My life has always revolved around sports. I was a child who grew up surrounded by family and friends in the outdoors whenever possible, participating in any sport I could. I was always the young one with the older kids and the girl ready to beat all the boys.
Over time, the sports changed, but that is where my heart stayed. It’s something I believe God put there, and I believe he gave me abilities and opportunities for a reason. Through late nights, early mornings, gyms without air conditioning, outdoors and all the associated elements, hard losses, illness and injury — nothing has ever been able to put out that deep-burning fire for sports. Not even when I was told I shouldn’t run again and later that same year told I was lucky to be alive.
When I was little, my friends and I could entertain ourselves for endless hours riding bikes, playing in the lake and pool and making up our own games. I knew no fear. I played basketball and soccer as my first organized sports as soon as I was old enough. I also knew no fear of boys. I wasn’t only going to get on their level. I was going to beat them. Gym class and field day were fun, but I was there to win too.
By middle school, I had dropped soccer (it wasn’t a school sport where I lived until high school) and picked up cross country. My best friend’s dad was the coach, and he told me it would keep me in shape for basketball. Not to brag, but I was one of the best players in our area in AAU, so my goal was to play college basketball for Pat Summitt.
I gave cross country a try, and it turned out I had endurance in the grass as well as quickness on the court. By high school, I was faced with a choice. Basketball and cross country did not work together well at my high school. The coaches and programs were not willing to compromise. After weeks of gym class, basketball workouts, and after school cross country practice filling my days from lunch to dinner — leaving me exhausted and in tears — I chose running. The team atmosphere was so much better and my future there was longer. Plus, I had already made some of the best friends of my life from that team.
I was lucky to never suffer any major injuries in high school. I placed fourth at cross country state and won the indoor two-mile, and I had a variety of colleges to choose from. I had a great friend and church group too. It was a very fun few years! It was not without its struggles though.
Right in line with my athletic competitiveness came my academic competitiveness. I was always top of the class and never made anything but A’s, taking dual-enrollment, AP and honors whenever possible. I let that stress, as well as the stress to keep being the best runner, get to me. At times, it really showed.
Then came college. At the end of high school, stress had gotten me in rough physical and mental shape, not in good relationships with my parents and simply wanting to move out as soon as I could. When I got to school, I never even ran with the team. There were many other issues along with what I was going through on my own. I ended up getting cut from the team in November, and I thought my life was over.
Little did I know God was just setting me up to learn some amazing things and go to much better places. I made it through the semester okay, but in the spring, I knew that I was not coming back. I also knew I had a new team ahead at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC), where I now compete in cross country and track.
But at the time, I was extremely alone and depressed. The only thing that got me through the days was getting to run and bike (and Zumba!), but even these things can only do so much good until they do bad. Depression set in heavy, but I couldn’t let anyone know I was struggling. Everyone thought I was such a positive girl, despite all the challenges I had been through. This was something I took pride in during high school as well. I had to be who people thought I was. I was a wreck by the time I got home, and I had to spend the entire summer getting my life back together.
I didn’t run all summer — didn’t do anything really — and I didn’t get to go to UTC in the fall. When I was able to run again, I appreciated it so much more and have prioritized my health ever since. My first real injury came that winter, and that’s when I got to channel my inner kid on a bike and spend a couple months on a spin bike at my local gym. It’s pretty fun, especially when the weather is bad.
Finally, in my first year as a junior at UTC, I got to race again! It had been since my senior year of high school, but what a feeling to have teammates and be in a big race again! Then at the beginning of spring, I was hurt again, this time much worse. Good thing our school has a great rec center pool, spin bikes and classes. That is what kept me going! My coach, Andy Meyer, was very competitive in triathlons too, and we talked about him helping me get going in the sport after college. I had plenty of experience with all the injury cross training.
That summer I was running again, but I had gotten so out of whack in the spring, that I had yet another injury and a month of no running and lots of biking. This is when I started to love road biking. There is just something about going fast in great scenery.
My senior year, I was having the season of my life! Then COVID-19 came, and we all went home for the school year. No more racing. We kept running on our own, but I ended up getting tendonitis. This time, however, there were no gyms open. Again, channel the kid Kenzie making up my own workouts in the basement and bike riding outside. In all the chaos of the year, I was able to have something to keep me active and healthy even when surrounded with illnesses, my own injuries and the world’s issues.
While I have been able to have a full year of training so far this year in cross country and track while in grad school, I will never forget the great things that have come from my challenges, and I know there will be plenty more ahead. With a full set of activities that I can do inside and outside, alone or with others, I am more confident that I will be able to stay competitive longer and stay more motivated than if I only had one thing.
Expanding my sports has challenged me physically and mentally to do things outside of my comfort zone and show myself that I can make it through the pains and pauses. It has brought me to so many new places and people that I never would have met before.
My faith was challenged time and time again, but every challenge brings strength. God never failed to provide for me, just what I need and when I need it. Now, the competition doesn’t stop when I leave college, and neither does my impact. The situations may shift a bit, but I still have a purpose to use what I love to do to connect with and encourage others.
Makenzie Jones is a graduate student-athlete at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with undergraduate degrees in Communications and Sports & Outdoor Recreation. She’s currently in the university’s MBA program and NASM Personal Training Certification Course.
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