Maddy Banic and Her Story of Strength

One word comes to mind when I think of Maddy Banic. Strength.

Strength to overcome the hardest season of her life. She needed strength to return to her team and her school. Strength to pursue her passion when there are no guarantees. Lastly, the strength to share a story that shows vulnerability and struggles.

Maddy symbolizes the strength we need every single day.

Simply put Maddy is an inspiration. She’s a team player, a rockstar, a person filled with passion.

I only knew Maddy as a swimmer until a few years ago, really as completion since she swam for Tennessee. But I have a ton of great friends who swam for Tennessee! So naturally, over time we just started casually chatting. One day though, news broke about Maddy leaving school. To me, it was just gossip since you really never know what someone is going through.

One of my friends had briefly explained the situation and I was floored. I couldn’t believe it. So many people appear happy on the outside but truly are in agony on the inside. That’s how Maddy felt. She felt alone and didn’t feel as though she had someone to talk to. She didn’t feel as though she had the strength and ability to continue on.

Let’s talk more about mental health.

I relate to that deeply. I was also diagnosed with anxiety when I was in college, and I struggled with depression a bit with my surgeries. Maddy’s pain is real and relatable and we need to talk about it more. Mental health needs to be normalized and I want to start now.

May is known as Mental Health Awareness month but the conversation needs to continue past May! Let’s be open about who we are and the struggles we face.

To this day, Maddy has become someone I admire, respect, and a great friend. I asked Maddy to share her story with me if she felt comfortable because more people need to hear it. So here is her story, told by her. I hope as you read this you feel proud of her and encouraged by a vulnerability in a time when it appears weak to be open. Thank you Maddy for showing your strength.

My name is Maddy Banic & I am here to tell my story.

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been described as “crazy”, “full of energy” and “seeking adventure”. If you ask any of my teammates now, they’ll describe me as a passionate spaz who is much too loud in inappropriate situations and is not shy about personal space. I love hard. I aim to spread smiles, and I give everything I have to those around me.

But almost three years ago, I lost my purpose. In the summer of my freshman year, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. To most people, this is a scary fact to accept, but in my case, it was a sigh of relief. Since I was a junior I had struggled mentally with juggling the responsibilities of being a leader in my school’s band, a full-time swimmer, and a 4.0 GPA student. I overwhelmed myself to the point where I was drowning in the waves, and only the idea of new freedom in college kept me afloat. 

“I still wasn’t myself and I had no idea why.”

So now I finally had an answer as to why I still felt worthless and empty, even though I was a collegiate athlete going to a dream school with a high caliber swimming program. I started to take the steps to become healthy again. I saw the team’s sports psychologist almost every day, and the sports psychiatrist every week. I started taking medicine and practicing self-care through my diet, yoga, and breathing exercises.

Unexpectedly, as time went on, I got worse. My medicine was not working, and we began to cycle through different brands and dosages. My mental illness began affecting my physical wellness. I was consistently sick, and between infections and unbearable lower back pain, the team physician began to see me more than my teammates did. I was missing more practices than I was making, and I was miserable. 

Sometimes we think it takes strength to handle struggles alone, but that’s not the truth.

I soon lost patience with trying to do things the right way, so I took matters into my own hands. I began to drink away all my pain. It didn’t matter if I was with my friends or alone, if it was a weekend or if I had practice in the morning, alcohol became my escape. Old habits from high school resurfaced.

My teammates knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know what to do. They did the best they could. They held me while I had a panic attack after panic attack. They stayed up all night with me to keep me safe from myself. They even stood up for me in situations where I was clearly in the wrong. Did I appreciate them for that? Not in the slightest. If they approached me about my behavior, I would be quick to defend myself and cut ties with those who dare call me out. I yelled, I accused, and I started to hate anyone who couldn’t fix me. But no one could. I had become a monster, and no one could stop it. I lost all of my strength.

