First and foremost, I am incredibly fortunate to be where I am by the grace of God. Without Him, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today. Everything good and bad that has happened to me has been for a reason, and I trust in His plan even when I can’t see the end goal. He has given me astounding coaches from high school through now, amazing parents who support my endeavors, and great friends and teammates who help me to be the best version of myself. One of the reasons I do what I do is to honor what He has given me in my life. Without Him, I have nothing.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I made one of the hardest decisions in my life, a decision that ultimately put me where I am today. After a surprisingly successful track and cross country season, I was faced with a difficult question: should I continue to play basketball? In my heart, I knew I should make the switch to indoor track but I couldn’t quite bring myself to abandon the sport I had spent so much time on and loved so much. I was beginning to fall in love with running and everything about it, making the choice so much harder. Running was just supposed to be a filler for when I wasn’t playing basketball, something to keep me in shape and ready to play. I was torn, but then fate made the decision for me.
I thought I’d play basketball, thinking it wouldn’t matter in the long term. And then one week into preseason, I sprained my ankle.
I remember lying on the floor of the gym thinking it was broken, and the first thing that came to mind was: “Did I just ruin my track season?” I had an answer. Better late than never. I felt bad about switching sports like that, and the school wasn’t too happy about my decision, but I knew that I couldn’t risk getting seriously injured playing basketball and messing up something great. I couldn’t compete or train with the team, I couldn’t even be in the vicinity of them while they practiced, so I took matters into my own hands. In the cold of January in New Jersey, I threw on a few layers and went out to the school parking lot. I started running intervals out there until one day, the principal intervened. His office faced the parking lot and every day, I was there. He later told me he thought I was guilting him into letting me train with the team, which I had no intention of doing! I still couldn’t compete, but at least he gave me a chance to work towards something better in the coming season. It was a start.
That was the turning point in my career. Everything I did from then on was in the interest of being the best student, athlete, and person that I could be. I was denied an opportunity. So what. I decided that instead of quarreling with the people who wanted to deny me a shot, I would work silently on my own. When the first spring meet of the year came around, I had one goal: set a personal record. I knew that if I could come out in the first meet of the season with a personal best, then everything I had done would be worth it. My first jump of that meet was a 9” improvement from the previous season. I knew I had made the right decision, and that I was going to move in the right direction from there.
That was the year I realized that hard work really did pay off.
From that 9” personal best, I ended up improving my triple jump by four feet from the previous season. I started seriously considering college track. I had fallen in love with the sport, the people in it, the atmosphere around it, and everything in between. I poured my heart and soul into it, knowing that heavy legs and lack of breath were worth it. Once I committed myself to the sport altogether, nothing could come between me and my goals. There were times when my parents got annoyed with how particular I was about being early to practice or staying later to do extra core work. First one in, last one out, everyday, no exceptions. I skipped part of prom to compete at the state championships. I was the only senior from my school there.
When junior year came around and I started getting recruiting letters, nothing made sense anymore. I was getting calls from schools I thought I had no shot of getting into. NESCAC schools and the Ivy League, athletically challenging conferences with strong academic programs, were the ones that caught my attention. My grades were decent and I was a solid athlete, but I didn’t think the combination of the two was anything that special. Clearly, coaches thought otherwise.
Senior year I committed to Columbia University as a triple and long jumper.
I had been given an opportunity that I never thought I could have. Track and Field opened up a whole new avenue of possibilities for me. I was scared, I won’t lie. At the time, I thought maybe I wasn’t smart enough to be there. Maybe the work would be too much and too hard. Maybe I wasn’t good enough to be on that track team. I was flooded with doubt. When acceptances came out and I started meeting my classmates, my doubts started to settle, and I was actually excited about college again.
As an athlete, a lot of people look at me like I’m all sport and no study. Make no mistake about it: the effort I put into my sport is matched with the effort I put into my school work. The term is “student-athlete,” not the other way around, for a reason. Without a well-rounded academic background, I wouldn’t be at Columbia, and I certainly wouldn’t be competing in any capacity. Not to mention, “student” means more than just a student in the classroom. As students, we are learning in our sport, in our jobs, in our surroundings, as well as in our classrooms. I am a student of photography at work, and a student of ethnic and minority groups on campus. A student-athlete is so much more than just a jock who spends all day on the field. They are dedicated individuals who work hard in things they love day in and day out. They are so much more than just athletes.
Sometimes, when everything gets messed up, there’s a reason. There is a plan. There is a purpose. A former coach of mine once told me that it doesn’t matter what knocks you down, we always get back up. I’ve taken plenty of hits, and they’ve knocked me down hard, but the only thing I could do was get back up and keep going. They hurt badly, and sometimes they keep me down for awhile, but I always get back up, and I have always been stronger as a result. I have been angry and frustrated with the process, but it has always proven itself worthwhile in the long run. I have been supported by friends, family, and coaches. I have confided in my religion and it has made these moments easier. No matter the struggle, the process works. It’s not always right away, and it’s not always easy, but it is certainly with purpose. Whoever you are, and whatever you are facing, we always get back up.
If you have made it this far, thank you very much for your attention. This means the absolute world to us. We hope that you enjoyed this story from Maryam Hassan and if you did, please share it with someone that could also enjoy it.
Also, thank you to the Columbia Lions and Mike McLaughlin for allowing us to use their pictures.