Coming out of the fog: Three area student athletes share their struggles, successes with mental health

Mar. 11—BYRON — Makana Schroeder has vivid memories of the first game of the 2021-2022 Byron girls basketball season.

The Bears opened the season at home with a 77-23 victory against Faribault on Nov. 30.

"I hit a three in that game," Schroeder said. "There are pictures of my teammates jumping and screaming, and I was laughing and giggling. That was, like, the first three I've ever made."

That moment was a long time in the making — 399 days, to be exact.

In the summer of 2020, going into her sophomore year, Schroeder was at a basketball open gym. She was messing around and jumped up. The landing was awkward, and she fell over and tore her ACL in her right knee.

That injury put her on the sidelines for 10 and a half months. In the summer of 2021, three days after she was cleared by her physical therapist to resume sports, an X-ray showed a fractured tibia in her left leg, an injury that occurred in part because she overcompensated for the torn ACL by putting more stress and workload on her left leg.

Navigating these injuries during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time of constant change for high school students and athletes, added an extra layer of stress. School was constantly switching between in-person and online classes. Sports seasons were cut short, and students didn't experience the same level of connection to their classmates in person compared to previous years.

"It was the longest period of her life where she had to persevere and work through trials and tribulations in a timeframe of the world where lots of people were struggling with all sorts of things they'd never dealt with before," Schroeder's mom, Malia, said.

Schroeder had never experienced a sideline until those injuries. Not participating in practices and games for a year was a lifetime for someone whose identity was solely rooted in sports.

"I felt like nobody," she said. "I've been playing sports since I was a child, and now, I'm told 'you can't run. Your friends are going to go play the things they love while you sit and watch.' It's really damaging to you mentally."

The physical recovery was difficult on its own. Schroeder felt she lost "a ton of skill, and a ton of muscle" as she pushed through physical therapy to play volleyball and basketball her junior year. But that was just one part of it.

"A lot of (the recovery) was more mental than physical," she said.

Schroeder stayed around her teams as a manager, a decision she made to try to continue the connections she had with teammates. She continued to hang out with friends and went to team bonding activities. Regardless, Schroeder felt like she was still on the sideline, no matter what her friends and teammates did. Her new identities were manager and injured player.

"I kind of just shut everybody down for a little bit and was like, 'I'm just going to be on my own,' because this injury is now taking me out of everything," she said. "I feel like an oddball, so I'll just stand to the side and won't say much. I'll be excited for everyone, but deep down, I was like, 'This really sucks, and I don't know if I'll ever come back from it.' Or if I ever wanted to be back out there with them, because I was so far behind."

Looking back at that time now, Schroeder realizes she wasn't as far behind as she felt. She didn't recognize her resiliency and strength. And she came back just fine, making the varsity volleyball and basketball teams.

She also didn't know, at the time of her injuries, that she was more than just an athlete. Her free time that was once filled with morning workouts, practices and games was instead used to volunteer at the elementary school.

It got to the point where Schroeder was going to the elementary school on days she wasn't required to.

"You're going to get up on a day you have off?" Malia Schroeder remembered thinking. "That's impressive."

Makana would've found her passion eventually, but the silver lining of her injuries was the opportunity to get to know who she was outside of sports, something her parents and other mentors helped her with. After her injuries, Schroeder had a kind of desire to give back, to use her experiences to help kids.

"They say the experiences you have will mold you into who you will be," Malia Schroeder said. "I think that's what I watched take place."

Makana's experiences led her to choose to attend the College of St. Benedict next year, with a major of secondary physical education, and the goal of coaching someday. And she'll play volleyball there, the ideal end to her comeback story.

Here are the stories of two more southeastern Minnesota athletes who have overcome adversity.

Zach Krage didn't face any true struggles until high school. A football player and thrower in track and field, his high school experience "started off pretty shaky," he said.

"People started to pick on me," he said. "I felt kind of powerless."

He experienced suicidal ideations and was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety and depression. The now-Fillmore Central junior started online school to get away from the bullying and regain control over his emotions.

Though online school took him out of the situation, it eliminated the social and emotional aspect school provides. Krage struggled with social skills and bottled up his feelings. For more than a year, he kept everything inside, not sharing his thoughts with anyone.

Eventually, Krage reached a breaking point. His thoughts had pushed him over the edge, and he needed to talk.

There was one thing holding him back, though: The toxic male gender norms that govern what is socially acceptable for men to talk about. Feelings, emotions and mental health are historically off topic for men.

"I just didn't feel like I should be feeling the way I am," Krage said. "I didn't want to talk to anybody about it because I didn't want to be made fun of or anything."

He opened up to his parents and close friends, and he got the help he needed. Sports and working out also helped him through and gave him an outlet. Working out "really helped boost my confidence and get me back on track to where I am now," he said.

Looking back on those years now, Krage has thoughts now he wishes his younger self had known: "Stop bottling up your emotions, it's not weak to share them with other people," he said. "It takes more strength to be upfront with others about how you feel than you realize. It's the opposite of showing weakness — it's showing strength."

He feels that he's done a 180 in his life. "I've really taken control back in my life," Krage said.

Cael Gilbert lost his dad, Troy, on Jan. 2, 2022, when Cael was a junior at Grand Meadow High School. The first few weeks were a blur, an emotional roller coaster filled with shock and grief.

After a few weeks, Gilbert decided that his dad wouldn't want him "sitting here sulking and feeling sorry for myself and my family," he said.

"He would want me to be doing the things I love," he said, "and, for me, that's football, that's working out and being with my friends."

Gilbert's desire to go after his goals, especially with sports, was fueled by the connection he had with his dad through sports. Every day, they talked about football and wrestling. But his decision to use sports as his outlet — where he let out his emotions — came at the cost of suppressing his feelings.

"I was really subtle about everything," Gilbert said. "I really didn't want to talk about it. I didn't want to hear anyone talk about their dad or anything."

But, after going to therapy last summer, Gilbert realized that avoiding conversations about his dad wouldn't help.

That's when he started opening up to people.

"Looking back on all the good memories and great times we had together, I realized maybe it's good to talk about it," he said. "Maybe it's good to laugh about the times he chewed me out for doing something stupid, and I got in trouble. Maybe it's good to talk about the times where we got into fights, but then the next day we're having a blast."

If you or anyone you know are struggling, there are people across Olmsted County ready to help. No problem is too small.

If it's an emergency, call 988, the suicide and crisis lifeline. Southeast Regional Crisis Center is open 24/7 and provides immediate help at 844-274-7472.

There are three high school counselors, a district social worker, a district behavior support specialist and a school-based mental health therapist contracted through Family Service Rochester at Byron High School, said principal Malia Schroeder.

Rochester Public Schools director of student services Koni Grimsrud said student mental health services in each school include support through school counselors and social workers as part of an emotional and well-being team. Students or family can reach out to them directly for help at any time.

There is a confidential

mental health screener

available, too. After seeing results, students and/or families can connect with school mental health staff or, if they'd rather talk with a mental health provider outside of school, they can

schedule a free consultation

with a professional at RPS-partner Fernbrook Family Center.

Many schools have school-linked mental health staff who can support students during the school day who are experiencing barriers to mental health services.

The most important step, though, is finding someone you trust to talk to. As Zach Krage said, there is nothing weak about talking about your feelings.