For the Muhlenberg Athletic Leadership Team, M.A.L.T., celebrating D-3 Week has become a spring tradition. Typically, the week is jam-packed with live events, from “Pack the Place,” rallying the entire campus community in support of the Mules on the field, to personally connecting with fellow athletes at the Special Olympics. At its core, this special week is not only a moment to celebrate D-3 athletics, but also an opportunity to realize the power of sports and their impact on the larger community.
However, unlike previous years, the COVID-19 pandemic confined the entirety of the week’s events to a virtual setting. Despite this, M.A.L.T, along with Head in the Game, a club focused on the mental health of student-athletes led by Joel Hark ‘21 and Natalie Smith ‘21, adapted to make this time as meaningful and as inspiring as possible.
D-3 Week kicked off on Monday, April 5, with an event featuring a Special Olympics Zoom party with athletes from Lehigh Valley Special Olympics and concluded on April 10 with a virtual “Pack the Place,” an annual tradition.
For Hark, it was this commencing event, being able to build relationships with fellow athletes from the surrounding community, that proved to be a highlight of his week. “The most memorable moment was playing Bingo with the Lehigh Valley Special Olympics section. They were such an energetic and fun group to be around and it seemed we really brightened their days and they most definitely did the same for us.”
In addition to this remarkable event, with its emphasis on spreading the love of sports and giving back to the local area, addressing the realities of being a student-athlete, was also one of the main focuses of D-3 Week 2021. With that priority in mind, the week also featured candid conversations with Body Positive, founded by Jill Lissner ‘21 and Renee Levine ‘22, concentrating on the topics of diet culture, eating disorders, and body image.
In Lissner’s view, the opportunity for Body Positive to share personal stories and experiences with the Muhlenberg athletic community and beyond was an extremely meaningful occasion. “Body positive was honored to partake and help make a difference on campus, and it went better than we ever imagined. We were able to share our stories and talk about topics that are usually not talked about in most spaces,” Lissner said.
Further, in another collaborative initiative, M.A.L.T along with the student-athlete advisory committees (S.A.A.C) of both Franklin & Marshall College and Johns Hopkins University sponsored an event dedicated to confronting mental health in college athletics.
On Thursday, April 8, the athletic communities of all three institutions had the privilege of hearing from Emmy-award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author, Kate Fagan. Having spent seven years as a columnist at ESPN, now a writer for Sports Illustrated, Fagan led a discussion surrounding her book, “What Made Maddy Run,” which details the tragic story of Madison Holleran, a track star from the University of Pennsylvania who struggled with depression, anxiety and panic attacks who ultimately took her own life on Jan. 17, 2014.
During the hour-long conversation, Fagan not only recounted Maddy’s heartbreaking story, providing insight into “achievement culture,” or the belief that achievement in some way equals happiness, and the notion of “quitting,” she also delved into the role that social media plays in student-athletes mental health during the question and answer period.
“That resonated with me because I think social media is beyond toxic for not only us athletes but all of us because sometimes we think the grass is always greener, and when we begin to compare ourselves to others solely based on a picture, a singular moment in time, that is when things can go wrong. To also see the other side, social media, like Kate stated, can have many positives but you have control of what you see, so let your social media empower you, make you happy, and make you a better person,” Hark said.
For Hark and Head in the Game, applying the wisdom and advice of Fagan is all about staying true to the founding principles of the club.
Hark said, “Going back to our goal of the club, we want to foster a supportive community to discuss and decrease the stigma around mental health in athletics. And creating that supportive community allows for a person who is struggling to be vulnerable and courageous to share tough things with a peer or peers in Head in the Game. Kate allowed us to refocus back [on our] goal and remember why we are here, we are here to support each other and create a safe space in which people do not feel forced to share about their experiences.”