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Getting back on track: Kyler Lueck

| Judy Berthiaume (story); Jesse Yang (video)

When Kyler Lueck packed his stuff up at the end of spring semester last year, he knew he needed more than just a summer away from UW-Eau Claire, from track, and even from his teammates and friends.

The pressures of his classes, being a collegiate athlete and life in general were more than he thought he could handle, so he decided to put college on hold.

Less than a year later, the Blugold is back on campus, won a national championship in track and is thriving in the classroom as he works toward a degree in graphic communications.

What changed?

For the first time, Lueck says, he got serious about dealing with his mental health issues.

"I've had mental health issues since I was young, but it wasn't until high school that I really accepted it," says Lueck, a junior from Germantown. “And it’s only been the last year that I’ve really addressed it. I took the fall semester off and got the help I needed.

“I came back, and here I am, a national champion.”

Since returning to campus, he’s continued to work on his mental health, making the most of the support systems UW-Eau Claire offers students who are struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems, he says.

He also hopes to be a role model for other Blugolds who are struggling with their own mental health issues.

“People think I can’t have problems because I’m this elite athlete who won a national championship,” Lueck says. “I want them to know that anyone can have these problems and that they can get help.”

While talking about his mental illness isn’t easy, Lueck is eager to share his story because he wants to help get rid of the stigma around it, so more students and others get the help they need.

“Lots of people struggle with their mental health,” says Lueck. “If I can be an inspiration to even one person, that makes me happy.”

A lifelong struggle

Looking back, Lueck knows there were signs of his mental health problems as early as kindergarten.

By high school, he acknowledged he had a problem, but he had no idea what to do about it, so he mostly ignored it.

Once he got to college, first UW-Madison and then UW-Eau Claire, he knew his mental health was getting in his way on and off the track, yet he still struggled to do anything about it.

After a year at UW-Madison, he withdrew from college, convinced the pressures of being a Division I athlete and a student on a large campus was more than he could manage.

A friend told him about UW-Eau Claire, a supportive campus with an exceptional Division III track and cross-country program, so he transferred, hoping that the smaller campus would lesson his anxieties.

As a Blugold, Lueck quickly connected with his professors, made close friends with his teammates and peers, and found a coach he knows cares about him as a person as well as an athlete.

He even convinced his younger brother to transfer to UW-Eau Claire, making them teammates.

“Being a Blugold athlete means the world to me,” Lueck says. “There are a lot of good people on the team. I love it here. I love doing this with people I enjoy being around. I spend a lot of time with my teammates in and out of practice.”

Still, even with so many positives, last spring Lueck was again so overwhelmed that he once again withdrew from college, quit running and tried to push his family and friends away.

“I broke at the end of last year,” Lueck says. “I stopped running my freshman year at Madison and stopped again last year. I couldn’t handle the stress of school, life, not really understanding myself. I tried to push everyone away.”

Fortunately for him, his parents and siblings, along with his Blugold family — including his track and cross-country teammates and coaches — didn’t give up on him.

“They stuck with me and that was huge,” Lueck says.

They encouraged him to get help, to start running again, to lean on them, to come back to UW-Eau Claire.

It took some time, but finally Lueck listened, taking steps to address the issues that he’s struggled with for most of his life.

He was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder, which he now knows causes his anxieties to flare even more.

“The OCD was a surprise,” Lueck says. “There’s a lot more to it than I knew. For me, it’s a lot of little things, a lot of overthinking things, a lot of fears that create the anxiety.

“There also is the whole flight and fight concept, and I was doing a lot of flight last year. That’s the part I really got help with.”

Understanding his mental illness has helped him to better deal with it and to think differently about his future, Lueck says.

“I know I have it and that I will never get rid of it, so have to accept it,” Lueck says. “It’s never going to completely go away so I need to work on it each day.”

Finding help on campus

Lueck is one of many students at UW-Eau Claire and universities across the state and country who are struggling with mental health issues.

According to National College Health Assessment data, 23% of UW System students reported being diagnosed or treated for depression in 2015, and 27% reported being diagnosed or treated for anxiety.

Research shows a dramatic increase in the number of students in the UW System seeking help for behavioral health issues, with visits to campus counseling centers increasing by 55% since 2010.

Last year, 1,200 students sought help from UW-Eau Claire’s Counseling Services, and the number is even higher this year.

Depression and anxiety are the most prevalent issues among students at UW-Eau Claire and other UW campuses.

Lueck is grateful to have a place on campus where he can go for ongoing support.

“I go to group therapy with my buddy and I feel like the people there get me,” Lueck says. “Counseling Services has been a huge help. It’s a safe place where I can talk about my problems.”

He also leans on his teammates, and appreciates the support of faculty and staff, Lueck says.

“I can share anything with my teammates,” Lueck says. “You might think it would hard to have a normal conversation about mental health, but they really shrug that off and we just talk about it. We share everything.

“The teachers here also are a huge help. They want me to succeed so I can be open about all the stuff I’m dealing with.”

Finding joy in running

As his mental health has improved, Lueck is finding even more success and joy in running, a sport that has been part of his life since he was just 5 years old.

“Running is just a thing I did every day,” Lueck says, noting that his dad is a track coach. “A lot of people don’t understand the sport, but they still respect it.”

“It’s hard work, but it’s taught me a lot. It taught me how to work hard in school, how to be a good friend, teammate and sibling.”

However, despite years of success, running also contributed to some of his anxieties, Lueck says.

His dad was an elite runner at UW-Madison, and his high school training partner was the star of the team, leaving Lueck to constantly question whether he measured up.

“It all got away from me,” Lueck says of his anxieties around whether he was good enough.

Part of getting mentally stronger, was getting back to running and learning to manage those anxieties.

“I still get nervous, but I’ve taught myself to push through it,” Lueck says. “The more I expose myself to the things that cause my fear, the better I can handle it. I need to face it head on to fight it. The more I expose myself to the things that cause my fears, the less fearful and anxious I become.”

His new approach is working.

In March, he earned his first national title in the 800m during the NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field Championships in Boston. During his championship run, he set a meet record and had the fifth fastest time in NCAA Division III history.

As he crossed the finish line, he first flexed his muscles and then pointed to his head.

“I wanted people to know that it’s wasn’t just physical training, but the work mentally, that made me a national champion,” Lueck says.

“It’s the support from my teachers, coaches, teammates, friends and family that helped me deal with my mental health. I tried to push them all away, but they stuck with me. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

A brighter future

After college, Lueck hopes to run professionally, or to use his graphic communications degree to work within the running world.

Wherever his career and life take him, he plans to continue to be a mental health advocate, encouraging people to find the help they need.

“If I can give hope to one person, that’s my motivation to keep going,” Lueck says. 

Photo caption: Blugold Kyler Lueck is a national champion in track as well as a mental health advocate.