March 7, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - Last winter, Megan Goethals was near self-destruction.
Essentially, she was disintegrating.
She weighed less than 100 pounds. She wasn't eating enough to refuel a body she was demanding to run more than 80 miles per week. In her second race at Washington as the most decorated of Huskies coach Greg Metcalf's star-packed recruiting class of 2009, the Gatorade national girls cross country runner of the year essentially crashed and burned into the cross-country course at Notre Dame.
Mention Notre Dame now, and Goethals winces.
"That was probably one of the worst experiences I've ever had," she says. "My body was just failing me. They had to shut me down for the season."
Metcalf and Huskies assistant Lauren Denfeld sent Goethals away from the track for three months, the rest of the cross-country season into the beginning of the indoor one.
It would be like Steve Sarkisian taking the football away from Keith Price two games into a Huskies football season and telling him to stay home for three months.
"I got really depressed," Goethals said.
"Yeah, I had a really rough start to my college career."
Rougher than you or I can imagine.
She was 18, far across the country from her mother Diane and father Kevin, her younger brother and two younger sisters, her friends - her support system - way back in Rochester, Mich. But shutting her down was the only way to stop Goethals' unknowing self-destruction.
Her coaches helped assemble a UW support group that became known as "Team Megan." Each week for more than three months, she walked alone into regular appointments. With doctors. With trainers. A nutritionist. A psychiatrist.
"I was by myself out here, out here from Michigan," she says now. "I didn't have anybody."
Except "Team Megan."
Her psychiatrist told her to find a new pursuit... that she likely wouldn't run competitively again.
But at first, they weren't exactly her pals. Her psychiatrist told her to find a new pursuit, a new love, that she likely wouldn't run competitively again. Not if she wanted a healthy life, anyway.
"It was almost surreal. I would think about it sometimes. `Wow, a year ago I won cross-country nationals. Now, I can't even run three miles,'" Goethals said. "It was really, really hard to handle hearing the doctors - they were trying to be positive with me - but them saying, `You have to accept that you might not be able to do this anymore.'
"The hardest, definitely, was seeing the psychiatrist. She made me tell her everything that happened, how it happened. Talk about the past and such. It was just hard to know that I really gone through just a couple of months on the track and everything had changed and I wasn't the national-caliber athlete that I hoped to be here."
She is now.
Strengthened with 15 added pounds - 15 percent more than her total body weight was at her lowest points - and revived from a renewed career, Goethals chatted cheerfully with me Tuesday afternoon as we sat on blue foam mats in the high-jump pits at one end of Dempsey Indoor.
Her hair was pulled back by a similarly dark band. Her now-fuller cheeks were a rosy shade from a bike ride she took through the 40-degree chill to get there. She wore a puffy, black down coat - plus a proud smile that said, "I'm back."
Wednesday, Goethals left for Boise, Idaho, and her third national championships since she bottomed out 14 months ago. After finishing sixth in the country in the NCAA outdoor track and field finals last June and 18th at the NCAA cross country championships in November, she will run Friday in the NCAA indoor championships in the 5,000 meters. Saturday, she is scheduled to race in the 3,000-meter final.
"She kind of came back to life," said Denfeld, who trains UW's distance runners.
More than kind of.
Goethals has gone from trauma to triumph, depressed to determined, in one remarkable year. Fourteen months after her psychiatrist told her to find something other than running to love, Goethals is back among the nation's elite distance runners.
It's a story of her perseverance in conquering fear, of conquering her own mind and her own body.
And it's a story of Washington's coaches and support staff noticing danger, shelving a top-flight career -- and then reviving it in a way that will benefit this sunny-again sophomore far past graduation.
"It's a testimony to everything I've put in," she says, allowing herself a well-earned smile. "It's been a very long road.
"I think I'm finally into a place where I am comfortable with who I am and where I'm at."
That's a victory so obvious, so mammoth, she doesn't need a stopwatch to measure it.
'MY WHOLE WORLD CAME CRASHING DOWN'
Goethals was the princess of high-school distance running in this country in 2009 and `10. She did not lose a race in cross country or in track, winning three national high school titles out of the Detroit suburbs.
