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Coping With the Turmoil

Book probes a student-athlete’s battle with mental health issues and how colleges can lend support

The death of Madison Holleran, pictured with her father, sparked conversations about mental health on numerous college campuses. Submitted by Little, Brown and Co.

No one can know the thoughts that raced through Madison Holleran’s head the tragic day she decided to end it all. She was a 19-year-old freshman at Pennsylvania, a track star at an Ivy League school with a promising college career ahead of her. Yet the quintessential student-athlete life she led gave little hint to her inner battles.

That cruel turmoil festered mostly in silence until it pushed her to the brink in January 2014, when she jumped to her death.

What Made Maddy Run

Author: Kate Fagan
Published by: Little, Brown and Co. (Aug. 1, 2017)
Pages: 320 
Price: $27

News of the tragedy shook the Pennsylvania campus and sparked conversations about mental health on college campuses across the country. That dialogue continued when journalist Kate Fagan shed light on the complexities of Holleran’s struggle in a heart-wrenching story for the website espnW. Fagan, a former basketball player at Colorado, recognized pieces of herself in Holleran.

And the responses she received from the story — including hundreds of emails from high school and college students — revealed that many others related in some way, too.

Those emotional messages that flooded Fagan’s inbox in the wake of the espnW piece served as the fuel for the writer’s new book, which explores Holleran’s story in greater depth and offers insights on issues of mental illness in young people, particularly college athletes. “I just felt there would be a lot of layers to Madison’s story beyond the immediate headlines that could really open up conversations for students and student-athletes in high school and college,” Fagan says.

“What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen” offers an account of Holleran’s life and death while weaving in essays on larger societal themes. Fagan addresses social media, campus culture and her own experiences as a college athlete. As a freshman, Fagan grappled with anxiety induced by new pressures, an unfamiliar environment and the expectations of what college should be. She considered quitting the basketball team — the only variable she felt she could control — until her coach stepped in and guided her to professional help.

Fagan stresses the important role an athletics department can play in prioritizing student-athlete mental health and breaking down the stigmas that remain, particularly for athletes. She encourages athletics departments to offer more in-house professional support, and for administrators and staff to ensure every student-athlete has at least one “ally” with whom they personally connect within the department.

“I had a specific trainer who knew me as more than the freshman from New York who’s good at shooting 3-pointers,” Fagan says. “And because I had that person when I was struggling, I knew I could go to her. … Every athlete, if it’s possible, you should know who their person is. And if it feels like no one’s connected with them, someone should.”

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About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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