Weak and Strong

The pressures of food and fitness pushed senior Natalie Nielsen into what she defines as one her darkest places. After time, pain and a significant amount of reflection, she emerged better, faster and stronger than ever.

When thinking about the process of losing weight and getting in shape, one thinks about how difficult it is to eat healthy, to exercise and to truly lose the weight. But what one doesn’t think of is how difficult it can be to stop oneself from losing weight and knowing when it’s too much. For senior Natalie Nielsen this struggle lead to feeling rejected, ridiculed and left without the support of her closest friends and confidants.

During Nielsen’s junior year she felt at her weakest and decided she needed a change.

Along with her field hockey team, Nielsen found herself time after time stopping at the Lake Forest Oasis and other restaurants on the way home from far away games: “[The amount of food] just made me feel sick,” she said.

So Nielsen and her mom decided to get gym memberships. It started off with just a goal to lose ten pounds by Thanksgiving—just like anyone else trying to lose weight. She did well; she ate healthier and avoided junk food.

“Once you start losing weight it’s like, oh my god, I look better now,” Nielsen said. “Then it got kind of addicting and I just wanted to… keep going and going and going.”

She easily reached her goal of losing ten pounds, but decided she’d work off five more. After losing that, she thought she could go for another five; and so it continued.

Nielsen and her immediate family had not noticed any drastic change in her appearance, because they saw her every day; that was until they saw their extended family around Christmas time. After seeing Nielsen’s change in appearance, her family started telling her mom, “oh my god, Natalie is too skinny.” Her mom defended her at first, saying that she looked good, not realizing how severe it was actually getting. But when all of her family kept talking to her mom about Nielsen’s weight loss, she finally did realize it and decided it was time to take her to the doctors.

At first Nielsen avoided the subject of going to the doctor, “but when I first truly realized that I had a problem… was when I saw my mom cry.” Nielsen had never seen her mom cry in her entire life because, as she puts it, her mom is “a total badass.”

Her mom broke down.

“Natalie, you’re going to die,” she said.

And then her doctor told her the same thing.

She was at her weakest point; she found the strength to live.

Going back to school after winter break was hard. Nielsen received all kind of looks and was constantly being stared at; it was almost like people had never seen her before.

She walked down the hallway hearing, “woah, you got effing ugly” from people she once called her friends. People not only said a lot of stuff to her, but also her sister. One time in one of her sister’s classes, “they were giving out snacks, and my sister said that she didn’t want want one. She just casually didn’t want something, and the teacher replied with, oh what are you turning into your sister?”

People were unimaginably mean. Some teachers even said she looked like she had cancer.

“I don’t think people realized how mean people really were to me,” she said. “But if you were to ask me if I had permanently lost friends… Yeah I would definitely say I did.”

Going through things in her head, Nielsen couldn’t help feeling disappointed or mad about the situation she put herself into. Everyone thought she was happy when she really wasn’t; she would go to school and put a smile on her face, when deep down she was not okay.

“I remember hanging out with people and thinking bad thoughts; I wasn’t showing it, but I was secretly mad at myself, and mad in general,” Nielsen said.

Aside from the challenge of dealing with the criticism from students and staff, Nielsen had a bigger challenge she had to face: returning to track. To start off, she couldn’t even go to track practice for the first two weeks because her doctor did not clear her to exercise yet. Once she would reach a certain weight, she would be cleared to practice again. At first Nielsen would only be allowed to do limited cardio and weightlifting.

Even after not being able to practice for the first two weeks, Nielsen still was chosen as one of the captains. Although she was happy about becoming captain, that did not change the fact that her times were awful; actually, they were some of the worst times she ever received in her life. After seeing her times, and because she was so weak, the realization of potentially being moved to JV became increasingly real.

“I realized I don’t want to be on JV, I don’t want to be so cold all the time, and I don’t want to be so unhappy,” she said. Nielsen finally decided it was time for her to change; time for her to gain happiness again. “I started out so bad, but then I was like, alright Natalie you need to be legit now and focus.”

Nielsen likes to win, so she had to get back to having energy to do so.

By the end of her junior year track season, Nielsen worked her way up to being the number one girl in her events. Leading up to this year, she became one of the best cross country runners on Antioch’s team. Her athleticism gave her the push that she truly needed, the tenacity to overcome weakness, and the confidence to return to the health she needed.

“I definitely overcame my weakness from the support of people, and the mentality of wanting to succeed in track. When I first truly realized that I had a problem was when I saw my mom cry; but at that point in time, track was my driving point,” she said.

In retrospect, Nielsen didn’t expect the kind of responses she got. She didn’t expect to feel like an outcast or like she didn’t have a place in the school anymore. Her heart was broken, her faith faltered, and her image shattered. Next to seeing her mom crying for the first time, accepting how some of her good friends turned their backs on her was one of the most difficult experiences to deal with.

“Now I know who my real friends are,” she said.

The people who didn’t make fun of her were her real friends; people who were thoroughly concerned and didn’t try to backstab her. Nielsen found herself feeling more independent than before, and unconcerned to any rumors she may hear.

“It was an eye-opener,” she said. “Everyone thought I was happy when I wasn’t, but now I’m just genuinely happy.”

At awards night for track and field her junior year, Nielsen received the “Comeback Award” she literally gained strength to overcome her weakness. For her, it was in her time of weakness where her strength truly shined.

To say the least, Nielsen overcame a challenge, a challenge at such great proportions that some people can go their whole lives without confronting one such as hers