Lessons from a Comeback Kid

PC: Jeff Cohen

from Stephanie Marie

There’s a certain negative connotation associated with the word “comeback;” whether the phrase is used to describe a rap album, a hometown team in the bottom of the ninth inning, or a political career after a particularly harrowing scandal, it always implies that one was gone, forgotten, counted out.

Of course, it also means that at one point, you were successful, popular, on an upward trajectory — that people looked to you as an example in your chosen field, that you had the promise of potential.

But at the end of the day, being a comeback means that at one point, you failed; your value dropped; you were forced to go away. Follow along with the hashtag #dontcallitacomeback and you’ll find a community of people who return to the arenas of high school or collegiate athletic glory for a workout, Crossfitters and yogis who celebrate their return to form after an injury, dancers and post-partum moms getting in a workout after an extended break. It doesn’t matter what you call it — the reality is you’recoming back after being gone.

Photo by Zach Hetrick

The reality of my career in athletics is fixed on one blunt fact: the last four years of my career has been focused on becoming a comeback. As much as I wince at the harshness of the word, it’s the only one I can use to describe myself as an elite track athlete: I was once on the up and up, a runner that had potential, that was making strides forward in the sport… and then I fell off that wagon, peaked before my time, was forgotten in the race recaps, didn’t do anything of significance. After once doing great things, I had to face facts: it was either give up and drift away, forgotten, or comeback and reclaim my spot in the upper ranks of the sport.

Obviously, I chose the comeback.

There’s nothing glamorous about clawing your way back up the ladder; the life of a comeback kid is grueling. (Think Drake’s “Started From the Bottom” — especially since the song is essentially just that phrase repeated over and over and over again. It will become your mantra as you climb.) The ebbs and flows of sport is much like the greater energy shifts of real life: from the very depths of your low tides, you find the strength to peak even higher the next opportunity you have to do so. I’m thankful for my comeback, but I’m even more grateful for the years of obsolescence I experienced in the beginning of my career. There’s much I’ve learned from rising high, sinking low, and working my way back up to the top, truths I never would have realized if I had been handed it all on a platter; here are my top lessons for making your own comeback:

You have to believe you are the best — and give yourself no other option.

My sponsorship with New Balance allows me access to some of the very best runners in the world; every girl on Team NB is a strong, inspirational athlete. What I’ve learned from following along and spending time with women like Jenny Simpson is that there is a level of confidence you must have in order to sit at the top. Jenny and my steeplechase compatriot Emma Coburn BELIEVE they are the very best — they believe it when they train every day, they believe it when they stand on the starting line, and they believe it when they are in the throes of the toughest race. There is no question for them, whether they are in the back of the pack or leading the field: they are going to come out on top.

Having no doubt in your mind is what separates the dominant athletes from the ones who finish second, third, fourth, fifth… there is a numbness to any other option for these women. Failure just isn’t in their vocabulary, and while they do fall short occasionally, they’re able to shake it off and continue to push forward in pursuit of their goals. They believe they are the best; that they will win the U.S. Championships; that they will medal against the best in the world — and they do.

It’s okay to want it — and to be vocal about it.

This goes hand-in-hand with the first lesson. When you believe so completely in yourself, it’s not intimidating to want big things. When we aren’t confident, we put limits on ourselves; what we want to accomplish gets boxed in by what we think we can achieve. Wanting it is half the battle — it’s the constant fuel that spurs us on in the most lonesome, miserable moments that occur when an individual works towards a goal. If you don’t allow yourself to want it, you’re robbing yourself of key motivation and (more importantly) focus that helps you jump to that next level.

I never share what my big, secret goals are publically, because I’m often too nervous or frightened that I will fall short and look foolish. “She said she wanted to make this team or win that race or run a certain time — and she didn’t. How arrogant / dumb / delusional.” I keep my mouth shut, so that the only person I truly disappoint is myself. But when you believe you are the best, you aren’t afraid to share your dreams, because you wholeheartedly believe that one day, you will achieve them. Maybe it doesn’t happen right away, but for the people who are truly at the top, it happens eventually. They aren’t afraid of the challenge or what people will think: they’re utterly focused on making their dreams a reality.

