"What Made Maddy Run" Review

“The best four years of her life. That's what Madison expected. Four years just like high school, except better.” What Made Maddy Run by ESPN journalist Kate Fagan tells the story of Madison Holleran, a young, intelligent, and talented student athlete at University of Pennsylvania. After enduring the pressures of being a collegiate athlete, the transition from high school to college, and societal stigmas about mental health, Maddy ultimately decided to commit suicide in January 2014, triggering an essential conversation about student athletes and mental health.


Fagan’s contribution to conversation about mental health was with her book, What Made Maddy Run. While Fagan spent time telling the story of Maddy’s life by analyzing social media posts, texts, emails, and anecdotes from friends and family, she includes interviews with people who have struggled with mental health disorders, and studies or information produced by athletic organizations and psychologists. By using outside resources and personalizing them with Maddy’s story, the reader is offered both places to begin a conversation and a feeling of responsibility to do so. The major themes Fagan highlights include the transition to college and social media.


Maddy’s transition to college was difficult, as she held high expectations for herself, but failed to account for a change in demand. She had been a star soccer player and a record holding middle distance runner for her high school. She had high grades, beloved friends and family, and a glowing personality. She was being recruited by Division I coaches across the country for soccer, and was looked up to by her teammates, classmates, and friends. Her high expectations stayed with her as she transitioned. She was an incredible runner but was not the best. She was incredibly smart but was now taking much more difficult classes. Transitioning from being great to being closer to average was difficult for Maddy and is difficult for student athletes across the country.


Social media was another thing Fagan discussed. Maddy was an avid social media user, her Instagram is full of posts where she is smiling, radiating positive energy. Fagan notes that posts on social media are superficial snapshots of someone’s life, and while Maddy appeared to be having a great time at college, she was struggling with much heavier issues. One such instance where Fagan highlights this phenomenon is at Heptagonals, the Ivy League cross country championships at Princeton. Following a fantastic race, Maddie had collapsed at the finish line, and was given medical treatment for her exhaustion. She then told her mother that she was not happy, that “something is not right". Fagan writes, “a few minutes after the race, mother and daughter took a picture together. The moment the iPhone camera turned on, Maddy transformed: she pulled back her slumping shoulders, wrapped Stacy in a hug, and smiled for the camera.” Maddy was able to mask the fact that something was wrong just for an Instagram post, essentially convincing the world she was doing well. The unfortunate thing is that social media makes this a very easy thing to do, and people do it all the time.


While Fagan’s writing certainly initiated an educated conversation about mental health, the book falls short in that she tries to cover so many mental illnesses in one book that discussion lacked depth. Maddy was a runner, and eating disorders plague runners of all levels, between high school, collegiate, and professional teams. While eating disorders were covered in one chapter, because Maddy likely had one, they were not spoken of to the magnitude at which they affect not only the running community, but many student athletes in general.


What Made Maddy Run is a very important book highlighting a serious issue for student athletes. Interwoven between chapters is information about mental health, and a deeply personal, heart-wrenching story that can do no other than motivate the reader to talk about it. It is an essential foundation to begin to understand the myriad of mental hardship student athletes are subject to. Maddy, among thousands of other athletes, deserved a world that is accepting of mental illness, with healthcare designed to help all different types of people. After reading Kate Fagan’s book, it is upon the reader to advocate for them.