What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen
By Alison Overholt, Editor in Chief, ESPN The Magazine and espnW
I remember the first time Kate and I talked about what it would mean to tell Madison Holleran's story. It was a cold January day, and we sat across from each other at a small table in a crowded mall, so deep in conversation that we barely noticed when the dull roar of lunchtime white noise faded to emptiness as everyone else returned to work. We just kept talking.
It was a big conversation—you know, one where you feel the goose bumps start to rise on your skin because you know you're getting close to something important. Kate had written breakthrough stories for espnW and ESPN The Magazine, particularly about the glass ceiling women coaches face in the world of elite college sports, but she was determined to make an even bigger impact. I was contemplating returning to ESPN to become editor in chief of espnW, and, like Kate, I was hungry. Her current and my future boss, espnW founder Laura Gentile, had suggested we spend some time together talking about the possibilities.
There was something happening in the world—an awakening of sorts—and we were eagerly dissecting it over now-cold cups of nondescript coffee. But it was more than that—more than simple awareness, or interest. A sense of urgency, perhaps. A feeling that change surrounding the way we talk about and think about and encounter women in the world was brewing. After decades of (often maddeningly) slow and steady progress in the form of policy changes and polite conversations about diversity and equality across business, politics, and, yes, even sports, it felt like the right time.
Even as we discussed witnessing these changes in the world, Kate and I spoke of our sense that in sports journalism, we weren't yet seeing the larger reality reflected in the pages of the pieces we produced or the hours of video journalism we consumed. Where were the girls and women in the bylines of the stories, and as central characters in the narratives they told?
Great narrative journalism has long been about helping us to understand universal truths of the world by grounding big ideas in the stories of real people. I believe that the way we tell these stories can very literally change the way we experience the world. If only boys and men are central characters within complicated subjects, then male stories are universal, while girls' and women's stories remain singular, peculiar. Women's stories the exception; men's stories the rule.
So this is what Kate and I talked about that day over coffee. The overwhelming need we each felt to change the narrative.
And though it is certainly true that everyone has a story, it is also true that some stories help us learn more, grow more. Some stories simply touch us more deeply as they reach right into our hearts, settle there, and never leave.
So that day we talked, by way of example, about a tiny newspaper article. The briefest of summaries of what must have been the deepest of tragedies. Madison Holleran, a young track athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, had died by suicide. Her friends and peers were stunned, several commenting in their confusion that her life was "perfect." Not seemed but was perfect, as evidenced by the beautifully curated Instagram feed to which she frequently posted, documenting each wonderful moment after the next. Kate and I talked about her. What had she been going through, unseen and unheard, behind all those filters? How much do each of us sift out our struggles and pare away personal truths each day as we work to present a more perfect vision for critique by a social media–fueled world?
We kept talking.
Madison's story was of a life not yet fully lived, a young female athlete facing struggles that, while unique and specific to her particular experiences, could take readers on a universal journey. This, we said, was the kind of story that espnW should bring into the world—big, beautiful, complex, painful, powerful stories, with women and girls as central figures, told through the prism of sports, by writers who care enough to tell them the right way. Writers like Kate.
Sixteen months later, after Maddy's family opened their lives and their hearts to Kate, her story was published by espnW and then in ESPN The Magazine, with a companion video feature that ran on ESPN.com and on SportsCenter. It was and remains the most read feature in espnW's history, and the most watched video feature in the history of ESPN.com. That story, "Split Image," changed the conversation. At our company, certainly, but in many ways in sports media more broadly and now, with the publication of this book, we hope in the world at large, too. When we read Maddy's story, we feel that we know her. Many of us are Maddy, but for the grace of a few decisions or moments of support that placed us on a different path, to a different outcome.
And now here is her fuller story, along with the personal essays and explorations around mental illness that Kate has so thoughtfully crafted in the months since that original publication. It is a powerful and moving work, and one that espnW is honored to have played a role in developing and supporting. It will start conversations—important conversations—about athletes, yes, but more than that, about young people who struggle. With pressure. With illness. With life.
The book you hold in your hands is a special work, by a special writer. Read it. Think about it. Talk about it. Share it. Be a part of changing the narrative.