When she arrived at Washington in the fall of '10 she was driving herself to go even faster and farther to be a national collegiate champion in a powerhouse program.
It nearly ruined her running career.
She was running the 80-plus miles a week while eating just 3,000 calories a day. That's not low according to some recommended daily caloric intakes for normally active, 18-year-old women. But it was dangerously low given how fiendishly Goethals had been training for years to become the nation's elite girl distance runner.
The national leader in 5,000 meters - three-plus miles - could barely run a 200. She couldn't lift a medicine ball past her chin.
"It was hard, honestly, just walking around," she said Tuesday. "Even climbing stairs was a BIG task. My energy stores were just depleted. I was allowed to run 20 or 30 minutes, and that felt like a marathon. The rest of the day I'd just be done.
"It was just really hard to think about. Here I am doing a 20-minute run and dying and a month and a half before I was doing 14-mile runs. It was just very hard to handle."
Metcalf and Denfeld had seen enough that race day at Notre Dame. So they acted decisively. They shut her down from running from mid-October until into January, sending her away from the team for three months.
"By not training her, we were training her," Denfeld says now.
Not that Goethals saw it that way initially, of course.
"I was absolutely crushed," she says. "When I first came here I had all these dreams of winning everything. That's the way it was in high school - you win everything. I mean, I'd heard how everyone comes in and has a hard time adjusting to college. I said, `Oh, that's not going to be me. I'm fully prepared for this.'
"I had a really hard time with it, because I came from Michigan and that's why I came all the way out here, I loved the thought of being on this team," she said. "It was kind of like being told I wasn't allowed to do it anymore, the one thing I love to do.
"Really, at that point, that was the only way I identified myself was as Megan, the runner. I had to go through a period when I wasn't a runner, and I was depressed for a while. And then it was, what do I do now?"
She did next to nothing. She went to class. Came back to her room. And stayed depressed.
"It lasted for three months, wondering if I would ever compete again, at all," she says. "It's a lot hard work. I had issues with weight, I had to gain a lot of weight. It was a very slow, frustrating process. It was hard, not having my parents here. I was homesick. My body was treating me badly. I wasn't able to run.
"Kind of my whole world came crashing down at that point."
Doctors showed Goethals how her caloric deficit has been growing into a monster for years, without her knowing it.
"The way the doctors described it I'd kind of dug myself a hole, and I had to fill the hole back up before I could even add anything on top of it," she said. "It just really depleted myself. It had gotten to a point that it had gotten so bad."
On top of that, doctors diagnosed Goethals with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
UW team sports nutritionist Monica Van Winkle prescribed a program that gradually increased Goethals' consumption from 3,000 to 4,200 calories per day.
For someone so wedded to daily routines, of everything being just so in her life for years, it wasn't as simple as just adding a couple of sandwiches a day and driving on.
"At the same time I was also having issues with OCD. So it was very, very hard to make that change," Goethals. "I had to talk to a psychiatrist. I had doctors' appointments every week. Nutritionists. I had to go to my psychiatrist every week.
"I'm just really thankful for all of them being there, because I mean, I had a lotof issues that they had to help me with."
"IT WAS, LIKE, THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE"
She went home for 2½ weeks over Christmas break of that freshman year in December 2010. At last she was back with mom, an administrator for her hometown's soccer program, and her dad, a treasurer for a factory-built housing company. She was with her brother Matthew, now a freshman at Michigan State, and her sisters Jennifer (now 17) and Jessica (15 and also a competitive runner).
But she felt the same as when she was away at school. She was depressed. Idle. Lost.
The day she returned to UW in the first week of January 2011 changed her life.
"It was weird, the day I got back here, all of a sudden I could do - it was simple - I could do strides!" she says, still sounding excited with the breakthrough. "I hadn't been able to do that for months. It was very strange, like it just switched. And I don't know what changed.
It was very strange, like it just switched. And I don't know what changed.
"It was actually like I woke up one morning and I was fine. I don't know if everything had built up from what I'd been doing for a couple months, or me being home around so much positive and being able to get the support of my family. I don't know.
"It was weird. It was, like, the best day of my life."
