This fall, we challenged our athletes to reflect on their core: how did they arrive where they are now, and how will those experiences prepare them for the challenges of an Olympic year? Melissa Tanaka, a recent graduate of Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania, is one of our newest additions to the Oiselle Haute Volée team. In her words, she shares her experience as a collegiate athlete, how she found her way to competing with Oiselle, and what she wants to share with the next generation of girls rising in the sport. Please pass this along to any young women you know considering running in college or beginning their exciting adventure with a new collegiate team!
Melissa Tanaka's Guide to Running in College
Life in college is simple—running, eating, class, running some more, and eating some more. Your friends are with you constantly and whether it be new classes, races, or an incoming group of freshmen, life stays exciting. Truthfully, I’ve always been a bit terrified for college to end. My total of six years showed I clearly stuck around for as long as possible. Post-collegiate life seems more ambiguous, so it’s easy to understand why looking back at the magical times of college leaves me longing to experience it all over again while feeling a bit empty knowing that I can’t travel back in time.
I didn’t have very big dreams going into college. I loved running, but it was more of a means to an end. I had the best coaches and teammates in high school, but I didn’t want running to be my everything and I was ready to find out what more to life there was. I started my freshman year of college at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 2017 and getting there seemed to be a major stroke of luck. My initial talks with Penn fizzled out and Stanford emailed me back saying they had already filled up their recruiting class. I considered other schools but just after my senior track season started, I received a call from the head coach at Penn. By chance, he caught a glimpse of my race over the weekend while he was in the stands waiting patiently for his sons to appear in the next event. I didn’t run a particularly fast time, but he was impressed by the way I had raced it and looked up my name only to realize we had already talked. Penn’s team unexpectedly had a spot open up on their incoming class and although it was too late in the year for an official visit, he offered me a spot on the team if I wanted it. It was a huge decision, and I didn’t have much information. What I did know was that I was flooded with excitement when I pictured myself flying across the country to go to school at Penn. So, I went for it! Through a happy mixture of preparation and opportunity, I had a good race on the right day, ultimately earning my spot on the Penn Track team. I was started on my path toward a life I had never even dreamed of!
I spent the majority of my first collegiate year injured. A classic story lived by many others out there, I’m sure. It was not fun, and dragging my big ‘ol booted leg through piles of snow around campus was not a great introduction to “real” winter for a California girl. But there was camaraderie in it. Part of me liked waking up early in the morning to hit the pool with my fellow injured friends. We bonded in our misery, and together we made it somewhat enjoyable. So, my freshman year running-wise may have been a bit of a bust! But I had fun! I made friends, fell in love with a new city thousands of miles away from home, failed some midterms but still passed the classes, and was eager to return in the fall. The year was a success.
Finally fully equipped with a GPS watch and a desire to run fast, my renewed running life began. In the following years, success on the track made running an increasingly prominent force in my life. PRs, Ivy League Championships, Penn Relays Championships, and school records, came quickly. It felt like one day, the years of preparation began to bear fruit and everything went up from there.
When COVID came to bring tragedy and disappointment to people all around the world in innumerable ways, it was those special moments I had shared with my teammates, and my friends, that I missed the most. Post-long-run dining hall brunches and late-night laughs on the couch in our apartment building had become things of the past. In a twisted way, I appreciate these temporary losses for the way they helped show me how important life beyond school and running is. It taught me to embrace and appreciate every moment I got for my remaining time at Penn.
Taking with me all I had learned, I knew it wasn’t time for my college journey to end. I had more to give on the track and much to gain off the track as well. So, I figured, grad school it is! I talked to several coaches, the process being much easier this time around, knowing what I was looking for and what my goals were. Ultimately, I was ready to make my way back to California and once I was accepted to Stanford, I was set to go.
Settling in at Stanford was made pretty easy by an eager welcoming team and captivating classes. But despite the smooth transition, my first year was quite the overload in every sense of life. I was meeting new people everywhere I turned, and I had convinced my brain to be the most social version of myself I had ever been. This overload probably gave rise to me being injured for my first couple of months there, but after some long days in the pool, I was back to racing by the time outdoor season began.
Comebacks are always tough, and without any spectacular performances, I was just happy to have been selected for the team traveling to Pac-12s. Beginning with the prelims at that conference championship, I was mentally prepared for each race to be my last one of the season. Yet, race after race, round after round, big effort after big effort, I somehow wound up in the 1500m NCAA final.
Looking back at that post-season journey, it felt like a fever dream. People reminded me not to think this way, but it felt like I had simply slipped and landed in the NCAA final. I kept getting lucky with the way the races were playing out in my favor, but truthfully, I was exhausted. Running every race like it was my last took out all the mental motivation I had left to make it around the final lap of the track with the rest of the field. The NCAA final wasn’t the greatest race showing for me, but I think it worked out exactly how it was supposed to. Ultimately, it promised big things in the future and gave me new goals to work towards.
