Julia Costanzo grabs her teammate as she collapses after a snowy race. COURTESY OF RANDY VANDERVEEN/CANADIAN COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION

Crying and clutching my coach’s forearms as I staggered to the bench was the moment I thought would mark the end of my varsity athletic career forever. In a 2018 pre-season match for the Toronto Varsity Blues women’s field hockey team, an errant elbow walloped my skull — leaving me with my second major concussion in less than a year.

I missed every game of my fourth-year eligibility season and, after five agonizing months of headaches, dizziness, and vision problems, my doctor told me I could never play the sport again.

In the weeks after my doctor delivered the life-changing verdict, I spent a lot of time contemplating my last moments in a blue-and-white uniform. It hit me that I’d never get another chance to end my career: to play with the awareness of my last home game — the last game with my parents in the stands and my last time as a varsity student athlete. Almost every varsity athlete experiences that. It was all I wanted.

Eight months after my injury, I stopped waking up with daily headaches and was eager to compete again. Field hockey, and most other territorial sports I’d enjoyed throughout my life, were no longer an option for me. So I turned to running. I started slow, really slow. During those first few weeks, I was just happy to be active.

It was then that I realized I couldn’t sit and torture myself watching a field hockey season where I couldn’t help but picture myself on the field. As a UTM student, I decided I’d try out for the UTM Eagles cross country team.

I thought that with three more months of summer running I could surely get myself fit enough to make the training team. Maybe they’d even let me race an invitational or two. I had to do something, and running was at the top of the short list of sports that I could still compete in.

Three months later, as the field hockey team was opening their regular season, I tried out for cross country, made the development team, and raced my first Ontario Colleges Athletic Association (OCAA) six-kilometre race. I loved it. I wasn’t sure if it was running, being part of a team again, or having something on my mind other than missing out on field hockey, but I knew I wanted this feeling to continue.

Around this time, a lot of people in my life imposed narratives on my running success. They’d tell me, “You’re so strong” or “what a comeback.” I’ve definitely said this to other people, but it took me being on the other side of these comments to see why they’re problematic.

I’ve always appreciated the positive sentiment, but I wondered what people would have thought if I responded to my career-ending concussion in a different way. What if the best thing for me was to leave athletics completely? Would that have made me weak?

I didn’t start running to assert my strength over my life-changing injury. I ran cross country not only because it was the best decision for me, but also because it was the best way to get what I believed I needed: a new conclusion to my varsity career and an opportunity to occupy myself with something athletic that wasn’t field hockey.

As a member of the UTM Eagles, I raced three college invitationals, OCAA provincials — where I ran my personal best time of the season, faster than I ever imagined I’d run in my life — and Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association nationals in Grand Prairie, Alberta.

Cross country gave me another chance to pursue achievements that I believed were out of the question for me. I was UTM athlete of the week, my team finished on the podium at provincials, and I competed at one more national championship. But there was a catch: I only did all of this because I loved field hockey, and I lost field hockey.

Cross country never helped me get over field hockey. Running is something new that I can only appreciate because of field hockey. I take issue with people who congratulate me for ‘moving on’ after my injury, because it implies that my field hockey experiences were just moments I should probably leave behind.

When my concussion abruptly ended my field hockey career, my life didn’t immediately split into ‘before’ and ‘after’ field hockey. I still love field hockey and I still miss it. Running cross country didn’t erase the pain of losing field hockey. In fact, I cried over field hockey more than once while I was reaching major milestones with running.

I’ll never move on from it, and now I’ll never move on from cross country. I’ll carry both of these experiences with me forever.

If I’ve learned one thing from this experience, it’s that I am owed nothing. Just because I thought I’d end my varsity career with anticipation, awareness, and appreciation of my five years as a field hockey player, and just because most varsity athletes get that, doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed. If there’s something I want, I need to make it happen.

After I crossed the finish line at nationals, I turned around and scrambled to catch one of my teammates wobbling through the snow and over the finish line until she collapsed into my arms. Race marshals rushed us into the crowded medical tent, where we were joined by the rest of our team as they staggered to find seats and began to wrap themselves in space blankets.

I had no idea what place I got, how well our team did, or what was going on outside that tent. All I knew was that we did it. We just completed the most successful women’s cross country season in UTM Eagles history. I did it. After eight months of sitting in the dark and only four months of running training, I raced with the best college runners in Canada.

As I surveyed the post-race chaos, holding my faint teammate with one hand and my soggy gloves in the other, I started sobbing. I got the moment I really wanted: my final competition in a varsity uniform. It wasn’t anything like I imagined, but it was everything I needed. It was messy and complicated and heartbreaking and beautiful, just like my varsity career.

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