Have true passion.

How many times do we do something without really feeling engaged in it? Let’s take our workdays, for example: we’re given an assignment and we grit our teeth and do it, and then it’s done and we move on and forget it. We don’t put our whole hearts and focus into it, because we’re not really that excited about it. This can be true for our math homework, painting our kitchen, responding to emails, training for a marathon, cooking dinner. We do it out of necessity and remain disengaged.

But when it comes to our life’s work… there really shouldn’t be any dull moments. There are of course going to be things we don’t “enjoy” doing, but if they’re done in service to fulfilling a larger goal… they should be appreciated with as much fervor as the work we do truly love. As a runner, there are many, many lonesome miles, grueling weight sessions, tiresome strengthening exercises, boring “little things” like icing our shins or rolling out our feet. All of it on its own doesn’t really inspire passion — but when I know it’s all dedicated to making my dreams come true, I can approach it with excitement and gratitude. There’s absolutely no point in doing anything if you’re not passionate about it — you have to feel the desire in order to put in the discipline and dedication needed to accomplish your goals!

Keep pushing. Keep changing.

You can’t do the same thing year in and year out and expect different results. If I was still training the way I did my first year in college, I would likely still be running the same times I ran then. I remember feeling frustrated with a teammate my last year of college; she was complaining that our coach wouldn’t engage with her and I thought to myself, “It’s because you aren’t willing to change. He doesn’t have time for someone who isn’t open to new things.” Her training hadn’t changed in four years and, thus, her outcome hadn’t changed either.

There’s an art to adjusting your training as a runner; you can’t make huge changes and expect to see immediate results. The greatest runners are those who can walk that fine line of incremental adjustments, gradual improvements, consistent analysis of how and where they can be better. It isn’t enough to, for example, run the same workouts for four years and think you’ll dramatically improve, but it also isn’t wise to add in intense weight training all at once and expect to run a personal best. The workouts I’ve run this year have changed slightly from the workouts I ran last year and I’ve seen my racing, fitness, and strength improve accordingly. If I don’t make any changes next year, I can’t expect to run much better than I did this year; if I don’t push myself just a little bit more, I won’t have any extra push in my races.

Surround yourself consistently with the best people.

None of the above — especially #4 — would be possible without the right team in place. Without a coach who is dedicated to making you the best possible version of yourself, you won’t know how to make those incremental but crucial changes to your training year after year; without the right trainers or physios, you won’t be able to keep yourself healthy; without supportive partners, friends, family, you won’t have the outside encouragement to keep pushing on.

But with that comes a caveat that I’ve witnessed from all the best runners: consistency. Great athletes like Jenny and Emma and Brenda Martinez and Bernard Lagat and Evan Jager have a stable family / relationship, one coaching staff they’ve been with for many years, the same support system, the same sponsor. This is something that took me two disappointing seasons to learn: I bounced around from coach to coach, city to new city, with very different communities around me, away from my family and friends. Once I found the right people and settled in to the right place, I began to find real success.

Photo by Joe Bosshard

Making a comeback is one of those great American Dream archetypes that we all, at one point or another, dream of fulfilling. There’s a reason movies like Rocky, Rudy, Hoosiers, and, my personal favorite, Moneyball are so endearing; seeing a comeback play out on the big screen inspires us to toil for our own. It’s not going to be easy — in fact, at times it will be so devastating that you’ll be tempted to pull a Rachel a la House of Cards and run off with a new identity — but in the end, the struggles are more than worth the work.

Challenge yourself, trust in your talents, strive to be greater than you ever were, and remember: nothing feels better than singing “Started from the bottom, now we’re here” from the top of the podium.

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