Injury led to disappointment, disillusionment for Whitney Anderson
special to the daily
Summit County, CO
When she was in eighth grade, before the historic high-school running career and the surreal two months at college powerhouse Duke, before the whispers of an Olympic future and long before the pain in her hamstring showed up, Whitney Anderson did one thing every day.
She ran along an airstrip in a tiny Alaskan fishing village called Chignik Lagoon, home to about 60 full-time residents, most of them related, a Final Frontier netherland accessible only by bush plane or boat.
Sometimes bears would watch from the edge of the clearing, transfixed by the skinny girl with the long dark hair and that beautiful, effortless stride, as she ran up and down the landing zone, over and over again.
For Anderson, running represented something entirely different back then ” possibility. The rest of her life was so rife with remoteness that she clung to the dream with all she had.
The more she ran, the faster she became. It started to show in 2003, when Anderson won an Alaska state cross-country championship her junior year in high school.
After a move to Breckenridge that winter, the precocious teen began training with Lyle Knudson of Frisco, a distance-running Yoda with an approach as old-fashioned as it was miraculous.
A few months later, running for Summit High School, Anderson swept the 1,600- and 3,200-meter races at the 4A state meet in Denver, breaking a 14-year-old state record in the 3,200.
By the time she enrolled at Duke on a full scholarship 15 months later, Anderson had won six state titles and owned the seventh-fastest 5K time ever run by an American high-school girl.
The ridiculous rate of improvement carried over to her freshman year in college.
Anderson helped the Blue Devils rise to No. 1 in the nation as the only non-senior on Duke’s seven-woman varsity roster. She was named Freshman of the Year in the ACC, the most talent-rich conference in America.
Then one day she felt something she’d never felt before ” a tiny twinge deep in her hamstring.
Anderson, a self-described “no-pain, no-gain” runner, had missed only two practices in 20 months of training with Knudson ” both due to blisters. When her hamstring ached, she ignored the pain and tried to run through it. The pain grew. She ignored it some more. It got worse.
Over the next two years, the pain systematically dismantled Anderson’s life. She stopped running fast, quit the team, voluntarily gave up her $40,000-a-year scholarship.
Even quicker than she had catapulted into the sport’s national conversation, she vanished.
On her good days, Anderson, now 21, says she is confident in the person that running left behind. She returned to Duke from Alaska on the final Monday in August to begin her senior year. But without a scholarship, she only was able to scrape together enough money for one more semester, not two.
As such, she will take a six-class course load instead of the normal four, leaving her with just two more credits required to graduate (Duke allows each student to transfer two credits and still earn a diploma).
“I really want to graduate from Duke,” she said by phone before leaving Alaska. “I just really want to move on with my life.”
On her bad days, however, Anderson still cannot help but mourn the person she once was, the superstar with no ceiling. She has done everything she can to divorce herself from that identity, but like an ex-lover in an abusive relationship, it lingers, and she clings to it sometimes.
“I’m still trying to face the fact that I’m not better, that I can’t run,” she said. “I’ve tried to stay positive about it and move on to a new chapter of my life, but sometimes the strain of going against what I really loved …” She trails off. “I’ll just break down sometimes, and I’ll just start crying when I’m alone. It’s a sad life.”
Anderson spent her junior year as the team manager, her scholarship still intact because she attended the first two weeks of practices before finally acquiescing to the 2-year-old pain and telling head coach Kevin Jermyn she could no longer run.
When she came back to Breckenridge earlier this summer, naturally, people recognized her. It flattered her to a degree, but their recollection of her was outdated.
“Oh, you’re the runner,” they’d say.
“I hate being called that now,” Anderson said. “I’m Whitney. I’m starting a new chapter in my life. There will be other doors open for me. Running isn’t the path I’m taking right now.”
Anderson’s training until she arrived at Duke had been rooted in Knudson’s preference for quality over quantity; she ran downhill mostly, averaging 35 miles a week at paces significantly faster than most distance regimens.
According to Anderson, when Duke coach Jermyn recruited her, he said he, like Knudson, designed individual workouts for his runners. It was a large part of what attracted her to his program.
But when she arrived in Durham, N.C., she found herself running upwards of 50 miles a week ” to prepare for a 6K race ” at vastly slower paces than she was used to. The team also warmed up with strange drills that Anderson says had little in common with a runner’s stride.
When she asked to return to Knudson’s training program, Jermyn declined her request, citing the need to train as a team. (When contacted for this story, Jermyn confirmed by e-mail that Anderson had given up her scholarship, but did not respond to repeated requests for further comment.)
Gradually, Anderson’s body began to break down, until the pain in her hamstring grew too great to overcome on race day.
