edited by Mariana Akins, Leina Betzer, Carolynne Liu and Sydney Veator
“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” —Benjamin Franklin
Although I train in Franklin Field every day, it becomes unrecognizable during Penn Relays with the noise, tents and crowds. Even the host team — myself included — gets butterflies. In fact, I felt the nerves and anxiety of the weekend campus-wide.
For all students, this week is the climactic point academically, as classes are ending and finals are on the horizon. For track athletes, Penn Relays sits at the apex of the collegiate spring season and marks the beginning of championship racing.
My freshman year at Penn was my first experience at the Relays. Naturally, I was curious about what to expect. No one could find the right words to do the Relays justice every time I asked. Numerous veterans explained I just needed to experience it for myself, like traveling to a new city or trying new food.
Since my freshman year the team and I dreamed of winning the Championship of America 4×800-meter relay, in large part because of how quickly Penn’s middle distance program had been developing. The spring season flew by as we drew nearer to the highly anticipated event. At Princeton’s Larry Ellis Invitational the week prior, my freshman self was kicking her way through the home stretch just before tangling with another runner and falling — luckily — across the finish line.
I remember feeling a sharp pain in my right foot somewhere during the entanglement, but the endorphins and shock must have masked any unusual feeling in the immediate period thereafter.
The next morning, I woke up, hopped out of bed and instantly crashed to the ground. I could not bear any weight on my foot, and it was fairly swollen. I anxiously called my coach because I was anchoring the 4×800 only seven days later. I caught an Uber to the stadium to meet with her and my trainer.
I had sprained a ligament in my foot, but it did not look too horrible, so we decided I should wear a boot until the Relays. Every attempt I made to study in the following days amidst the butterflies and the acute, dull ache in my foot seemed impossible, but I gave my best effort to prepare myself for finals.
Saturday came along and my relay team was phenomenal. Everyone met their personal records. I felt immense pressure to perform at my best, the same way they had. I received the baton with terror due to the paralyzing amount of stress I put on myself.
Normally, endorphins take away the nerves and temporarily numb any pain you are experiencing, like they had done for me the week before.
Not this time. Every step came with increasing overstimulation, tension, and pain. My performance was weak and I collapsed at the line.
Our 4×800 meter dream team couldn’t assemble in time for the Relays, so we decided last minute to enter into another event entirely: the distance medley relay.
Thursday evening, thirty minutes before it was time to warm up for the distance medley, I found myself in the School of Nursing anxiously tapping my foot and checking my watch as I waited my turn in line for a straight catheterization skills exam.
They were running behind schedule, and I grew more anxious with each passing minute as we neared my warm up time. When it was my turn, I was so nervous for the exam and the race that my hands were shaking to where I was inadequately performing.
“Nia—” my instructor said mid exam, “go outside, take some deep breaths and in another five minutes, come back, and try again.”
I listened, stepping out of the laboratory room to catch some breaths, but found myself fighting back tears instead. One of my roommates, a nursing student, walked by the exam room confused and asked “Aren’t you supposed to be at the track?” My thoughts were racing.
I am running five minutes late, I haven’t even performed the skill yet, and I need to be at the track in fifteen minutes.
I was no longer fighting tears, I was fighting a breakdown.
Another instructor came out and told me it was up to me if I wanted to perform the skill, but if I chose to leave they would fail me for the exam. I took deep, tremulous breaths before wiping my face and going back into the lab. I performed the skill perfectly this time, but they failed me anyway because of my poor first attempt. Nevertheless, I booked it to the track not long thereafter. I ran through Spruce Street and the crowds in my scrubs with spikes in hand, ignoring puzzled looks as I made up for lost time.
Do you know the tingling desensitization you feel when your foot falls asleep? I felt that in every nerve of my body.
But the moment I toed the line, I was wide awake.
The Championship of America Distance Medley Relay was due to start in two minutes. My hands were sweating tremendously and I remember fumbling with the baton in my right hand as though it were a raw fish.
I said a prayer, and it went something like: Please, God, don’t let me drop this fish. Amen.
I looked back at my relay mates as they lined up in their respective zones to facilitate coordinating hand offs. They looked nervous, but focused. I looked to the right to the only part of the stadium that seemed crowded, and it was, but with red and blue Penn friends and family. They whooped and hollered when I turned my head in their direction. I finally found my eyes dead set on the official in red with the start gun slightly to my left.
As he raised the gun, I leaned in. The barrel cracked.
I pushed forward and settled into the middle of the pack, sitting there comfortably. I replayed Coach Dolan’s instructions in my head: Cover every move and kick with intention when you’re ready. The pace was modest, so the pack was dangerously dense and tight. Inevitably, two ladies in front of me got tangled up and almost tripped. I instinctively put my arm out as if to brace myself for a fall, but they both caught their footing and one surged to the front with a little under 600 meters to go.
I followed suit, sitting just behind her shoulder as she led and quickened the pace ever so slightly.
With only 400m to go, I decided to take over.
I focused on getting faster and faster with every step, trying to forge a gap. My coach was at the 200 meter mark, wind-milling her arms and yelling “Turnover! Turnover! Turnover!” With every click, every step, I ran with intention, an intention to break away from feelings of anxiety I have every year during this week and just a few hours before.
I was choosing, despite external circumstances and history here, to go for the win.
Turning into the home stretch, our Penn crowd was screaming, chanting, and carrying me through the exchange zone. I looked for Uche, and once I locked eyes with her, I knew she was ready for the baton and this relay was going to be a magical one.
For the first time in the Relay’s 125-year history, it came together for the University of Pennsylvania women. Uche, Melissa, Maddie and I lifted the Ivy League women’s first victory wheel high, beaming.
This wheel was staying right here at home.
Franklin Field is quiet. The grim reality we face is COVID-19 in the United States, and it threatens the stadium we fill for the Relays. If there is one thing the advent of COVID-19 taught the world, it’s that storms come and impose new and uncomfortable changes to our lives.
Everyone is grieving with a loss of some kind today, and student-athletes are no exception. Student-athletes are always moving, always staying busy. Only this small cohort will understand the anxiety in the absence of work, because all we do is work and learn. In fact, we need it to stay afloat.
Often we have to put in double the amount of hours, trying to study in cramped busses or vans, and sacrificing free time just to do as well as our full-time classmates. When you slip up or fall short, you know the response you will get is tough luck.
Do I miss this chaos? This sense of inability to rest?
Yes. I think the value of something is clearer in its absence. Every year at Penn Relays, I struggled and grew, and I am grateful for that. It has taught me to value periods of chaos because that is when the growing occurs.
I embrace this new time with the same mindset—this is an opportunity for growth.
NIA AKINS — UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA
Second in NCAA history in indoor 800m (2:00.71)
2019 NCAA Outdoor Championships National Runner-Up (800m)
2019 NCAA Indoor Championships National Runner-Up (800m)
2019 Outdoor First-Team All-America (800m)
2019 Penn Relays College Athlete of the Meet
2019 Outdoor Heps Most Outstanding Track Athlete
2019 Indoor First-Team All-America (800m)
Three-time USTFCCCA All-Academic (2019, 2018, 2017)
Five-time Indoor Heps Champion
Four-time Outdoor Heps Champion
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