Kathy Ormsby jumped off the bridge. She just jumped. She was running in a college race and she was losing and she was frustrated and suddenly she ran out of the stadium with eight laps to go, ran down a main street, “apologized to God” and leaped off the bridge. She was trying to kill herself. She failed. She landed in a soggy marsh 35 feet below and lay there, paralyzed, until somebody found her.
No sadder stories. There can be no sadder stories. That is all I thought when this happened six months ago in Indianapolis. It is all I think even today, the day after Christmas.
No sadder stories. Not just because Kathy Ormsby, 22, will never walk — much less run — again. Or because people now stare at her when she goes to church.
It is something more, something I have not been able to shake since hearing the news. Part of what led her to that day — the fear of failure, the maddening pressure for excellence — cuts the flesh of our whole society. Bleed for her story. For if there is one lesson to be learned from the sports world in 1986, it may be inside the two-story colonial house in North Carolina, where Kathy Ormsby, who earlier this year ran a U.S. collegiate record in the 10,000 meters, now rolls herself from room to room, forever bound to a wheelchair.
No sadder stories. In pursuit of perfection Listen to the profile. Didn’t you know her? Early
rising. Hard training. She squeezed every minute out of every day. Even kept a daily itinerary. She was a top student, who did not let social life interfere with her goals. A North Carolina State teammate called her “a perfectionist.”
And had Kathy Ormsby become famous for victory — an Olympic medal, perhaps — her obsessive traits would have been hailed. “Total dedication,” the stories might have read.
But there is another side to total dedication. Kathy Ormsby had been blacking out in races long before the day she tried to kill herself. When she suffered from these occasional “panic attacks” — a terrifying insecurity that actually knocked her unconscious — she felt only that she was “failing my coach and my parents.”
After the accident, her shaken father was asked what he thought had caused her action. “I believe,” he said, “it had something to do with the pressure that is put on young people to succeed.”
Think about this. Pressure to succeed. And think about other disturbing headlines from this past year. Len Bias. Don Rogers. SMU. Cocaine, money, scandal, death.
And know this: The true demon is not anything that comes in vial, a bottle, or a sealed envelope. It is the pressure that lurks behind all those things.
The demon is overkill. We dream of more Too much. We want too much. It’s not enough to be on the team anymore. We want stars. It’s not enough to be a number. Be No. 1. “More” is the password. More and more. Every coach seems to want more-dedicated athletes, every parent seems to want the kids to start younger. Gymnasts begin in kindergarten. Tennis players leave home in the fifth grade to be nearer their coaches.
All is forgiven in the pursuit of excellence. They are, after all, pursuing “the dream.”
What dream, for heaven’s sake? Does it take a death leap or a drug overdose to tell us the dream is out of control? “When I went off the bridge,” Ormsby said recently, “part of me remembers apologizing to God and saying I’m sorry.”
For what? Trying to take her life?
Or not being able to run faster?
Obsession has become our poison. From the alumni booster who will pay athletes for victory, to the athlete who wants everything so fast he ignores the consequences. From the coach who looks the other way, to a young woman whose fear of failure almost led to her suicide in a quiet river bank.
And she is not alone.
It has happened before.
They are spokes on the same wheel, all these sports tragedies, a wheel that goes too fast, has gotten too big. So much of the time, we are neck-deep in our enthusiasm. We forget these are people out there. And then something happens.
I have Kathy Ormsby’s phone number. Like a hundred other journalists, I have wanted to talk more about the accident. I dialed the number Thursday, let the phone ring twice, then hung up.
What can I ask? What could she say?
Nothing. If we resolve anything in this new year, let it be our perspective. We have created a bubble in which sports success is worshiped. Until that changes, every ambulance that comes for another athlete’s body may be, in a small way, a mark on the bottom line of our souls.
It is the day after Christmas, the first one Kathy Ormsby spent in a wheelchair. No sadder stories. Let us hope there never are.