Ben: Explain to us your athletic career growing up until today. How did you get to where you are as an athlete?
Kate: I have always had athletics in my life, for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I tried softball, tennis, basketball, and swimming. Immediately I fell in love with swimming, I remember when I just started the sport I felt unstoppable in the water, almost like I immediately knew swimming would be with me for the rest of my life. I started off on my town recreation team, I soon after started up on the nearby competitive swim team. It did take some adjusting, it was not easy by any means. But I built up my strength, my endurance, and started to increase to the highest level of the swim team. Swimming has been part of my life for as long as I can imagine, just like every sport there are highs and lows in an athletic career. I have to say the position I am at currently with my swimming career, I would have never thought I would be in at the start of my high school career. Sophomore year I was in a very dark place, a place where I didn’t see the beauty in life. But without going through the negative times I wouldn’t be as grateful for where I am today in my career. I am on a more demanding club and high school swim team, I am also committed to swim at a Susquehanna University in the fall. These transitions were not easy by any means, but both of these switches helped me get where I am today, and looking back I know I made that little girl proud I kept fighting.
Ben: Can you please give us some insight on your mental health experience?
Kate: I have to say I started having anxious thoughts in seventh grade, but it was very minor…the typical “oh I don’t know if my answer is right”, or “what if I say the wrong answer.” It was like that up until by sophomore year of high school. I was at the public school in my town for my freshman and sophomore year, which was a much different atmosphere to handle. I was in an atmosphere where I was not happy, I desperately dreaded waking up everyday; swim practice was where I felt most alive. I was worried more about the time on the clock, than the grade on the paper; I had all this anxiety that was focused on swimming until it consumed me. The end of sophomore year, my team and I were invited to compete, and travel to TCNJ to spend the weekend. I had goals for that meet just like every swimmer does, but when I didn’t drop time in my first event I let my anxiety get the best of me. That’s when the panic attacks started, the end of the school year, and that summer was filled with them. I felt I couldn’t control my swimming ability anymore, so why not control what I eat. I started to restrict the calories I took in, I remember my least amount was 300 calories. Instead of the number on the scoreboard it was the number on the scale. My junior year rolled around, another day back at my old public school. The memories were extremely triggering, the anxiety was overwhelming. I was taken to the nurse, where I opened up about how much depression has affected me. I was advised to seek outside treatment. Many would think that good memories would not be made during the week I was away but I met a group of girls that helped me love myself again. They helped me see the hope in swimming again, and helped convince me that I will get back in that pool. That week helped me see….I am not what my public school administration has said about me, I am not just the girl with the eating disorder. I am not the girl with depression, and anxiety. I am the girl who has been through hell and back, and learned her worth. I started branching out into this new lively person, that did not want to live her life with pain and sorrow.
Ben: How has your mental health journey impacted you as an athlete?
Kate: My journey to get to where I am has been complicated, messy, but above all I wouldn’t change it for a thing. I look at my journey with my swimming career as being “imperfectly perfect”, with the help from others I began to realize that my anxiety is not me. I am not the 2:18 2 IMER, or the 1:04 1 backstroker, I am Kate Elizabeth Cipoletti. I am someone who was on the road to death, starving herself, and using unhealthy coping mechanisms. I still keep in touch with those who were with me during my time away, because of them I was exposed to what true friendship is. As I became more confident, I learned just how much I am freaking awesome, and that loving yourself is not selfish at all. Looking at someone like Lizzo, or Demi Lovato I thought to myself how are they that confident? But I realized that they both hit points in their life where they hated singing, they hated it because they were struggling and did not see the point in living. My mental health journey is something I am so blessed to be able to share, my journey has made me incredibly thankful for the beautiful pool filled with chlorine that I get to call my second home. My mental health journey has impacted me as an athlete because I have learned so much more about myself, especially with help from those around me. I learned to set goals in and out of the pool, it came with confidence. I began to learn how frickin awesome it is to be alive, and that getting a 56 in 1 free does not define me. With time I learned how much better I am as an athlete, and person. I started to laugh more at practice, and I mean really laugh like the type where your stomach starts to hurt. I started to dance like nobody’s watching, especially behind the block at swim meets. I always have a laugh with my friends when others stare at us and say, “wow what’s wrong with them as we blast” the song Everytime We Touch… and sing at the top of our lungs. Whenever I get nervous before a race, I tell myself… “Prove the administration wrong, who underestimated you”, and “show everyone what you are capable of.” It is an amazing feeling when you start to not care about what others think. I learned to use the negativity faced to make me a stronger person. I have grown to become brighter, happier, and confident knowing that I am not what the board says; I am so much more.