I wish I could say that experience catapulted me with the momentum I needed to kick booty in my final year in the NCAA. But that next fall was really hard, the hardest I ever had. I lacked the motivation needed to get through long, tough workouts, and even longer, tougher cross country races. I wanted so desperately for things to fall into place like they had in the past, yet I was left frustrated when time after time, things got more difficult, and my mental capacity got weaker.
My amazing sports psych helped me understand that I needed to have more compassion for myself.
My amazing sports psych helped me understand that I needed to have more compassion for myself. Running is a tough sport and I wasn’t giving myself the grace to step back and realize that for the truth that it is. Within the running community, we constantly remind our friends and teammates what greatness they are capable of. We encourage them not to give up, we tell them it’s okay to have a bad day. But when it comes to self-talk, we can be brutal and unforgiving.
Taking in my sports psych’s advice, I began to pat myself on the back even after the tiny victories of sticking to the group in a workout, or even the littlest victory of making it through practice. By the time indoor season was coming to an end, I had celebrated enough tiny victories and was ready for a big one.
At the finish we piled on top of each other in hugs and laughter. Looking over the rail of the track, standing right there with us were our teammates, Stanford coaches, families, and my Penn coaches celebrating us so happily. We cheered right back at them, waving and smiling with gratitude, knowing that this wasn’t just a win for the four of us, but also for everyone that helped us get to that point.
In the quick transitions of college track, I suddenly found myself moving through the outdoor season in a blur. Race after race, constantly traveling, it was a whirlwind of fitness and PR’s. Coming into PAC-12s, it was crazy to think how different of a position I was in relative to my previous conference championships. The 1500m final was one of those days that I felt good, running faster than ever before but somehow feeling like it was effortless. The best part about it all was my screaming, smiling, sparkling teammates sprinting up to give me big sweaty hugs as I walked off the track. It’s these moments, shared with the ones that have seen me working hard all year long that warmed my heart. They were just as happy as I was, if not more!
From such a high point I felt more confident than ever going into Regionals. I was finally starting to dream big, something I had never really had the opportunity to give to myself before. But that race at Regionals wasn’t picture perfect for me, as not every race can be. I hadn’t qualified for Nationals, and it felt like a massive miss. As bummed as I was leaving the track, knowing that my time in the NCAA had come to an end, I felt very confused. My mind kept telling me to be sad, but I had the strangest sense of overwhelming appreciation rushing through me. I didn’t know where all my teammates were, but I needed them there immediately! I wanted to squeeze them tight in a big hug and thank them! I needed them to know that it wasn’t about the race, I didn’t know it until then, but it had never been about the races. I was in it for the people, the memories, and the experiences that were gifted to me through my time in college. My heart was bursting with the love and gratitude it had been pumped full of over my six years in college. I was tearing up at the happiness that any of this was even possible.
I was in it for the people, the memories, and the experiences that were gifted to me through my time in college. My heart was bursting with the love and gratitude it had been pumped full of over my six years in college. I was tearing up at the happiness that any of this was even possible.
There were still times it hurt to think about the loss of such a great opportunity, the loss of my big, new dream. But this sadness had me laughing at the absurdity of it all. For all the extraordinary things brought into my life during college, an NCAA appearance felt so trivial. Sure, it sucked how the race ended up, but afterward, as I sat away from the crowds with my freshman friend, I couldn’t help but be so excited for her. I know that she has marvelous years coming, regardless of what happens with running. There’s so much to look forward to in college and so little of it has to do with racing performances. Running has given me lifelong friends, taken me to places I never thought I would end up, and given me silly, loving memories that will never cease to stop making me smile. I wasn’t sad over the race, more so mourning the end of such a transformative chapter of my life.
Looking back, these are some things (many things) that I found useful to keep in mind. I hope they may be useful things for other young women navigating the student-athlete experience.
Appreciate all the moments you have with your friends, even if it’s just a simple study night.
Tell the people in your life you appreciate them!!!
Don’t worry so much about who you are or who you aren’t. Also know that as much as you appreciate the people in your life, people appreciate you for being you!
Leave room to adapt and better yourself as you learn, but don’t change to form to other people, or in ways you think other people might want you to.
Be confident, you have a lot about yourself to be proud of! It’s very important to be kind to everyone, especially yourself, you deserve it. It’s okay to mess up! You’ll mess up a lot and it will suck but you’ll grow because of it. Life would be so boring without the funny stories blooming from your silly mistakes anyway.
It’s okay to lean into your love of running. It might break your heart sometimes, but your friends will always be right there to lift you back up.
It’s okay to lean into your hate of running too. It happens to the best of us! The times of hate make the loving moments so much sweeter.
Don’t worry so much about the future. Things will work out just as they should, and even if they don’t, you have a whole, big group of people you can fall back on to support you.
College is full of excitement and surprises, and I think that’s its charm. There’s also a lot that’s worth the wait to experience on your own - stay open to the newness!
It's easy to get caught up in the nostalgia of it all, especially when reminiscing on these endearing college memories (even writing this has tied up a little, warm knot in my chest!). But looking at my life now is a future version of myself telling people that she had no idea what was in store for her. There’s still so much more to come!