I first met the Holleran family in the summer of 2014, six months after Madison's death. We sat at their kitchen table and I told them I hoped to be able to earn their trust and promised to do justice to Maddy's story. I hope I have fulfilled that promise. Even while dealing with the greatest pain imaginable, the Holleran family opened their home, and their hearts, to me so that we could tell this story: first as a piece for espnW and ESPN The Magazine, and now in this book. They answered my calls and e-mails, passed along the cell phone number of every one of Maddy's friends, and even granted me access to Maddy's computer, including her documents, e-mails, and iMessages. A higher purpose drove their transparency: they didn't want Maddy's death to be an isolated tragedy, but rather a catalyst for change. The Madison Holleran Foundation is already doing work to assist those in crisis, placing a special emphasis on preparing high school seniors for the transition to college, which can often be more challenging than expected. In 2016, New Jersey signed into law the Madison Holleran Prevention Act, requiring that New Jersey colleges provide students with around-the-clock access to mental health services.
The content of every document, e-mail, and text reproduced in this book is real, though I have occasionally changed or abbreviated the name of the sender when I thought it appropriate. Madison's death has already created much heartache, and I took extra precautions so as not to create more.
No premeditated reason exists for why I alternately refer to Madison by both her full name and as Maddy, though it is true to say I felt that, by writing this book, I came to know her—at least in some small way.
The night before returning to the University of Pennsylvania for the start of second semester, Madison Holleran broke her iPhone. She was with her whole family at the local TGI Friday's, one of their go-to spots. The iPhone 4 slipped from her hand while she was walking to the car after dinner. She picked it up from the ground and looked at the glass: shattered.
"I can't go back to school with my phone like this," Madison told her dad, Jim.
He smiled. He knew that she couldn't; she depended on her phone. Over the years, father and daughter had spent countless hours in the car together, driving to and from school and practices, Maddy always doing something on her phone, posting photos or sending texts. Jim wasn't big on social media, so he didn't much concern himself with precisely what was capturing Madison's attention. And anyway, she was no different with her phone than any of her friends or anyone else her age—the device was an extension of her hand.
"We'll stop at Verizon on the way back to Penn tomorrow morning," Jim assured his daughter.
The phone did need fixing, but it wasn't broken-broken; the problem was cosmetic. So that night, Madison texted with some of her friends, letting them know about the shattered screen—so annoying, right?—and making plans for the following afternoon, when she would meet her good friend Ingrid Hung at the Penn women's basketball game. The Quakers were playing Princeton, and one of Maddy's best friends from high school, Jackie Reyneke, was a freshman for the Tigers. Attending the Friday night game meant that Madison had to arrive back on campus three days early. Not ideal. She would have preferred staying at home, spending the weekend with her family in Allendale, New Jersey, working out and sleeping, but she couldn't miss seeing Jackie, with whom she had won two state soccer titles at Northern Highlands, the large public high school they had both attended.
The light tone of Madison's texts camouflaged a truth only a handful of people knew: she dreaded returning to Penn for spring semester. But she was going back. She was continuing to put one foot in front of the other, trying to believe that maybe with the next step she would finally feel solid ground, some semblance of the equilibrium she had known before. At the same time, she couldn't shake the feeling that something had shifted dramatically—something she couldn't quite name. And whatever it was had fundamentally changed how she processed the world.
What was happening to Madison was the inverse of what had happened to her iPhone. She was breaking on the inside.
The next morning, Madison and her dad packed his white Ford Edge. Most of her stuff was still in her dorm room, so all she had was a suitcase and a standing lamp that she had bought while home for Christmas. Her room didn't get much natural light, and she hated the unforgiving overhead glare.
The first stop was at the Verizon on Route 17 in New Jersey. The salesperson took one look at the screen and sent Jim and Maddy to the Apple Store, since that company could likely fix the glass much more cheaply. The stop at Apple in the Garden State Mall was quick. And $200 later, father and daughter were back in the car, heading south to Philadelphia.
The drive was two hours, mostly on Interstate 95, the main corridor between New York City and Philadelphia, a boring stretch of highway broken up only by the occasional exit sign. Jim's mind whirred with everything said and unsaid between them. Just two days earlier, he had attended Maddy's most recent counseling session in the town neighboring Allendale. Before they'd driven over, he'd asked his daughter if she needed to go alone, but she'd said she wanted him there. The session had terrified him. During it, Madison had admitted to suicidal thoughts. He glanced now at his daughter. She was downloading something onto her phone, her brown hair pulled into a ponytail, her eyes focused on the screen.
How have we gotten here? he wondered. Just months ago, she was winning the 800 meters at the New Jersey State Championships, anticipation in the air, the stands filled with a rainbow of school colors, Maddy powering through the finish line as if she could have done yet another lap. In high school, when a practice was too easy, she would come home and run circles around their backyard, actually creating a visible path in the grass.
Now she looked fragile. He couldn't believe he was using that word for her.
