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my freshman year

“Being fluent in your body's language is the antidote to trauma.” -Natalie Y. Gutiérrez

Being in your 30’s is time for self reflection, awakenings, and coming to realizations of experiences you’ve had that have changed, shaped and formed who you are. It is also realizing that I am NOT the events, trauma, and experiences that have happened to me. I am no victim, and healing is a ride I will be on till it is my time to journey on to the next world.

I learned at a very young age, to not listen to my voice or my body. I was so young when I was SA’d, and my brain protected me by storing the memories away till I was ready to face them. It was like I forgot them, though the memories would sometimes play in my head as if it were a bad nightmare, and I couldn’t tell the difference. But there was always a deep knowing that it had all really happened. And all this time, my body always remembered.

I blamed myself of course. I should have stopped it, I should have fought back, I should have trusted my gut and my inner voice, how am I supposed to trust myself ever again? And that was when it began. The beginning of not trusting my voice and not trusting the messages my body clearly communicates to me.

Onward to my freshman year of college, entering a completely new environment as a 17 year old, homeschooled Indigenous woman, I had no idea what was in store for me. I was recruited heavily in high school by the coach at Minnesota. Tennis was my love, my passion, an external outlet that I turned to when my insides were a mess. It earned me a full ride to play for the Gophers at the University of Minnesota. It was a dream, as it was close to home, and my older brother played for them as well. Of course, I was excited, but scared to death. I was transitioning from being with my mom and brothers all day, safe, in my bubble, to joining a coaching staff and a team that promised me a “family” atmosphere. It quickly shifted from a team, family environment, to a toxic, competitive, unsupportive setting.

On the court at Minnesota, I started out strong as a freshman. I was beating the girl who played 1# singles the previous years in practice, earning me a chance to play 1# singles. I could already feel the heat from the other girls’ eyes. Instead of lifting me up as an incoming freshman, they hazed me and didn’t think I deserved to play 1#. I tried to let my tennis speak for itself, winning at #1 singles my first match, and consistently staying in the top 4 of the lineup. At this point, a few weeks, or months into my division 1 college tennis experience, I was miserable, and spending almost every night at home, not having a typical college experience.

After getting some matches under my belt, and feeling good about how I was playing and my game, the coaches introduced certain “tests” we all had to complete in order to compete in the fall. There was a physical fitness test, and a tennis test. I passed the tennis test with ease, but the physical fitness test still stands as one of the hardest things I’ve had to do physically. It consisted of 30 total 100 yard sprints on a football field, with a 20 second rest in between. We had to complete the sprint in under 30 seconds or we failed and had to try the next day. So it went 30 second sprint, rest 20 seconds, go again, 30 times. Don’t make your time, try again at 5 am the next morning.

I pushed my body past its limits, past its many messages to please stop, countless times over and over to complete the fitness test in order to play the sport I loved. Pushing myself past throwing up, because their voices were telling me to keep going, pushing myself past the anger as I punched the walls after not passing the test. The messaging I was receiving from these coaches, were that I was lazy, had no work ethic, no discipline, poor effort, due to not passing the fitness test. I was pushing my body past its limits each day for them, crying, sobbing, throwing up blood, and it was always “you’re not trying hard enough” “you obviously didn’t train enough this summer to be prepared”. All of this caused me to develop horrible bronchitis for over a month. When I would go home, I’d sneak into my brothers room in the middle of the night. He’d let me take his bed and he’d sleep on the futon. I’d keep him up all night from my coughing fits and throwing up, but he stuck beside me. My family was always beside me.

I grew up with my two brothers, and always wondered what it would be like to have a sister, or a group of close friends that were girls. I was excited to join another team, after loving my experience of having a team playing high school tennis. My experience with the Gopher women’s tennis team was quite the opposite. There was so much competitiveness, and a low-level of support, at least none guided towards me. In the weight room, we were pushed to go up in weights before we were ready. In one instance, a teammate was doing dumbbell chest presses with weight that was simply too much for her, she wasn’t able to handle the weight, and they fell on her head. (A prime example of why our team suffered from so many injuries.)

Being a 17 year old, and not having the voice to speak up for myself, I resorted to skipping reps when I physically couldn’t exert more. Some teammates caught on, I guess they were counting my reps, and told the strength coaches. I was punished by being forced to go on the stair master for 30 minutes at full speed, with no breaks, everyone watching. I was holding in vomit, crying, and falling off the stairs as I pushed my body again past its limits, because I was surrounded by people who made me believe I had no choice. My body was constantly being “punished” and ignored.

There were so many instances like this. The messaging my 17 year old mind was being fed, was that I was never trying hard enough, I’m good at tennis but behind physically, not up to the other girls’ standards, or the coaches’ standards. I was quiet, I had international teammates, but I felt like the only person of color. I wasn’t loud enough, I didn’t cheer enough, I didn’t participate in outside team events enough (could you blame me?)

My family was my rock through this whole experience and time in my life. My dad would be up at 4 am to drive me 25 minutes into campus for my 5 am workouts every morning with no complaints. I know it was hard for them to see me go through such turbulence in my life, not feeling like they could much but support me on the side. But my dad ended up going into the head coaches office to give him a piece of his mind. Apparently, my parents were told by someone who worked under the head coach, that he had destroyed all photos of me. My mom only recently told me this, as telling me in the moment would not have been good for young me.

I feel for my 17 year old self and this version of me with all of my heart. I cry for her often, and mourn the college freshman experience she could have had elsewhere. She was so young, naive, innocent, and pure. She really tried her hardest to mold and fit into what they wanted her to be. Despite their beliefs, she tried her fucking best. There was nothing wrong with her, and she deserved to be treated with kindness and support.

It’s crazy to think back on that girl. How I would not stand to be treated like that now, but how she felt that she had no other choice. She couldn’t speak up, they’re in charge. I must be wrong, there must be something inherently wrong with me. Their voices have lived on in me as I have grown up. I have tied my worthiness into how much effort I put into working out, results, eating. I have believed that I am never ever doing enough, and my body has paid the price. I've believed that the girls who made it through their program, must be better than me. They must be fitter, louder,

stronger mentally, the type of girls they "wanted".

But I want to say now, no sweet girl, there is nothing wrong with you. You did what you could with what you had in the moment. You did the best you could, and you didn’t deserve that treatment.

I’m here for you now. We won’t stand for that ever again. Your voice matters. Your body speaks to you, and it’s ok to trust yourself and your body now. I am here. You’re ok and so loved just as you are. You are inherently worthy, enough, and important.

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