I’d like to introduce everyone to Kristle Lowell, Still I Run ambassador. Kristle is an amazing trampoline gymnast who reached out to me a while back, wanting to be a part of what we’re doing here. She uses her sport of trampoline gymnastics (and other types of exercise like running) as a way to cope with anxiety and depression. Even though Kristle is at the top of her game, she experiences discrimination on the gym floor on a regular basis due to her mental illness. Mental health conditions aren’t looked upon kindly in the sports competition world unfortunately. Kristle is hoping to help defeat the stigma in her sport by spreading the good word of Still I Run and mental health awareness… and you know what? I think she’s just the one to do it. Welcome Kristle!
My name is Kristle Lowell. I am an American trampoline gymnast. I spent my entire life growing up inside a gym and traveling the world doing what I love. In 2013 my passion paid off and I was the first American in 16 years to win a World Championship Gold medal. It should have been one of the happiest days of my life, but what people didn’t see was how chronically sad I was before this. I was afraid to talk about my depression for fear of shame and stigma. I had always been the weird athlete in the gym and left it at that. It wasn’t until after I won the gold that I realized just how badly depression impacted my life . Somewhere in my mind, I thought that if I became world champion, somehow my sadness and anxiety would go away. I remember waking up the morning after winning and I just sat in bed sobbing. Not tears of joy but tears of sadness because this dream I’d had for 20 years finally came true, and I STILL felt sad. That is the very definition of depression. Being sad when everything is going right. Another example of that is I graduated top of my class in college with a masters degree and still wasn’t happy. My mom actually had to force me to go to graduation.
Struggling through 2014
I spent 2014 trying to live up to the standard of what I thought it meant to be a world champion, but I felt like I didn’t get to be me. My anxiety continued to get worse since I was caring more and more about what people thought of me. The brighter spotlight was on me and the more my tics became noticeable. I would have to obsessively sip water before competitions, put my water bottle down in a certain way and finally I would redo my ankle tape about 20 times before competing.
In preparation for the 2014 World Championships, I injured my ankle. My world came crashing down around me. I had never felt so low before in my life. Looking back though I am thankful this happened because it made me realize what was important in my life. I NEEDED to bounce on a trampoline. I could not sit still. Every second I was home and away from the gym, I lay in bed feeling worse. The only thing that got me out of bed was being on a trampoline.
So I decided I need to do what was best for me and my mental health. With my air cast on my ankle, I went to the gym every day and did backdrops (not using my ankle). I would do a thousand a day. For me, flying through the air at 20 feet makes me feel SO alive. Trampoline gymnastics is the only place I didn’t feel sad.
After recovering physically from my injury, I then needed to emotionally recover. I eventually had to face the trampoline skill I got injured on. It was terrifying, to say the least. I would wake up with night terrors in a panic attack feeling like I was falling again.
Getting Back in the Game
Injuring my ankle was a blessing in disguise. It made me realize it wasn’t about winning, but that I genuinely just love my sport. After being diagnosed with an autoimmune illness on top of the ankle injury and depression/anxiety, I knew I might never be world champion again. Regardless, I knew I was truly happy just flipping through the air.
To my surprise, I went undefeated in the year 2016 and became National Champion. I think what made me turn the corner with my depression was I started to get mad at the stigma surrounding mental health and I channeled that anger into my training. I was upset about how people who are just a little different get treated in society. People call us crazy, pathetic, and drama queens. That’s not okay. Depression is not drama. People who do not truly know anything about depression act like this is a choice for us. It’s not.
Depression is a flaw in chemistry not in character. It’s an illness I don’t wish on anyone. It’s discrimination to call the mentally ill these horrible names. Every day when I go to the gym now I think of all the kids out there who might be afraid to talk about anxiety and depression. I know that when I’m scared to do something I have to do it for them.
The Three Stages
I think with depression, as with any chronic illness, we go through three stages. Victim. Survivor. Thriver. When I hit rock bottom as a victim I thought I would never get better. I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. I laid in bed for days, just exhausted and feeling helpless. Thank god I had loving parents who helped me and understood I needed time. Then I went on to being survivor where I finally got on the right medication and started to be able to return to life. I wasn’t happy, but I was at least functioning. I still was crying in public a lot especially at practices. It was so embarrassing to me, but that changed when a little girl came up to me, out of the blue, with a card. It said “you’re my hero because you cry, but you do it anyways.” She said her friends at school made fun of her for crying and called her a “crybaby” (I despise this word). That little girl and her card slowly made me realize that I needed to accept that the depression, crying spells, and panic attacks were not stopping and I needed to accept myself. Then I became a thriver. Now I take the depression and the crying and face it boldly. I try to stand up to the stigma as much as possible now and it’s given me a reason to fight. I read all the wonderful social media comments and letters people give me and feel great knowing that being open and honest about my struggle might give someone the strength to pull through.
I hope people reading this can take away from this that you need to use your passion to help get you out of the black hole of depression. My passion is what made the difference for me. Use your struggles with mental illness to make the world a more caring and kinder place. Being open about it helped me so much.
There are strength in numbers and knowing you’re not alone. No matter what your passion is, use it. Exercise, regardless if it’s bouncing on a trampoline or running, has a way of silencing the negative thoughts that play on a loop in our brains sometimes.
Learn to recognize progress. Not perfection. It’s so easy with athletics to look at how far you are away from your goal. Try to recognize the steps to you made toward it. No matter how small, or how slow you go, even the worst day at the gym is better than the best day on the sofa. People always regret not working out, but I very rarely hear anyone say they regret going to the gym.