In 2019, Michigan women’s rowing team senior rower Ally Eggleton’s boat, the varsity four, lost its race at the Big Ten Championships by mere hundredths of a second.
Still, she couldn’t have been happier.
For her, the gratification from that race had come before it had even begun. As she pushed off from the dock to start her race — a typically nerve-filled moment — Eggleton could see her teammates coming first across the finish line in their own races.
“A whole wave of relief came over our boat in a way,” Eggleton said. “And we just looked at each other, and there was just so much love and passion between the four of us in that boat. When we got to the starting line, you could just feel it. And we just kind of put everything on the line, trusted ourselves and trusted each other.”
Eggleton, an outspoken mental health advocate and Mental Health Liaison for the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, has battled with anxiety and depression from a young age. Amid her struggles, Eggleton has grown to cherish moments like that one.
She calls those moments her “why.”
“Relationships are the most important thing in my life,” Eggleton said on Jan. 13. “And I also mentioned remembering why I row. The reason why I row is because of the relationships that I build with others throughout this sport and the feeling of being in a boat surrounded by four or eight other girls who put everything on the line for you to race down that course.”
She is helping to create an awareness campaign and working to bring back University support groups through SAAC, and talking to her teammates both old and young about her experiences and how it is okay to ask a friend for help.
Eggleton picked up the practice of remembering her “why” along the course of her mental wellbeing journey, but her efforts have borne particular importance over the past 10 months.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on NCAA athletics hit Michigan’s rowing team harder than just about any other team on campus. Because their season starts so late in the spring, they were the only teams to not compete at all in 2020.
"It originally just felt really unfair,” Eggleton said. “And we didn’t know much about COVID at that point, and we were all just honestly, just ‘devastated’ is the word to describe it. I’ll never forget when we all sat down in our team room when our coach announced to us and one of my teammates just broke the silence, just a wailing sob.”
When recounting the months of isolation that came after that moment, Eggleton emphasizes the importance of leaning on those relationships that constitute her “why.”
“At the end of the day, it’s about winning championships, but it’s more about the girls that you’re doing it with and what you’re gaining from just the day in and day out, like those are the moments you’re going to remember the most,” Eggleton said. “And so as time went on, and we came to terms with the fact that we didn’t have a season, it was just looking back and cherishing every single moment that we spent together the whole year.”
The periods of isolation that have been necessary over the last 10 months has taken a toll on most people, and student-athletes are no different. For a group that bears so many different responsibilities, they shed an important light on why mental health advocacy like that which Eggleton does is so important.
These trying times expose a harsh reality — bad things are always going to happen, whether it be expected or unexpected. Whether it be a pandemic, social unrest or any number of other things, interruptions to life will always come, and even the thickest-skinned individuals need to be able to acknowledge that seeking help for their adverse effects isn’t a sign of weakness.
And for Eggleton and her teammates, that idea is important right now as much as ever.
The rowing teams were told Tuesday night that they have to pause practice for ten days due to passing the Big Ten threshold of COVID-19 cases. While the announcement is less than ideal, they have learned the importance of taking care of each other to support each other’s mental health and have taken as many steps as they can to make sure everyone is getting the help and attention they need.
The Wolverines have distributed resources, checked in on friends, reached out to underclassmen and tried everything they can to focus on the positives.
“E + R = O,” Eggleton said on Jan. 20. “Event plus response equals outcome.”
This is a motto the Michigan rowing team has long lived by, but it particularly applicable in this moment.
Right now, Eggleton and her teammates recognize that the best response they can have is to prioritize their mental health — a concept Eggleton is passionate about destigmatizing.
“I think that student-athletes are often an idolized group, in a way for grit and determination and perseverance,” Eggleton said. “And it’s hard because when you see that a lot of times you think, ‘okay put your head down and put the work in,’… And when sports are such a mental game, oftentimes, I’d say, like more so than physical, and you don’t prioritize your mental health, it’s like saying, your body needs to be healthy in order to compete, but we’re not going to treat you for any of your injuries. It’s the exact same thing.”
Eggleton is doing as much as she can to help student-athletes prioritize their mental health now and always.
She is resolute in doing all of that and distributing University resources at any chance she gets for one simple reason — not every moment can be like the one she experienced at the 2019 Big Ten Championships.