Being on my school’s running team has been one of the most formative experiences of my life. This essay tells the story of one of the important lessons I learned about leadership.
A little before noon in the fall of 2020, online ‘school’ was over. I walked out of my room, sleepily shifting from the digital to physical world. Seconds later I was on the floor. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just broken my toe.
Despite the clumsy hour it took to pull on my socks and shoes, I still went to cross-country practice. This was the only way I could escape my empty house, the closest thing I had to a freshman year of high school.
I ran unevenly to protect my toe, and that ended up causing more and more injuries over time. But cross country was the only way I could pretend things were normal, and running was the only way I knew to stay on the team, so I kept running. By the end of my first year of high school, everything was wrong.
After a summer of avoiding injuries, I started my sophomore year. With school finally in-person, I could explore my exciting new life as a ‘real’ high-schooler. But in this unknown world, the familiarity of the cross-country team was a much-needed anchor. So I returned and kept running despite my injuries.
The longer I stayed on the team, the more important it became. The team shifted from a temporary support to a central part of my life. When track season started that winter, I became a captain, under my coach’s assumption that I was a whole and capable athlete.
But this season was different: Injuries caught up with many of my teammates, and we gravitated toward each other. Our new community, the ‘injured crew,’ gave us the confidence to stop training while broken. Naively, we hoped that giving our bodies a break would fix us.
As a captain, I knew I was supposed to lead the growing group of injured athletes. They were on an athletic team, weren’t they supposed to do more than sit and talk about their injuries? But the more I learned about my injured teammates, the more I realized how deeply they were hurt. It went beyond pulled muscles and broken bones, and they didn’t need another task to fail.
But the excitement faded, and soon we realized what the injured crew actually was: Another place we had failed.
When the consequences of my inaction dawned, I couldn’t face it. Many of my teammates went back to hiding their injuries to run with the team, in search of the community the injured crew had once promised.
I knew it was my fault. If only I had done something, but it was too late. The season ended, and I escaped.
When I returned for the fall 2022 cross-country season, I made a decision: This year, I would fulfill my responsibilities as a captain and friend, and give my injured teammates the security and purpose I had failed to provide last season.
Our coach would often tell people to keep running if they complained about being injured because he thought they were faking it. Only when their injuries became impossible to ignore could they take a break. If we proved that being part of the injured crew was just as difficult as normal practice, we would deter those who feigned injury, and make it easier for injured athletes to take the breaks they needed.
That is what I told my injured teammates. But that wasn’t the real reason I pushed the injured crew. I wanted to give them a goal, something that made them feel that they had an impact. And this goal was secretly special, because it was one they could only achieve by helping themselves.
So we started researching and learning low-impact exercises and stretches that would not only treat our injuries, but help us prevent them from happening again.. Just days in, I noticed changes: My injured teammates came to practice with purpose, and left feeling that they had accomplished something.
It took longer to change the team, but it happened. Athletes stopped feigning injuries, and injured athletes were respected. Perhaps most importantly, our coach no longer pushed injured athletes to run.
Upon writing this essay, I realized that I had also given myself a secretly special goal. Taking care of my teammates gave me something to look forward to at the end of the school day. When I consoled them, telling them that they were still meaningful members of the community, I was also convincing myself of that. I tried to be the model injured athlete to show my teammates it was possible. While I never thought of my own recovery, leading the injured crew forced me to take care of myself.
I ended the season running at the city championships with the girl’s varsity team.
When I thought about an anthology submission, I was hoping to write an essay to prepare for college applications. The first subject that came to mind was this story. But writing the essay required understanding what had happened. The essay changed as I reflected on the story, and through editing the essay, I found clarity in my past.
Charlotte Almond is a sophomore in high school and co-president of her class. She is on the varsity cross country team and pole vaults during indoor and outdoor track season. She used to act at her local theatre but now runs lights and sound and does stage managing. She likes reading, baking, playing piano and hanging out with her two bunnies—Apollo Artemis.