At the last meet of her freshman season, the NCAA Championships in November, top-ranked Duke stumbled to third, with a weary Anderson taking 71st place, far back of her expected result.
The disappointment turned to alarm when the slight tear in her upper hamstring ” a nook of the body that gets very little blood flow ” persisted through the spring and into the following fall.
“I tried everything,” Anderson said. “Stem treatment, ultrasound, chiropractic therapy, physical-therapy exercises, swimming, aqua jogging ” I just did everything they told me to do. And my leg never got back to full health.”
The two months of superstar promise she’d shown her freshman fall didn’t help.
Expectations, without warning, had suddenly ballooned to a point out of her reach.
“I felt a lot more pressure on me after that,” she said, “because I knew my coach was going to say something after each day: ‘What’s wrong with your leg? Why aren’t you getting better?’ And it wasn’t my fault; that’s why the injury was so frustrating. None of the coaching staff or physical-therapy staff really understood what I was going through.”
Anderson avoided the pressure as much as possible. She battled severe depression, aching to escape from the world in which she felt trapped.
“I was just about to shoot myself, I was so sick of running,” she said.
And yet she knew she would lose her scholarship if she quit. Her parents, who make their living in the sagging commercial-fishing business, have three other children and were not in a position to pay her tuition.
So against every inch of her desire, Anderson continued to attend physical therapy to protect her scholarship.
Those close to her watched and listened as the girl they knew to personify toughness ” she was known in high school for running until she collapsed ” suddenly no longer wished to fight.
The hopeless moments persist even now.
“You try to teach a kid that life isn’t fair,” said her mother, Susan. “I try to think of ways to build her up. It’s difficult for me too, to know what to say. What do you say?”
Anderson makes a point to say she’s lucky to have had her mother and friends. But sometimes no comfort can numb the kind of despair she’s felt.
“My mom would always tell me: ‘Well, Whitney, this is a job, you know? You’re getting a scholarship to Duke, and you’re getting paid $40,000 to run. All you can do is try. It’s not like you even have to race.’
“And it’s just something she didn’t understand. ‘Mom, it’s not a job. It’s something so much more, and it’s wearing me out. It’s wearing my life out.’ Something that you love so much, and then you hate it so much because you’re being forced to do it and you’re getting hurt by doing it all the time?
“I couldn’t just treat it as a job; it was more than that. It was just driving me crazy and driving my life crazy. That’s why I had to go in to Kevin that one day and tell him: ‘I can’t do this anymore.'”
The town of Chignik Lagoon is in a part of the world so remote that a jar of peanut butter costs $9. It’s hardly a place for a 21-year-old artist and aspiring fashion designer to spend a summer in her prime.
Yet in the middle of July, Anderson flew home to work on her family’s salmon fishing boat. She put in 12-hour days, six or seven days a week, saving money for tuition and other expenses that awaited her return to North Carolina.
When she wasn’t working, she spent much of her time thinking, about herself and her life, trying again to pry her mind out of its grieving state. She reached out this past year to her older sister, Sierra, a full-scholarship runner at Southern Methodist University.
The gesture was especially poignant because Sierra had endured a falling out with the family, and the two sisters had barely spoken in three years. When they finally did reconnect, Sierra, who battled a debilitating glute injury her junior season at SMU, was able to empathize with her younger sister, a shared pain that drew them closer.
“It’s been hard because Whitney was my inspiration to run,” Sierra, 23, said by phone from Dallas. “I started running because of her. If we didn’t have this in common, we’d have a lot less to talk about.”
Anderson was still in Alaska during the Beijing Olympics, but she was able to follow two former peers as they competed for Team USA. One of her ex-teammates at Duke, Shannon Rowbury, took seventh in the 1,500 meters, and a former high-school opponent, Jenny Barringer, set an American record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
Anderson beams when she sees them doing so well, she says, but sometimes she can’t help but wonder. After all, she beat Barringer at the high-school national championship meet in 2004.
“When I ran in college, people would say: ‘Oh, you’re going to be the next Olympian,'” Anderson said. “But that just put more pressure on me. It made me look at running as even more superficial than it was, and it became that. I was pretty much forcing myself to run.”
Those days, of course, are over. With a week to go in her stay in Chignik, Anderson ” who stands 5-foot-6 and weighs 130 pounds, 15 more than her competition weight ” said she hadn’t run in more than a month.
Not even on the deserted airstrip, which once conducted hope straight from her shoes to her heart.
“I feel like as tradition, I should just go around it a few more times before I leave,” she said, momentarily perking up. “I think I might do that, just go for the heck of it.”
She stayed silent for a second, allowing herself to enjoy the idea before reality inevitably gobbled it up.
“Other than that, it’s the first time I haven’t run here in a long time,” she said.
Devon O’Neil is a freelance writer living in Breckenridge.
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