top of page
  • Ryleigh Katstra

Feeling Lost, Becoming Found

Dear UNCUT Duke,


My name is Ryleigh Katstra, I am a senior on the Duke Women’s Rowing team, a Neuroscience major and Psychology minor, a Team Impact Fellow, and the President of UNCUT Duke. It is incredibly difficult to sum up the past four years in a single story, but I have helped countless athletes do the same, and I think it’s time for me to give it a shot. 


When I came to Duke my freshman fall, I was determined to be more than just an athlete. I thought I knew what that meant, and I had an idea in my head about what my Duke experience would look like. After four years, I can safely say that it went nothing like I planned. And yet, I wouldn’t trade my Duke experience for anything. 


My sophomore year, I began having adverse reactions to working out, which is not what any athlete wants to happen. I found that exerting myself in the way rowing required of me was no longer something I could do safely. In October 2022, I was sidelined due to unexplained passing out and other abnormal symptoms after getting my heart rate up. This continued for several months, and I was, understandably so, not allowed to compete in any regattas that fall. 


"I began to learn about what it meant to not only have POTS and manage school with that diagnosis, but what it looked like to be a collegiate athlete with a chronic illness."




After several attempts at return to play, a couple of Duke Hospital visits, and a tilt table test, I ended up redshirting. In December 2022, I was diagnosed with a dysautonomic condition called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). Not only was this a condition I knew nothing about, but it was impacting nearly every part of my life. I was told it would take a good deal of time before I could return to any sense of normalcy. As anyone could imagine, that is a tough thing to grapple with and manage, especially at age 19. I began to learn about what it meant to not only have POTS and manage school with that diagnosis, but what it looked like to be a collegiate athlete with a chronic illness. At that point, there was no one else that I knew who had POTS. I completed a successful return to play that lasted the entire spring season alone in the training room, under careful supervision. Throughout this experience, I realized how lost I felt without both my sport and my teammates as a part of my everyday schedule.


"I became UNCUT president that year, but found that I had trouble feeling valid in encouraging other athletes to share their stories when I felt so lost in my own. "

While my team was away competing in the spring, I was on campus desperately trying to find ways to stay involved in athletics: the part of my life I felt like I had involuntarily lost. I became UNCUT president that year, but found that I had trouble feeling valid in encouraging other athletes to share their stories when I felt so lost in my own. 


Through this struggle with my identity, I found Team Impact: a program that matches kids with chronic illnesses and disabilities to college teams. I decided that if I couldn’t make a direct impact on my team through competing, I wanted to make an impact in another aspect of athletics. While I would never say what I was going through is comparable to anything the kids in the program go through, I felt like I could identify with this program on a personal level. I knew what it felt like to be sidelined by something out of my control, and I didn’t want any kids to feel like they couldn’t participate in sports due to their illness or disability. I applied to be a fellow for Duke Team Impact that spring, and immediately fell in love with the mission. 


Looking back, I think Team Impact was one of the most fulfilling parts of being a Duke Athlete. Suddenly, I was involved in getting children to fall in love with sports, and I was able to connect with other student athletes (and students) at Duke and nationwide. We all had the same goal: to play for something bigger than ourselves. Without this newfound purpose in my Duke career, I do not know if I would have been able to continue in my sport in the way that I did. 


I returned to rowing for my junior season, and saying I was nervous would be an understatement. I had rowed all summer and completed my return to play, but this was the next big step. It was unfamiliar to me to feel anxiety about my sport. I had always been a confident athlete, knowing I could trust my training and complete any workout given to me. Now, I knew I could still complete the workouts, but didn’t know if I was at the level I should be at, or that I was expected to be at. I didn’t want my teammates to doubt my ability. I wanted to be a teammate they could trust. I felt as if I was more aware of my shortcomings and what I lacked, rather than what I brought to the team and added to the boat. 


A few weeks into the season, I got somewhat of a reality check from both UNCUT and Team Impact. On one hand, I recognized that so many Duke athletes felt the same way that I did, and that I spent the first two years at Duke helping these athletes share their stories about mental health and injury in sports. As if that wasn’t a strong enough reminder that I wasn’t alone, I realized that there were so many Team Impact matches who were showing such bravery every day despite everything they were going through in their lives. 



Rowing was lucky enough to get matched to Ashlyn later that year, who joined our team when she was 10 years old. She gave a whole new purpose to my senior year. Ashlyn, while not only being such a light in my life, is one of the people I look up to. She’s smart, brave, so kind, an absolute weapon in the swimming pool, and a fantastic friend. Ashlyn does what she loves every day and doesn’t let anything stop her. I can only hope to be like her one day. 


"Not that remembering these things suddenly made everything better, but it was easier to go about every practice feeling more like the athlete I once was, and feeling like I could become that athlete again. "

With these reminders carrying me through practice every week, I was able to more confidently return to the sport I loved. Not that remembering these things suddenly made everything better, but it was easier to go about every practice feeling more like the athlete I once was, and feeling like I could become that athlete again. 


"In the most unlikely way, the two groups I decided to join at Duke carried me through my time on the rowing team and reminded me there is so much more to college athletics than performing well. "

I am a different athlete than I was when I joined Duke Rowing, in that every day I now get to prove to myself that I am strong enough, fast enough, and capable enough to row despite the medical condition I have. None of our Team Impact matches have let the things that they go through stop them, and neither do any of the athletes I’ve met through UNCUT. In the most unlikely way, the two groups I decided to join at Duke carried me through my time on the rowing team and reminded me there is so much more to college athletics than performing well.  



School is important, athletics are important, but the impact you leave when you’re gone is what matters. There’s a quote by John Welsey that says something like “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, at all the times you can”. While it is a bit repetitive, I think it encapsulates my goal during my time in Durham.

 

I don’t want people to remember me at Duke just for a fast erg time that I pulled, what place I finished in the latest matrix, or what seat I sat in at the Oakridge Invite. I would much rather them remember the time we took a night of spring break to make friendship bracelets with Ashlyn, the movie nights we hosted for the Team Impact matches and their teams, the countless number of athletes who trusted me and my staff to share their stories, or for the kind of teammate and person I am, or at least the kind I tried to be. 


So thank you, UNCUT Duke, for allowing me to provide so many athletes, including myself, with the opportunity to prove that there is much more to their stories. We are all much more than the stats we see or the uniform we wear, and I hope this story serves as a small reminder of that. I couldn’t imagine Duke without this platform, and I’m grateful I got to be a small part of it for these four years. 


-Ryleigh Katstra

Photo Credit: Ryleigh Katstra & Duke Athletics


775 views

Recent Posts

See All

Commentaires


bottom of page