When I committed to run cross country and track at Augustana University, I dreamed of racking up PRs, collecting All-American medals and helping my new big-shot college team win a national championship. But God had a different plan in mind. Rather than satisfying my teenage ambitions, He led me through several seasons of spiritual growth — seasons which included everything from tendinitis to mental burnout. If I were to travel back in time and tell 17-year-old Alana what was going to happen to her running career, she would have probably passed out from sadness and/or quit college cross country before it even began. Yet looking back, I’m grateful for the setbacks; without them, I would not be the woman I am today.
If I reached all of my goals, here are five things that never would have happened:
- Discovering a passion for sports photography — Two days before I moved back to campus for my sophomore cross country season, I was diagnosed with a stress reaction in my left femur. At first, I didn’t know which was more heartbreaking: the image of an athlete swinging into the first official practice on crutches or the prospect of being sidelined for the bulk of the season. Yet while my running dreams were put on hold, I started working for The Edda and completing projects for my Intro to Photography class. Both opportunities placed a borrowed DSLR camera in my hand. While sidelined at meets, I fumbled around with the camera and took photos of my more able-bodied teammates. Along the way, I discovered a knack for the craft and embraced my new artistic role on the team. To this day, I love photographing sports — the action, emotion and discipline that define athletics and tell a larger story.
- Sharing my testimony — As a Christian, I know that God is with me in the middle of every hardship, maturing me and leading me closer to Him. After navigating so many athletic setbacks with God by my side, I was able to share my testimony with other students on campus. Talking about these setbacks required a lot of vulnerability, but in many cases, God used my story to encourage other students who were facing similar trials. At the very least, I hope that everyone who listens to my testimony will know that they are loved by God and they are not alone.
- Empathizing with teammates going through similar struggles — After enduring a few setbacks of my own, I knew how to approach my teammates when they were facing similar obstacles. I remembered what I needed most when I was in their shoes — namely, a listening ear and an affirmation that I am not alone. When dealing with the initial shock of a setback, it helps to talk with a teammate who has already been through the mess. If I was that teammate for at least one person, I did my job.
- Letting go of my pride — This was both the most painful and most beautiful gift that came from my imperfect collegiate career. Coming to Augustana as a top recruit, I expected to finish among the fastest seven Vikings every year. At the time, I didn’t understand how unpredictable running could be. Two athletes with the same high school PRs might receive the same training in college and make the same lifestyle choices, but experience very different long-term results. Breakthroughs can be cruelly random. So can injuries. After several of the latter, I could no longer rely on my performances for a quick self-esteem boost, because my random athletic trajectory was hardly something to boast about. Working tirelessly toward a goal only to fall short in the end is an incredibly humbling experience. Fortunately, humility is a gift; it reminds us to live for something bigger than ourselves. For me, that’s God, whose love for humanity is the only constant in an unpredictable world.
- Learning to love the process — In high school, I thought that I loved running. The truth is that I loved being good at running– which is entirely different. It took several years of not being the best and not PRing every season before I could actually say the L-word and mean it. Last fall, I finally reached that point. Though I only raced once, due to some unfinished healing from years of performance anxiety, I genuinely enjoyed my last cross country season. Regardless of my personal workout times, I loved pushing — and being pushed by — my teammates to embrace discomfort and discover that extra gear. Instead of always focusing on the next race, I found small things to look forward to every day.