A Passion Project Close to the Heart

Written by Brianna Canty

At the end of each year, the Ambassadors create and present passion projects that encompass the main focus for their year group. For Year 1 Ambassadors, their projects are self-focused, with many choosing to speak on personal growth or challenges they’ve overcome.

When the time came to select her passion project, Jana knew exactly what she was going to do. A few weeks prior, Jana had suffered an injury while participating in track and cross country. This was far from her first—as a junior, Jana had actually been injured at least once every season for the last two years. And this time was no different.

Jana remembers feeling frustrated, stuck, and upset about her injury. In talking it over with Pamela, Jana realized how helpful it would be to use her passion project to discuss her current injury and how it tied into her medical condition.

What is PKU?

Jana has Phenylketonuria, commonly known as PKU. This genetic disorder causes an inability to digest the amino acid phenylalanine which is found in protein. Jana has to limit the amount of protein she ingests every day and manage it with medication. If she doesn’t, phenylalanine can build up in her blood stream, rising to toxic levels, and travel to her brain.

As a competitive athlete, not being able to take in a high amount of protein prevents Jana from recovering successfully after exercising. In her own words: “As a high-performing athlete with PKU, if I don’t take the necessary steps to protect my body, it becomes more difficult to stay healthy and prevent injury. My success as a high-performing athlete all comes down to my training plan.”

But a training plan holds little weight without the support of her coaches. In the past, Jana has tried to explain to her coaches that she physically cannot meet their high-mileage demands at practices. If she runs those high numbers, she won’t be able to recover, her muscles will break down, and she will suffer further injuries. Whether choosing not to listen or unwilling to understand, Jana’s attempts to advocate for herself were disregarded by her coaches.

Senior year will be different for her, though. Jana and her mother are crafting their own training plan, working within the limitations of PKU and not trying to work around them. Reflecting on her injury and her recovery journey, Jana said: “I realized that it’s okay. I don’t need to do anything crazy right now [for my recovery]. I have time. I really want to run in college, and I think I was so focused on doing that, that I wasn’t thinking in the present. The passion project helped me realize what I can to do fix it now, and realized what I am here to do.”

Jana’s Passion Project

Jana delivered her speech on PKU twice; first to her fellow Ambassadors, and then a second time at GSWW’s end of the year event. She was hesitant about volunteering to present at the year-end event, and really didn’t want to. But Jana realized “something in me said, ‘You should do it.’”

So she did.

Both times she delivered her passion project speech, Jana got emotional. Talking about setbacks, injuries, and challenges is hard enough; voicing those things to a crowd of strangers is an even greater challenge. But Jana knew the value of it. She doesn’t know anyone else with PKU, and most people are just hearing about it for the first time when she brings it up.

Her voice is powerful; so too, is her story.

The full transcript of Jana’s speech can be found at the bottom of this blog, so take the time to check it out!

“It’s okay that I get injured. It’s just life, it happens. And I believe everything happens for a reason. [The injury] has already happened, I can’t do anything about it now, so I just have to move on.”

Time for Reflection

The passion project behind her, Jana took some time to reflect. She learned a lot about herself in Year 1 of being an Ambassador; gleaning valuable insights and lessons from the weekly workshops, Grassroots workshops, and Ambassador workbooks.

“I really love this process,” Jana added. “For myself and for the girls. I especially love Grassroots, seeing all the girls excited and enjoying what we do.” No matter how tired or worn out she was going into the Friday Grassroots workshops, Jana always came out of them feeling fulfilled.

Year 2 lies ahead for Jana, and that experience promises an exploration into her leadership style. This year will build upon the self-discovery and knowledge she gained during Year 1. Jana is excited, looking forward to the challenges, new situations, and growth it promises.

But, she’s not losing sight of the present. As her injury and passion project taught her, there is power in being present, in focusing on the here and now, instead of dwelling on the unknowns of the future. Jana is controlling what she can. She is working on her confidence and learning to take setbacks in stride.

In her passion project, Jana said: “I am learning I need to be my own advocate and there is power in my voice. I am strong, I know my value.”

The next time we are faced with difficulty, or we struggle, let’s take a page from her book. Let’s reflect, let’s be present, and let’s know our own strength.

Just like Jana.

Jana’s Speech

If you’d like to know what else Jana talked about in her speech, the full transcript of her Passion Project on PKU and her injury can be found below!

“I’m a high-competitive Track and Cross-Country athlete living with PKU. Before I share my story let me explain what PKU is: it’s a genetic disorder in which my body can’t break down protein, limiting my daily intake. It causes an amino acid called phenylalanine to build up in the body. This makes my recovery process a lot longer than normal. As a high-performing athlete with PKU, if I don’t take the necessary steps to protect my body, it becomes more difficult to stay healthy and prevent injury. My success as a high-performing athlete all comes down to my training plan.

Before high school, I never had an issue balancing my athletic life with PKU. Since then, I have been injured every season, leaving a huge gap in my time records. For a track athlete, our times are what measure our success. After much frustration, I eventually figured out what was causing so much injury: it was my training plan.

When I realized this, I explained to my coaches that my mileage needed to drop. They brushed me off and never considered what I was going through. I thought that I might be able to handle the training plan if I started going to the gym to strengthen my muscles, or stretched more and rolled, but nothing ever came out of it. I spent countless night crying out of frustration. I was so upset and began to ask myself, “Why can’t I be like my teammates?” “Why can they run so much and never get hurt?” “Why am I always the one on the sidelines cheering instead of racing?” “Why…do I have to be the one with PKU?” I pondered on these questions so much, I became a little depressed. I wasn’t only questioning my current position as an athlete, I began to question my dream of becoming a college track athlete.

I went to a sports massage therapist, Tobe Hanson, for one of my injuries just a few months ago. He told me that me being frustrated about my injuries will only stop me from my healing process. I was so worried about running great times for my future and where I’d end up instead of thinking in the present. This is where I began to take control.     

I’ve slowly become more accustomed and comfortable, not necessarily with my injuries, but the process of me needing to relax and take a step back when I get hurt and focus on the now. I am currently going through this process all over again. But when I went to speak to Pam about this exact passion project, I was reminded again that it’s ok to have a setback. And what I need to do now is to get my coaches to listen to me. I am currently in the process of building up the courage to share again but with a different approach. Knowledge is power and my goal is to educate them on the impact of PKU as a high-performing athlete. If I’m being honest, I’m fearful of being shut down again and not respected. But I am learning I need to be my own advocate and there is power in my voice. I am strong, I know my value. I also know I want to be successful, not only for myself, but also my team.

Track and Cross Country have been in my life for as long as I can remember. I’m not giving up now or anytime soon. The way I was born and my struggles with PKU are not something I can fix, but me showing my value, self-worth, and strength as my voice to my coaches are some things I can fix. I am getting healthy again. I am racing again. And even though I am not running to my fullest potential, I will be.”

Change One.
Change Thousands.
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