But I could stop it. I could end it all. One Sunday morning I sat down in my room. I wrote goodbye letters. I apologized to my teammates. I assured my therapist that it wasn’t her fault, and I just wasn’t strong enough to make it. I texted my therapist in one final cry for help. Before I knew it, my roommates were busting down my door and talking me down. I was delirious and exhausted as they wrapped their arms around me. I finally realized that I had hit rock bottom. 

It takes strength to get the help you need. It’s never a weakness.

I let go of everything that was normal to me and went to an inpatient treatment center. On Labor Day of my junior year, I boarded a plane and left for Chicago, IL to go stay a month at the Timberline Knolls Treatment Center. I must say, my time at the center was the most scarring and most helpful part of my life so far. I had to give up many freedoms I took for granted “out in the real world”. My days were full of group therapy, individual meetings, and vital readings early in the morning. I was surrounded by people going through what I was, or worse.

 I began to be motivated about getting better. I wanted to be the best human I could be, and I wanted to love myself. I started to take groups seriously. I began to open up about my traumas and heal through them. I had made up my mind to find the best version of myself. For the first time in a long time, I was on a mission. 

One of the most important things they stress when you leave a treatment center is to get back into a normal routine and have a very strong support system. Surprisingly, I was not able to meet either of those standards. When I returned I learned that per NCAA rules since I was not a full-time student in 12 hours, I was not considered a student-athlete. This meant that I was not allowed to practice with my team, communicate with my coaches, or use athletic facilities. 

On top of my restrictions, I had a hard time reconnecting with my teammates. I left with relationships severed, and I had yet to prove to them that I was a new person. To no fault of their own, between my past actions and the awkwardness of the mental health topic, I was abandoned by my teammates. My support system was gone.

It takes strength to keep going when it’s uncomfortable and unknown.

I did not let this deter me from my mission. Working around the NCAA rules, I joined the local club swim team. I was determined to get back in shape, so I could be the best I could be for my team. I continued this plan for almost three months. Once the finals of the fall semester were finished, I was re-enrolled in classes, and I once again was a student-athlete just in time for Christmas training. December through February was spent continuing to better my fitness level, rebuilding relationships with teammates, and furthering my recovery. I made it a point to take a little time out of my day to reflect on myself. I thought longer about the words that came out of my mouth and which thoughts I allowed myself to believe. I met with my therapist every week. A big part of my recovery was allowing me to mess up and become more vulnerable. I made it a point to give myself some leeway when I made mistakes. I forgave fast and welcomed criticism. I was open to my team when I was struggling, and I did not resist getting some help. 

Eventually, all my hard work paid off. 

I made the SEC team with only half a season under my belt. I helped win gold medals on relays at the conference meet. I helped my team place 7th at the NCAA Championships and I carried our team into Nationals that summer as a leader. This year is my senior year. Voted as a team captain at the beginning of the season was an honor. I have led my team into a position where we are seeking to be SEC Champions and break traditional expectations of the NCAA Championships. But we didn’t win and we were devastated. 

 With a quick refocus and drive to show what we could really do, we headed off to NCAAs in Austin, TX. This meet, like most of the NCAAs I had the honor of going to, was a whirlwind of emotions. I did not individually have a great meet. I swam nowhere near my personal best, and I did not make a single final swim. Which means I did not score a single point for my team. 

I, the team captain, did not score a single. point. for my team. 

I was enraged. I remember yelling at my coach, on deck for everyone to see, about how frustrated I was with the way I and the team were performing. I distinctly remember him basically telling me to get it together and go lead, because the 200 Medley Relay was up next. I took a deep breath, apologized, surrounded myself with my teammates, who would love me no matter how I performed and got ready for the relay. 

Our relay consisted of Meghan Smalls, Nikol Popov, myself, and Erika Brown. We knew before we even stepped behind the block that we were going to win. We had a killer prelim morning swim, and we were carrying that momentum and energy into the evening. Normally before a race, you are nervous. You’re a little sweaty, and your heart is pounding, you can’t stop moving and you are consciously reminding yourself to breathe. I have never been so relaxed before a race as I was for that relay. THAT’S how confident we were. I can’t say I remember the race. All I remember is before my leg I knew the race would be Erika vs the Cal superstar, Abbey Weitzel, as anchors. So I was going to get as far ahead of the Cal flyer as I possibly could. 

