapy.
For more Dear Younger Me essays, visit our series page here.