There are two things that I suspect I am far better-versed than you are. The first is that after a half-century as an unquenchable student, my list of the greatest athletes in the history of UT athletics is better than yours. Oh, you can get the record books, the stat sheets, and an easy-to-find list of victories and do right well. But my edge is that I know what it took, the back-story, the price that was demanded to reach the top of the pedestal, and my list is a far-greater measure to true greatness.
The second advantage I have over many thousands is that I know more about the ravages of mental illness from my own battles against the monsters and demons. Some years ago I decided to go public with how debilitating chronic depression can be. It isn’t something you brag about, and very few who suffer don’t dare talk about it, even with their spouses.
But my deal is that if it can happen to me, it can happen to you. Far better, if I can take daily meds to control the anxiety, you too can get professional help and learn today’s pharmaceuticals are so good you’ll wonder if what Sir Winston Churchill called “the black dog” was ever the case.
Therefore, I was born to be the expert to proclaim Maddy Banic is not only the latest human being to enter my personal Hall of Fame, but easily one of my all-time favorite champions. Last month she and three of her Lady Vol swim mates won the NCAA medley relay championship in Austin, Texas, in record-setting time. But, in comparison, that’s nothing.
Two years ago two of her Lady Vol swim mates broke down her dormitory door to physically keep her from swallowing a mound of pills that would take her life. Two years ago, at the NCAA championships back then, the panic attack that settled on her was so severe she had to be taken from the event by stretcher and rushed to the nearest hospital.
But now, as the team captain, there is a picture of her wearing a coonskin hat on the champions’ dais in Austin, singing ‘Rocky Top’ at – yes, the top of her lungs -- as she cradles her first-place trophy. Maddy’s life is just beginning and, when she graduates this summer with a degree in kinesiology, she yearns to become a spokesperson and advocate for mental illness … and how to handle it for the rest of her life.
The truth is mental illness doesn’t go away but it is easier to control than most realize. “It’s really day-by-day,” Banic told writer Rhiannon Potkey in an article that appeared in the Knoxville News-Sentinel last week. “You have your ups and downs and nobody is perfect.
“I am not perfect,” she admitted. “I still have my moments. I think overall it is going to be hard starting a new chapter away from the team, but I am excited to kind of take that step and see what else I can dedicate my life to outside of swimming.”
When the team voted to make her this year’s captain, it “meant the world” to Banic because it showed her that once she sought help – including an in-patient program in Chicago – she had regained their trust.
“What swimming at Tennessee really taught me about myself is that I am really big at competing and living for something bigger than myself,” she told the writer. “I like being able to perform with a group and work for something bigger than myself. These girls have been my family for four years and will be family now that we are done. We will be in each other’s weddings.”
Lady Vols coach Matt Kredich is still in awe of what he watched Maddy go through. “I get emotional when I stop and think about it because I feel like we were probably so close to losing an incredible young woman,” he said.
“To see her thriving, and I do believe she is thriving now, it’s just an incredible story and really, really inspiring. Her transformation is one of the great highlights of my career. I don’t view it as my accomplishment, but view it as her accomplishment that I got to witness.”
The lesson? If this can happen to the fastest freestyle swimmer in Lady Vol history, and it can happen to me, never forget there is a “Get Out Of Jail” card for you or someone you love. Maddy had already written the goodbye notes when teammates Carrie Johnson and Christina Paspalas rushed into her room to find her sobbing in front of what was inches away from an overdose.
“That was my lowest point. I didn’t want to be here anymore. I don’t even know what triggered it, but I just decided it was time to go,” she was starkly honest, just as she was two years later when she touched the wall in Texas for the NCAA championship. “I just broke down in tears. I was a disaster and crying so hard,” Banic said. “All the pride and love I have for my teammates came pouring out of me. I can’t even put it into words.”
Maddy needs no words for millions of us who “have been there,” who have gotten help, and relish her success as vividly as our own.
Madeline ‘Maddy’ Banic is easiest one of the greatest heroes in the history of University of Tennessee athletics and, remember, I am the expert.