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Addressing mental health concerns helped UMKC alumna 'belong' on Olympic podium

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Two-time Olympian, Courtney Frerichs was a competitive gymnast before focusing on running while a student at UMKC.

After winning a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics, track star Courtney Frerichs returns to the University of Missouri - Kansas City on December 19 to address the graduating class.

It was at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where Olympian Courtney Frerichs really found her footing as a runner.

Formerly a competitive gymnast and having only"dabbled" in running, Frerichs athleticism proved ideal for track and field's steeplechase, a distance race requiring runners to jump multiple hurdles in each lap.

"I love it," Frerichs said. "You can't quite zone out like you do in some of the other distance races, because you always have a hurdle coming up."

But the hurdles Frerichs has faced haven't all been on the track.

While training to take on world-class competitors, the track star's need to be perfect resulted in panic when workouts or a running pace went awry.

It became "massively debilitating within my workouts," she said.

"I think in my head I needed to have this perfect build, and the training needed to go absolutely perfect, " Frerichs explained, "But the reality is, is that no path is ever going to be perfect, but I was having a difficult time accepting that."

Noticing the desire for perfection was blocking her full potential, Frerichs' husband encouraged her to seek help.

With professional guidance, the runner learned to manage the panic through visualization, breathing and focusing on the present.

The techniques proved beneficial for Frerichs in the 2020 Olympic games.

She entered the steeplechase as an underdog having competed and finished well out of medal contention in the 2016 Olympics. But this time around Frerichs made a bold move to push the pace with several laps still to go.

In that moment Frerichs recalled telling herself, "Okay, I'm gonna make a really decisive move, and I'm going to be present in this lap. I'm not thinking about the bell lap right now."

The move paid off, landing Frerichs a silver medal and the best finish for an American woman in the steeplechase event.

During the race a single word on her wrist served as a visual reminder. "Belong," a mantra that came about in therapy, was a personal declaration that she was qualified to compete against the best in the world, an idea that Frerichs struggled with in the 2016 Olympics.

Frerichs said of that Tokyo Olympics run, "when I went to the front. I was like, you belong here, you belong at the front of this race, you've earned your spot just as much as anyone else."

During those games, gymnast Simone Biles made headlines for her withdrawal from competition citing her own mental health concerns.

Frerichs admired Biles' decision. "I think somebody of that caliber doing that, it really was so powerful."

"We're allowed to put ourselves first," Frerichs believes. "That's how you're going to get the best version of anybody, is somebody that's not just physically sound, but mentally sound as well."

Frerichs will address the more than 1000 students at UMKC's commencement ceremony, something the Olympian describes as more nerve-wracking than competing on a world stage.

She plans to remind students to remain flexible in life, something the self-described perfectionist has personally struggled with.

For Freirichs it is about "Having a plan but being flexible within that plan."

"I came in with a whole different idea of what my life would look like right now," Frerichs said. "But opportunity presented itself and, you know, sometimes you have to take those."

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When I host Up To Date each morning at 9 a.m., my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. My email is steve@kcur.org.
Elizabeth Ruiz is a freelance producer for KCUR’s Up To Date. Contact her at elizabeth@kcur.org or on Twitter at @er_bentley_ruiz
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