Ben: How do you think we can become more aware as a society about disorders and stop the stereotypes?
Kate: I think this organization is one step to ending all mental health stereotypes that still exist. What I really don’t like is when people in society tend to say “oh just shake it off”, “why are you depressed?”, “just eat that piece of cake.” It frustrates me because some people don’t truly understand what others are dealing with. I think that society can work together to end mental health by talking about it in schools, and somehow integrating it into the curriculum. I feel that some children are not aware of what others are going through, and when others are going through something they tend to snap easily. I don’t think enough people are aware of what true depression, eating disorders, ODC, and anxiety are. Another event I think is amazing is walks to raise money. I know the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has walks in different states to raise money, I think by creating those walks but driven to depression and anxiety can raise the awareness. By having more events in today’s society, others can become aware of what is going on.
Ben: Do you have any advice for people struggling with their own mental health journey right now?
Kate: My advice for people struggling with their own mental health journey, whether it’s depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder. Is to KEEP FIGHTING!! Don’t give in to that demon, because when you give in to the voices in your head that say “You are not good enough”, “You won’t make that time, you’re not fast enough” they win the little battles. Prove that voice wrong, continue fighting….because I have learned that when you do you will impress yourself. Also, I find reaching out to a close friend benefits you when you are struggling. As you grow and mature you realize there are beer buddies, work buddies, and life buddies as my dad would say. But, what I have also learned is that some stories need proper attention by a trained therapist. Starting the therapy process is tremendously hard, I remember starting therapy when I was in seventh grade. It took me until my junior year to meet one I trusted. I am so grateful for this amazing therapist I have, I know I would not have been as greatful if I did not go through the process of having not so great ones. There is no fight dealing with mental health is easy, I know there were a countless number of times where I wanted to give up and end it all. I feel that there is always something….a passion….a family member….a life goal that people feel is worth fighting for. For me, one of the main reasons I started nourishing my body again was for my sport. Swimming used to take me to dark places, with being obsessive over the times, but it is also one of the major parts of my life that helped me feel alive again. I think that there is always something people have that they want to keep fighting for, some just need help realizing it. I have learned you are never alone, I am opening up about my story because so many have inspired me. With this story I am showing how I found my inner warrior…and that it is possible in each and every person reading this.
Ben: What do you think schools and coaches could do to address this issue more?
Kate: I think that in general mental health is not properly acknowledged within the sports industry. But regarding depression, and eating disorders. I think coaches have a tendency to say “Just shake it off, you gotta win the race.” But, obviously they don’t know what the athlete is going through. I know of other athletes who struggle with eating disorders, some individuals think it’s so easy to eat because as athletes we burn calories all the time. But for some people, it truly can be a struggle to get burgers after a big win, or milkshakes after Saturday morning practice. I think to increase awareness about the benefits of foods, there should be more acknowledgement of the nutrients specific food has. With mental health being more acknowledged in the athletic world, especially eating disorders and anxiety….people will feel much more comfortable with their feelings the day of competition. I have had my fare share of coaches say, “Shake it off.” I have been lucky enough to have good relationships with all my coaches. I remember in high school, I opened up to my one swim coach about what I was dealing with everyday. All my coaches, especially my high school one have shown me that reaching out for help shows how brave you are. I think coaches get so caught up in the game sometimes, but they are just people at the end of the day who will sit down and listen.
Ben: Why do you think it is so hard for athletes to open up to their coaches and teammates about what they are going through?
Kate: Thankfully, I have always had a close relationship with my coaches. But, when someone decides to open themselves up like that vulnerably it can be scary for some. Sophomore year, I wanted to feel something again, I had this constant feeling of being mentally numb. Opening up to my club and high school coach during sophomore year, made me realize that vulnerability is strength. I think when a coach and athlete have a good relationship filled with positivity and laughter, it is nerve wracking opening up to a coach because of the fear that they will see you differently. But, I think there is such beauty in having a wonderful coach-athlete relationship. They serve as a role model aside from a parent figure. I think that many athletes don’t want to see a therapist, because advice from an idolized coach is so much more meaningful. I think the two largest components of why a child is afraid to open up to their coaches is having the coach view them differently, and rejection. I feel that as you mature, you realize that all the coaches are there to do is help you; and they want nothing but to see you succeed in and out of your sport.