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Student-Athletes Hear from Author about Suicide in College Sports

Kate Fagan examines the transition from high school to college sports; advocates for open conversation

Kate Fagan

Sports writer Kate Fagan raised some critical points about suicide among student-athletes when she spoke at the Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts this fall.

She told nearly 600 SHU athletes about the suicide of Madison Holleran, a track and field team member at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). Could it have been prevented? Did she feel she could not share her struggle openly? Fagan, author of What Made Maddy Run, discussed those questions and the burdens of pressure and anxiety that college athletes carry.

She explained to the audience how Holleran’s experience applies to theirs. Dressed in black and pacing the stage, she described how she first learned about Holleran, who was a high school track star before she arrived at UPenn to pursue cross-country and track. Fagan lived in Philadelphia, and her sister had run cross-country at Dartmouth University, so Holleran’s death hit home. Moreover, Fagan felt there was more to the story than the one-dimensional way it had been publicized.

Fagan, a writer for espnW, and ESPN The Magazine, initially penned an article about the tragedy that received a huge response, particularly from high school and college athletes who had questions about quitting sports and the role of college counseling facilities. The response inspired Fagan to write her book, aided by Holleran’s family, who gave her access to the young woman’s computer.

In Fagan’s view, Holleran felt like she was failing as she went from state champion in high school to middle-of-the-pack in college, losing her identity as an athlete. Screenshots on Holleran’s computer showed Fagan that she wanted to quit track and explore clubs. Fagan also found that Holleran thought about attending a meeting of Active Minds, a non-profit that encourages students to speak openly about mental health and seek help.

Holleran’s father, Jim, was aware of his daughter’s anxiety, Fagan said, but he didn’t want to discuss it with her, as he thought it would only reinforce her negative thoughts. And Holleran apparently did not want to discuss her feelings openly, for fear of being stigmatized. Though she texted her family about her anxiety, she didn’t talk with them about it in person, even though doing so may have been a greater comfort and release for the young athlete, said Fagan.

Ultimately, on Jan. 23, 2014, during the second week of her second semester, Holleran, just 19, jumped to her death from a parking garage.

“Transitioning to college sports and playing college sports was the hardest time in my life. I tried to get out of practice once by ingesting a bottle of iron pills to make myself sick,” Fagan shared from her own experiences as a Division I basketball player at the University of Colorado. “Until that sport is done with you, you’re not allowed to be done with it,” Fagan observed, adding that there’s a lot of pressure to win, and players’ abilities are key.

Student-athletes need an atmosphere that allows them to talk about their thoughts and anxieties, suggests the writer, who said there are two camps of coaches: those who meet student-athletes where they are and others who want to pull them up by their bootstraps. Meanwhile, rates of anxiety and depression among student-athletes—and students across the board—are rising.

“I’m not advocating for quitting sports, but I believe in honest conversation and allowing an athlete to say that a sport is no longer part of his/her journey,” Fagan said.