Bella McKee is a coach and athlete that I appreciate and have a great deal of respect for. I had the fortune of coaching Bella and the article that was posted touched me about a very sensitive topic that needs attention. Bella brings to light a very important subject that needs attention and more importantly action to help young athletes through difficult times. Thank you Bella for allowing us to post your powerful and real words.
I have been contemplating what to say and how to say it for quite a few days. Another student athlete has died by suicide. I have read all the articles on Katie Meyer since the initial news report of her death. The sad truth is, I immediately thought that her death was a suicide, and a few days later that was confirmed. When I was playing NCAA Division 1 hockey at Union College a couple of my teammates were reading the book about Maddy Holleran, a division one runner who died by suicide. I also read the book, which opened my eyes to a major problem student-athletes and professionals are dealing with. I had read the stories of Clint Malarchuk, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard but now to also see similar patterns in people my age and at the same level I was competing in was a new understanding for me.
While at Union, I had heard of the rising number of eating disorders among female athletes in the NCAA and I quickly understood why. We are weighed and tested, aiming for a small weight bracket in order to be accepted and if you are off by a pound or two in either direction you feel like a failure. I remember doing my weigh in and I was too heavy by a few pounds so I was scheduled for extra cardio sessions. A few months later, around Christmas time I hadn’t been eating or taking care of myself. I was sickly and unhealthy when I went to do another weigh in, this time I was within my bracket. Now this is just a tiny piece of a dangerous and tragic puzzle.
According to WGXA news, “Reports show suicide is the third leading cause of death among student athletes.” Katie Meyer, Maddy Holleran and many others are just becoming statistics, proving that we have a very broken system. I was very close to being added to these stats.
Going to Union was my dream, I had always wanted to play NCAA Division 1 hockey. When I arrived I felt the usual pressure of being a freshman in a new place hoping to perform well for my new teammates and coaches in a league I had never skated in before. I was playing at the top of my game and starting most games as well. As the time went on the usual freshman pressures became much bigger than that. I was in net every night with 2 senior goalies and a junior goalie just waiting to take my spot if I had a bad game. I had a team full of players depending on me to play lights out as well as a coaching staff expecting me to do the same. Add to this the pressure of trying to keep up in classes, (I was not doing well) as well as the many, many pressures I put on myself. All of the unwritten and/or unspoken rules and expectations were eating me alive. I fell into a deep depression (something I had dealt with before) my anxiety was through the roof and everything seemed like a trigger for my PTSD. I was in my dorm room every chance I got, either laying in the dark or just hiding from the world. I never went out with teammates or friends and I was going through an English class without buying any of the books. I was seeing a counselor on campus multiple times a week and found myself on “Suicide watch” many times throughout the season. I did not believe I was going to be able to live long enough to come back home at Christmas, and after Christmas I was no better. My play on the ice started to struggle but still I kept starting games. This was confusing and put more pressure on me, it was as if I had no way of escaping the repetitive schedule and expectations. I decided to go through the steps of taking a mental health leave of absence once the season was finished. I told my coaches and teammates and this created an even bigger and lonelier chain of reaction. I took my leave of absence and shortly after I announced that I would not be returning to hockey. The game I fell in love with. The game who made me who I was. The game that meant everything to me. The game that my mental health ruined, and it cost me my career.
There are so many athletes who feel similar, if not the same. I felt like I understood Maddy Holleran when I read her book, as though if I could have just talked to her we would have found ourselves on common ground. And now after the passing of Katie Meyer I find myself feeling the same way. I also feel disappointed in the athletic society. Student athletes, professionals and even amateurs are struggling. WE are struggling. Our worlds become too full, and without the skills or understanding to manage them, they overwhelm us; they beat us. The sport we fall in love with and dedicate our lives to ultimately becomes a loaded gun, just waiting for one more thing to send us over the edge and eventually fire the gun.
Originally from Irma, Alberta, BELLA McKEE has been a goaltender throughout many levels of hockey, including three years with the Lloydminster Bantam AAA Icecats and three years with the Midget AAA PWM Steelers. She also placed NCAA Division 1 hockey in Schenectady, New York with the Union College Dutchwomen, receiving ECAC Goalie of the Week honours. In her freshman year, she also finished with the most saves in the nation! Some of Bella’s achievements include the AFHL Top Goaltender Award (x2), AFHL Most Valuable Player, ECAC Hockey Goaltender of the Week and, most notably winning GOLD at the 2019 Canada Winter Games with Team Alberta. She was also recently named Goaltending coach for Team Alberta at the 2023 Canada Winter Game’s!