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Mental health series part 1: Karlie Suber’s toughest opponent, and biggest victory

Posted on Wednesday, January 18, 2017 at 12:25 pm

For every student-athlete at every level of competition, their public performances only show a fraction of the time dedicated to their endeavor.

No one fills the bleachers when the swimmer begins their laps at 5 a.m. Hours before their classmates begin to hit the snooze button on a school day. Feet of tape used on one’s body in the training room can accumulate over time into miles. Physical injuries, from simple wear and tear, to broken bones, take their toll.

Top high school players begin to experience very high levels of expectation, some as early as middle school, when word of their athletic prowess becomes public, and universities begin to talk scholarships. Practices grow in purpose, games grow exponentially in meaning. A big game in front of the right person could mean a six-figure scholarship, a “free” college education.

All the while, from the first signs of gifted play, to one’s Senior Day in college, there’s an issue that could be not only present, but prevalent, in the life of a student-athlete that no fan can see, that coaches may not detect.

What is prevalent in the mind, the heart, and the soul of a teenager, a young adult, who spends, in some cases, over half of their young lives trying to turn success in athletics into success for their future?

Last week, for Jordan Hankins, a sophomore on the Northwestern University women’s basketball team, the battle became too much. Hankins was found dead in her dorm room Jan. 9, the result, according to a medical examiner’s finding, of suicide by hanging.

A top player at her high school in Indianapolis, Hankins left an indelible impression on her coaches and teammates in just three semesters as a Wildcat, who all now must grieve and grapple with why this tragedy happened.

Hankins seemingly had it all, an assumption we all too quickly place on any successful, on the surface, student-athlete. But as one former standout Atlee volleyball player once said, “You don’t have to be happy all the time to live a happy life.”

Karlie Suber had it all. Her sister, Narissa, became just the second 1,000 point scorer in Atlee basketball history in 2004. The baby of the family, Karlie played several sports, but found her athletic calling on the volleyball court.

Suber and the Raiders made the state tournament three consecutive seasons, reaching the Group AAA Championship Final her senior season in 2012. She accepted an offer to play for the University of Virginia, an Atlantic Coast Conference institution known worldwide for its quality of education.

By her sophomore year, she was in the starting lineup, and, by her own admission, doing well academically, but something was not right. Not sleeping then turned into a loss of appetite. Suber went to a psychologist, and didn’t like the first results.

“I could immediately tell that he was searching for something deeper, which I wasn’t really open to,” Suber told the Herald-Progress. “Obviously, there’s a stigma behind (depression).”

On a blog post released last summer announcing her decision to end her volleyball career at Virginia with a year of eligibility remaining, Suber noted, “It’s an inexplicable feeling to someone who’s never experienced it before, but imagine that you’re sad and you can’t find a reason for it and you can’t find a way to fix it.”

For Suber to write the blog was, in itself, a large step forward for a woman who can be soft-spoken and private, but it served several purposes, from explanation to catharsis.

“When people found out I wasn’t playing anymore, they would look at me and be like, what happened?,” Suber recalled. “I was always in the gym, whether volleyball or basketball. I would just go up to RVC (Richmond Volleyball Club) and just practice with whatever team was practicing at the time. So I wanted people to know that it (retiring) wasn’t because I didn’t love the sport. I just physically and mentally couldn’t take it, and it wasn’t healthy for me.”

Oct. 1, 2014 is an important date in Karlie’s journey. In the heart of her sophomore volleyball season, she was diagnosed with depression.

“Initially, it was really hard for me to accept it. I was in denial about depression at first,” Suber noted. “But once I kept talking with the psychologist, I realized that it was beyond the realm of what I could do to help myself, and it clicked. I switched gears to see if there was something else that someone else could do to help me.”

She was also dealing with plantar fasciitis, which causes pain in or under the heel, a condition that began her freshman year. Once the 2014 season concluded, Suber reached out.

“My coach was pretty good about it, telling me after my second year that if I needed to take the time to figure things out, I could do that,” Suber noted. “He made it very clear he wasn’t pushing me not to play, but if that was my decision he would still want me to be around. So, the only decision I had to make was was it going to make me happy and was I going to be in pain doing it.”

Suber also worked through what she noted as “identity issues.” Who is Karlie, if not a volleyball player? By talking with a sports psychologist at Virginia, and opening up to her parents and to some friends, she realized she had all the support she needed, but she simply didn’t know if she could give up a sport she had played for 12 of her then-20 years on earth.

People who deal with any type of mental health issue not only fight that battle daily, but have to be ready for a myriad of issues which surface once they seek assistance. Will I have to take medication? What side effects are possible? Will my family and friends “label” me, or treat me differently?

In Suber’s case, a mountain to climb was how to handle not playing volleyball. What does she do with her free time? Can she successfully be around the team, around the sport, while not participating? She even worried about getting in her daily exercise. Could leaving volleyball cause new emotional issues?

Suber watched her older sisters play competitive basketball and softball, first picking up a basketball herself at age four. Nights were filled with watching their practices, or going to her own. Athletics were so ingrained in her being, her existence, how does one turn the page?

For Suber, it was a combination of learning new routines, concentrating on studies, spending time helping her team, and realizing more about depression itself.

“Learning more about the disease helped me understand what I was going through,” Suber explained. “I’m one of those people that likes to know everything about something. I like to know where everything comes from. My sports psychology class helped me understand what I was going through, that I wasn’t the only one, and that it’s not uncommon anymore.”

Suber graduated from the University of Virginia last month, three and a half years after graduating from Atlee. She has also graduated to a new level of knowledge about depression, mental health, and her life today. Suber now wants to take the journey that brought her here, and help others know that, if they are depressed, there’s hope, and there’s help.

As her life’s journey begins a new phase, the words Karlie Suber wrote last summer seem most appropriate.

“Though this disease sucks, it has made me much more appreciative of the things my parents and sisters do to try and help me be happy,” Suber wrote. “It makes me notice the little things that my friends do to help. It’s okay to be sad sometimes, or angry, or scared, but as long as you don’t let those emotions take over your entire life, you can find a way to be happy. Trust me, it’s possible.”