Being on the team has taught me how to work hard for what I want to achieve. I learned how to manage my time and priorities, fight through adversity and cherish my times as a student-athlete. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the opportunities I’ve had as a Pronghorn." ~ Fifth-year neuroscience student, Madeline Szabo
Madeline Szabo reaches down, picks up her four kilogram weight and walks slowly into the ring. The tension around her is so palpable she can taste it. Breathing slowly in and out, she visualizes her throw. The static of the sound system, the smell of rubber and gym equipment and the cold, hard ground beneath her shoes are all sensations of which she is acutely aware. The crowd around her grows silent, leaning forward in their seats, her teammates waiting with sweaty hands anticipating her every move. She makes eye contact with her coach before focusing internally once again, honing her inner strength and level-headedness. With great power, she wields the weight above her head, swinging it twice. On the third spin, her entire body spins with it. She becomes a human tornado, channelling momentum from every muscle in her body for another four spins before releasing the weight, which soars through the air and lands heavily metres away from her. She doesn't know it yet, but Madeline has just become a CanWest Championship silver medalist.
"When I pick up the weight, and I walk into that circle, it gets quiet and everybody's watching. That feeling is so powerful. When you release the weight, and you have a good throw, it goes really far, and you feel so strong; it's such a rush. Nothing compares to that. It's just powerful." As the Pronghorn women's track and field team captain and a fifth-year hammer and weight thrower, athletics are a defining factor in Madeline's university career. Her passion for leadership and giving back to the community are what elevated her to the position of captain, and she is immensely grateful for the lessons this role taught her. "It's been really rewarding to have that role on a team and has taught me lessons that I will carry with me throughout my life."
Having the smooth face of a silver medal resting in her hand is a physical representation of the hours and years Madeline has put towards her dream of one day making Team Canada. While the coin itself might tarnish, the memory of her win at the end of her fourth year is for life, a reminder to that it was all worth it. Madeline sees her competitions at USports Championships and CanWest as a bonding opportunity and learning opportunity. "My experience has been life-changing. I've met some of my closest friends through the team, and I've had so many opportunities to travel, compete and meet new people. It's been awesome. I get to spend every practice with like-minded people who have become like family to me. I've seen myself become a better athlete and person through my years in the sport," she explains.
It's 6 a.m. on a Friday, but Madeline isn't sleeping in. She's packing her bag for practice, the first of two that will take place today, and one of twenty activities outlined in her colour-coded planner. Juggling a full course load, volunteer commitments, and athletics might seem like an impossible task. But practicing twice a day, five days a week and competing on the weekends isn't the hard part. It's slowing down. Looking back to 2017, as a first-year thrower on Team Alberta, Madeline wasn't always the confident, bold athlete she is today. After making Team Alberta, she and some fellow teammates competed at the Canada Summer Games, the country's largest multi-sport tournament. Madeline struggled with imposter syndrome. Despite performing well overall, the nerves she faced before competitions were enough to undo months of training. But the answer was not to push herself harder. It was to slow down.
For someone as ambitious as Madeline, giving herself room to grow, as well as recover from injury, was her biggest breakthrough. "On the physical side of things, you have to prioritize focusing on yourself, taking care of yourself. As a student and an athlete, it's easy to forget to sleep and eat properly. This might seem like such a small thing, but unhealthy habits add up. I've learned to take better care of myself physically." Learning to rest and recover has catapulted Madeline to become a better athlete and student. "Having physical activity does help me focus on my schoolwork. I'm in a better state of mind feeling stronger physically and mentally."
Along with the physical adversity athletes face, mental health is an even larger, unseen issue. "There is mental adversity, being on a team, especially when there are periods of training that don't feel like they're going well. These can go on for weeks or months. We train for so long. When you get to a competition, and it doesn't go well, you throw horribly, you compete horribly, it's easy to get yourself into a mental rut." Madeline learned that the best thing to do when failure knocks you down, academically or athletically, is to step back and look at the bigger picture. "In those situations, I've always tried to focus on why I'm here in the first place. I love to throw. I love being an athlete and a student. Finding gratitude for the little things and surrounding yourself with people who lift you up and support you physically and mentally and care about you is equally important to physical health."
One of these supports is head track & field coach, Larry Steinke. "He’s been incredibly encouraging in both my academic and athletic journeys and pushes me to be the best I can every day. He’s the one who introduced me to throwing in the first place; without him, I never would have become a thrower. He’s always there to give me advice and help put things in perspective. He has also written me dozens of reference letters by now. He supports me on every level.”
With COVID forcing her to take a pause, Madeline reflects on her uLethbridge experience and how far she’s come. "Being on the team has taught me how to work hard for what I want to achieve. I learned how to manage my time and priorities, fight through adversity and cherish my times as a student-athlete. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the opportunities I’ve had as a Pronghorn.”
Madeline encourages students to follow their dreams and be open to every experience. “Never let anything stop you from pursuing what you want. Be open to new experiences. There’s a lot of things I would never have thought were for me, but if I hadn’t been open to new experience, I never would have met some of my best friends today. Things haven’t always been easy, but when I put my head down and get to work, focus and visualize what I want to achieve, those things become a reality. So don’t give up; over time, things will get easier.”
What’s next for Madeline? She hopes to continue throwing for as long as possible. Also, volunteering with the team and in the community, as well as completing two independent studies and her Honours Thesis, helped Madeline discover her passion for applied science and caring for others. As such, her goal is to provide care to others by working in a healthcare setting, so she’s currently studying for the MCAT. We wish her the best of luck and know that her will and determination will take her great places.