Emily Lehman clutched a piece of paper as she stood before a crowd of young Frederick County athletes Wednesday night.
On a plane coming back from Florida, she had written a letter to her younger self, she told them. She had “bawled her eyes out” as she recounted the challenges she has faced — the mental health issues, body dysphoria and self-doubt — and what she’s learned from them.
“Dear younger self,” Lehman read from the letter. “You’re going to have mental breakdowns and cry because your worth and your values are going to be based on your sport and your performance,”
She paused, before plunging forward.
“But it doesn’t have to be,” she continued reading. “I want you to remember to look for all the beautiful things in life, and not just about a practice or game you might have had.”
Lehman, an athlete performance coach and female mentor leader at Player’s Fitness and Performance, a Frederick gym, shared her story at “Take Back Control,” a panel discussion and empowerment event hosted by the gym and the Mental Health Association of Frederick County.
The event, meant to target the stigma that shrouds mental health issues, featured motivational speakers, coaches at Player’s Fitness and Performance, and current and former college athletes who once played in Frederick County.
More than 150 high school and college athletes, their parents and their coaches attended the panel held at the gym Wednesday night, said Mental Health Association Marketing and Development Manager Rebecca Layman.
Her daughter plays with Frederick’s Renegades Lacrosse Club. Her daughter’s coach canceled practice on Wednesday, so the team could attend, Layman said.
Members of the Heartbreakers, a Frederick softball team, also sat in the audience, still wearing their uniforms. They had attended practice from 5:30 to 7 pm Wednesday. Their coaches encouraged them to come to the event afterward.
“I hope the girls get a lot out of it,” said Earl Edwards, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for the Heartbreakers.
Athletes who spoke Wednesday shared their experiences with recovering from injuries and learning to define themselves outside the context of their sport.
One by one, they emphasized to the young people in the audience that they were so much more than athletes.
“I wish I had heard somebody say that when I was your guys’ age,” said Carly Heine, who played lacrosse for Oakdale High School before playing for the University of Michigan.
Heine immediately fell in love with lacrosse when she began playing in third grade. She knew “right then and there” she wanted to play at the highest level possible for a woman lacrosse player: Division I.
She worked really hard to do so, earning braces throughout high school. But the whole time, she could tell something was wrong. She knew it wasn’t normal for a teenager not to be able to feel her legs.
It wasn’t until she started playing at Michigan that she was diagnosed with popliteal artery entrapment syndrome, an unusual condition in which a patient’s calf muscle presses on the main artery behind their knee, making it hard for blood to flow to their lower leg and football.
After going through a series of treatments, Heine medically retired from her sports career during her junior year and became a student assistant coach. It was an incredibly difficult decision. The thought of never wearing her uniform again was hard to wrap her head around. The only way she had ever thought of herself was as an athlete.
She described the beginning of her junior year to the time she graduated as “rock bottom.”
But she had a strong support network in her family and coaches, she said.
“I never stepped on the field after the end of my freshman year,” she said, “and my family still traveled all over the country to see me hold a clipboard.”
Lehman, who played soccer for her entire life, including at Frostburg University, also decided to step away from the sport she loved.
Her mental health was so low that she knew she needed time to work on herself. She became a strength conditioning coach and learned to fight anxiety the “right way,” instead of hiding from herself, she said.
Now, she helps female athletes overcome obstacles in her “dream job.” Although she still experiences anxiety, depression and hopelessness, she has continued to keep growing mentally and physically.
“Dear Emily,” she finished reading, “I’m proud of you.”
Follow Angela Roberts on Twitter: @24_angier