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‘I’m not right’ — the turmoil and death of a college athlete who seemed to have it all

Review of "What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen" by Kate Fagan

Madison Holleran and and her mother after a 2014 collegiate cross-country race. (Little, Brown and Company).

WHAT MADE MADDY RUN: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen

By Kate Fagan. Little, Brown. 305 pp. $27

new mindset
new everything
i can do this
i will do this
you CHOOSE your fate
willing to give it another chance

When Madison Holleran returned for her second semester at the University of Pennsylvania, she wrote these thoughts in her iPhone, a checklist of “forced positivity,” as journalist Kate Fagan describes it, a mantra Madison hoped would improve a thus far miserable college experience.

Days later, on the evening of Jan. 17, 2014, Madison leapt over the ninth-floor railing of a parking garage in downtown Philadelphia, leaving behind gifts for family members and friends, and a brief note. “I love you all . . . I’m sorry,” it concluded. “I love you.”

How Madison, a talented 19-year-old student athlete with a loving family, supportive community and loads of friends reached this moment is the subject of Fagan’s “What Made Maddy Run.” Fagan first wrote about Madison in a 2015 ESPNw feature that emphasized the gap between the curated images of carefree happiness Madison shared on Instagram and the turmoil she suffered within. Now, Fagan has expanded that reporting into a book that draws on interviews with Madison’s parents, Jim and Stacy; conversations with other relatives, friends and coaches; and access to Madison’s emails, instant messages, texts and computer files. The result is a poignant study of the converging pressures of mental illness, college athletics and social media.

Madison grew up with two older siblings and two younger ones in an upper-middle-class New Jersey suburb about an hour outside New York, a place where college is a foregone conclusion. A strong student and standout soccer player since elementary school, Madison began running track in high school to stay in better shape. “Jim and Stacy had always felt that Maddy, self-sufficient and clever, was the child they’d never have to worry about,” Fagan writes.

Her first love was soccer — “the sport that, because of its improvisational nature, forced her out of her own head,” the author explains — and during her junior year she verbally committed to play for Lehigh University. But she excelled on the track as well, becoming one of the top 800-meter runners in the state. Penn came calling. “Maddy needed to see if she could really get into the Ivy League, which was a dream of hers,” Fagan writes. “Or rather, a dream she felt she was supposed to have.” As soon as she received her acceptance letter, she posted it on Instagram.

College was not what Maddy expected. Where once she’d been the star, now she felt she was struggling to stay in the middle of the pack, whether in the classroom or on the track. She’d never been graded on a curve before, and she worried she’d fail her courses. She wasn’t crazy about the coach training her, and now cross-country racing was in the mix for the first time. After collapsing at the end of a race during her first semester and finishing 44th out of more than 100 competitors, she held on to her mother. “Mom, I’m just not happy,” she said. “I’m not right — something is not right.”

But as soon as the iPhone came out, Fagan writes, “Maddy transformed: she pulled back her slumping shoulders, wrapped Stacy in a hug, and smiled for the camera.” The Instagram shot is reproduced in the book, among many pictures of a smiling, seemingly untroubled young woman.

[The book that will have everyone talking about how we never talk anymore]

Fagan dwells on this impulse to present a happy veneer of success, what students called “Penn Face,” or “the culture of appearing effortlessly perfect.” That culture is magnified in the social-media era, when our images and stories are filtered to maximize external validation. “We start viewing our world through the lens of what shares well,” Fagan writes. But “comparing your everyday existence to someone else’s highlight reel is dangerous.”

Madison’s parents were hardly distant or unaware of her struggles. They helped her find a therapist over the winter break; they talked through options with their daughter: Perhaps she should transfer to a new school or quit track. They knew something was wrong but failed to grasp its depths. Some parents “aren’t prepared for this new version of their high-achieving kid: doubting, sad, tired, confused,” Fagan writes. “When it came to Madison’s troubles,” Stacy and Jim “both felt they had one commodity in abundance: time.”

Fagan zeroes in on the transition from high school to college as a dangerous period. The people who know you well are suddenly far away, unable to notice the changes in you, while the people around you all the time — classmates, roommates, teammates — don’t know you well enough to realize something is wrong. The challenge is unique for student-athletes, who have been taught that toughness and perseverance are everything and that weakness is anathema. Madison made up her mind to quit track but worried about disappointing her coaches and parents. “The idea of burdening others, of dragging down her family and her teammates, appalled Maddy.” Soon the burdens she kept to herself grew unbearable.

Madison’s story is interspersed with Fagan’s interviews with mental health experts, survivors of suicide attempts and the author’s memories of life as a collegiate basketball player. As a writer, she has a weakness for excessive metaphor. Freshman year of college is like walking through an obstacle course wearing a blindfold, and like walking a path lined with land mines. Thoughts break into one’s mind like a train cutting through a snowstorm, or like an iron fist on a collision course with its destination. But she makes up for it with her insights into the pressures student athletes face and the relatively little attention mental health receives in collegiate athletic departments. (Fagan cites a 2014 college survey finding that 28 percent of female student-athletes and 21 percent of male ones report feeling depressed.)

[College football isn’t about college, and it’s barely about football. It’s about money.]

Here, one image proves apt: “If a football player pulls a hamstring, nearly half a dozen licensed professionals hover over him, discussing the most innovative ways to rehabilitate his strained muscle,” Fagan writes. “Yet if most athletic departments’ commitment to mental and emotional health were visualized as a weight room, it would more closely resemble this: a few rusted dumbbells, a cracked mirror, cobwebs, and plenty of open space.”

Though Madison met with a counselor during winter break and had at least one initial screening session with a therapist at Penn, it is not clear that she was officially diagnosed with depression or that medication was considered. Fagan is smart enough not to offer any ultimate explanation for Madison’s death. “A definitive story is needed for those of us left behind, so we can feel better,” she writes. “But there is no one thing. There are rivers that merge and create a powerful current.”

[Nothing is scarier than what’s in your own mind]

On the day she died, Madison ran into the Lehigh soccer coach who had eagerly recruited her. He tried to tell her, even subtly, that she was still welcome at Lehigh. “If you ever really need anything, please don’t hesitate to call,” he said. And if this were a feel-good movie, that chance encounter in downtown Philly might have helped Madison realize that she could still start fresh.

But her decision was made. In the shopping bag Madison carried while chatting with the coach were the farewell gifts — a necklace for Stacy, Godiva chocolates for Jim, an outfit for her newborn nephew — that she would leave on the parking garage floor. The verb “run” in the book’s title appears to refer to Madison’s life on the track, until readers learn that her body landed in a bike lane some distance from the building. “If she had taken a running leap,” Fagan writes, “then Maddy never had to stare at the ground, truly contemplate it, before choosing to let go.”

When you know how a story ends, the outcome seems preordained, but of course it didn’t to those close to Madison. “Jim and Stacy were surprised at how quickly college had overwhelmed their daughter,” Fagan writes. And to her old high school friends and teammates, Madison’s death was inconceivable. They knew she was unhappy at Penn, but they never imagined how strong the currents or deep the river.

Later, the text messages kept arriving in her phone — heartbroken, confused, self-exculpating.

I love you. God rest your soul.
I just don’t get it mad. You had it all.
I’m sorry if you needed more from me. I had no idea.

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