She still remembers warming up that day and thinking "Whoa! That wasn't even hard. That was just like a warm-up!" where before that warm-up taxed her like half a run would.
The next day, the first day of classes after Christmas break, Goethals completed her first team practice with the Dawgs since September.
She was a Husky reborn.
"It just felt normal - that's the word I would use. Running didn't feel like a struggle. It was just natural. "Just walking around felt different," she says, laughing. "After that practice I called my parents right away. They were SO excited. I had called them every day in the fall. I was usually pretty upset. So they were ecstatic.
"They are not the kind that obsessed about me being good. They just wanted me to be happy."
Finally, she was.
Her first race back was on Valentines' Day 2011 in the Husky Classic at Dempsey Indoor. She was not in UW uniform, running unattached.
In designation only, that is. She was totally attached to her sport again -- and more important, to herself.
"The first race, when I was unattached, it was the best feeling in the world just to be able to race again," she said. "At that point I hadn't actually raced in college. I mean, I raced in cross country, but it was pretty bad. So I actually hadn't really raced since my senior year of high school.
"The adrenaline I had, it was probably my best feeling ever that first race. It was like, `I can actually do this!'
The next race was her return in Huskies uniform at the MPSF meet. Her reaction to being back in purple and gold competitively that day: "Oh, my gosh!"
"I stopped and thought, `Two months ago I thought I was never going to race again. Now, I am finally able to do it,'" she says now.
"Then I won the conference meet and I was like, `Wow, I can do this again!'"
"That was when I really started to feel like my high-school self again," she said.
Yes, Goethals didn't just return. She ran wild again. At the NCAA West Prelims in Eugene, Ore., she ran a personal-best 16:02.64 in the 5,000 meters and won.
Weeks later, five months after rock bottom, Goethals was even faster at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships in Des Moines, Iowa. She ran the 5,000 in 15:47.79, breaking the UW freshman record with the third-best time in school history. She finished sixth in the nation, the best placing ever by a Husky woman in that event, and she earned the UW women their only points at the national finals meet.
From out of action to All-American in five months.
She's continued her resurgence as a sophomore. In the fall cross-country season Goethals was the only UW woman runner to improve her time in every race. In November she ran 20:06 over 6,000 meters, third among all sophomore or freshman finishers at the national championships to finish 18th. She was second on the team to Katie Flood, as Washington took second in the country as a team.
I asked Goethals if she truly, at her darkest hour 14 months ago, thought she'd ever race again.
"I thought I would. I think deep down I knew it probably wasn't going to happen," she said.
"But I am a pretty optimistic person. And I love it so much I could not picture not doing it again. But I knew I probably wasn't going to be able to."
Goethals is a self-described "track geek, definitely." She knows times of competitors across the nation, and will have a mental scouting report on the fields she faces in Boise Friday and Saturday. She devours all the running information she can.
That means she read disparaging internet comments inside the track community about her weight and her health when she first got to UW, and while she was idled. Critics wondered why UW ever signed her. They recklessly diagnosed her from afar with eating and emotional disorders.
They added more hurt onto an 18-year-old young woman who was already suffering internally.
"She just wasn't eating enough for all the training she was doing."
Now that Goethals is back up to 115 pounds on her way to Denfeld's goal for her of 120, back to stacking up national championship appearances in outdoor track, cross country and now this weekend at the NCAA indoor finals, I asked if a part of her screams "TAKE THAT!"--or worse -- to those cowards behind anonymous keyboards.
"I would like to say no. But, honestly, yes," she said, laughing.
"When I was having issues and such Coach Metcalf would come to me and say, `You've just got to use that stuff as ammunition. Kind of show them, `Look me now. I actually did it.'
Her parents will be there watching her line up in Boise Friday for the NCAA finals in the 5,000 meters. It will be the first time they have seen their daughter run at a college indoor meet.
They are among the select few that know all Megan went through to get there.
"All my hard work has gotten me to this. I just have to believe in myself and my abilities," she says, smiling again.
"Sometimes I have feelings like, `What if that happens again?' I know it's not going to. I just have to keep reminding myself of that."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.