After that, I remember watching Erika touch the wall, right before Abbey, and immediately bursting into tears. I felt so much in those next few seconds. I had a wave of relief wash over me. My goal of being an NCAA champion, after four years of the rockiest roads of my life, had finally come true. I had a weight lifted off my shoulders. At the same time, I was filled with unfathomable joy. The Lady Vols had done it. We had won the relay.

All of our belief, hard work, and investment in each other had paid off. And it wasn’t just us four who had won. Our whole team had. Past, present, and future Lady Vols had made their mark, and we felt every bit of pride. I cried my eyes out in Matt’s arms after the awards.

Postgrad season

After NCAAs, I had every intention of closing the book on my swimming career. I even took 3 months off and traveled, had fun, and was a normal college graduate for a little while. I had ended my career as team captain and NCAA champion, what better way to go out? But I was missing something. So I decided to return to the sport. I stayed in Tennessee, joining the growing “Tennessee Elite” pro training group. I started to reevaluate my training plan. Less running myself into the ground, more being intentional with every exercise. I started training faster than I had been and began getting stronger than ever. It was hard to get back into shape after 3 months off, but soon an unimaginable opportunity arose. I was asked to swim for the LA Current in the ISL.

The opportunity of a lifetime gave me the strength and affirmation I needed.

My performance for the ISL was honestly not bad against my personal bests, but compared to those I was competing against, I did not match their level. I was frustrated and embarrassed, but it also lit a fire in me. I knew I needed to get my Olympic trials cut at the Knoxville Pro Series, or it was going to be a slippery slope resting again in the spring so close to trials. 

I dove into my 100 fly finals and swam a 59.95. An Olympic trials cut, and my first long course best time in 4 years. Finally, I had a confirmation that what I was doing was working. I felt that strength again that I needed. Later that meet I also went a best time in my 50 free, although missing the cut by 0.01. I was ecstatic that this mindset of training deliberate rather than grinding was working, and I was excited to see how much I could improve before trials. 

Not only was I starting to thrive in the pool, but I was getting opportunities to follow my dream out of the water as well. Additionally, I was getting to travel and share my college journey with other student-athletes. I went to the University of Memphis to give a presentation during their Powerful Minds mental health awareness week. 

But I was terrified to talk in front of 500+ of what I considered peers and share everything I had been through, but it was just like before a race. I had prepared, I had planned the best way to deliver my message, I centered myself just like before a race and I walked on the stage. Honestly, I don’t remember it, much like a great race. It was muscle memory and I knew I had knocked it out of the park.

What happened next confirmed my love and passion for sharing my story. The athletes came up to me and told me how inspired they were. I had always been told my story was powerful, but I was seeing firsthand how I could make a difference. Some called it brave, sharing my story, but I saw it as a duty. Holding onto my story when it could help others was selfish, and I was more than happy to be vulnerable if it meant possibly saving someone’s life. 

COVID struck and the Olympic Trials were postponed.

I’ve had a very mentally tough time in quarantine. Old habits have tried to creep their way in, and now more than ever I have to be vulnerable with myself and take it one day at a time. It is hard to stay in a good mindset without a sense of purpose or even path you are going down. The fear of the unknown of what the future will be or not being able to control it can be consuming. For a while, I felt as though I lost all of my strength physically.

However, I realized that it’s okay to have these fears, and this time will pass. I can keep my eyes on improving myself and making the most of every day. So I am listening to what I mentally need, and staying kind to myself in this quarantine. I will be reunited with my teammates, and everything will be as God planned. But until then we stay busy, connected, and motivated. 

You are not alone if you need help.

Here are some helpful links if you or a loved one needs help! You are not alone, and it’s okay to not be okay.