Like most parents, Jim prided himself on having solutions when his kids faced problems. Sometimes they took his advice, sometimes they didn't—but at least he had guidance to offer them. Right now, though, Jim had no idea what to say or do. He kept rummaging through his mental toolbox, grabbing at whatever he could. And he kept landing on the same thought: Madison must be going through what Ashley went through. Two years prior, his older daughter had enrolled at Penn State University. She hadn't liked it. She was home almost every weekend, and the family knew she needed to transfer. By sophomore year, she was at the University of Alabama and everything was back to normal.
Maybe that's all Madison needed: a change of scenery. Jim looked again at his daughter. She was so thin, so pale. Energy seemed to be leaking from her as if there was a pinprick nobody could find. Every few minutes, she looked out the window. Jim doubted she was taking in the scene; she seemed to be looking past it. Then she would look back at her phone, continue reconfiguring it.
Second semester will get better, had to get better, Madison thought. If nothing else, through sheer force of will, perhaps she could make it better. And if she told enough people that things were going to go well this time around, said it out loud repeatedly, maybe she could even convince herself.
But one thing had to happen first: She needed to quit track. Quitting. Madison had trouble wrapping her mind around that word. She had never quit anything. She was an athlete, had always identified as an athlete. By third grade, she was going to soccer practice multiple times a week—the drills conducted by adults, everything regulated and clearly the start of Madison's march toward continual improvement, both in academics and athletics. Some sort of end goal existed, even if in those earliest years she couldn't quite name it. And then, just before starting middle school, she and her best friend at the time, MJ, had confided in each other that they each wanted to play sports in college. It was her lifelong dream. Yet here she was, just one semester into running track at Penn, wishing she could stop, hoping someone would recognize that she desperately needed to stop.
About halfway down I-95, Madison turned to her dad. "You know I don't want to go back," she said.
"I know," Jim said. "I understand that."
He tightened his grip on the wheel. The road flew beneath the tires. Penn was drawing closer with each passing minute.
"Let's just keep driving," he said. "We could go to North Carolina, to Chapel Hill. We could just keep driving past the exit and you could visit it, see if you like it."
Jim loved Chapel Hill. His sister, Mary, and her husband, Scott, had attended North Carolina. Jim had also gone to school in North Carolina, at High Point University, where he played tennis. The school didn't have the same name recognition, the same clout, as the prestigious East Coast institutions, the vaunted Ivy League, but he had loved his time there. The best four years of his life. He still kept in touch with his college friends.
Madison shook her head. "We can't," she said. "We're having lunch with Ingrid."
Jim persisted, told his daughter again about his experience in college, about the friends he had made, how he had worked hard but never felt the kind of paralyzing pressure that she seemed to be feeling.
Maddy put down her phone and let her eyes drift toward the window. "You don't know how lucky you are," she said almost wistfully.
"You can have that, too," he said. "I promise."
She shook her head.
"Well, how do you feel about transferring?"
"I don't know," she said. "Vanderbilt could be an option."
Over winter break, she had started looking into Vanderbilt. The school had strong athletics and academics; plus, it was close to Ashley.
In that moment, the word "Vanderbilt" no longer represented a group of distinguished buildings in Nashville, boys in penny loafers and sorority girls drifting from class to class. The school represented something much more elusive: hope. At least Madison was still considering solutions. At least she was still problem solving. This thought soothed Jim.
"Let's plan a visit down there," he said.
"Yeah," Madison replied, noncommittal. "That would be good."
A few minutes later, with Exit 4 fast approaching, Jim turned on his blinker and slowly eased the car off the highway. They cut through New Jersey, past the gas stations and fast-food joints and strip malls, then crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge, and soon enough the ivy-covered buildings of Penn were just outside their windows.
Ingrid Hung was Madison's best friend at Penn. Ingrid's sister Nicole played basketball for Princeton, which is how Ingrid and Maddy had connected, and also why Ingrid had returned early to school. Ingrid was from California, and she and Maddy talked frequently about spending time in Los Angeles that summer. Madison had always wanted to visit the Golden State, so she was thrilled to have a friend from Pasadena, and she sent Ashley a message on Facebook talking about how they should all go west for a week or two in July. Ingrid had come to school in Philly in large part because she had been recruited for the crew team. But now, just like Maddy, Ingrid wanted to quit. She wanted to experience college without the demands of practice and meets.
Freedom. She and Maddy talked about this all the time.
Jim and Madison met Ingrid at Baby Blues BBQ, which was just across the street from Maddy's dorm, between Chestnut Street and Walnut. Inside the quirky space, the first floor of a renovated townhouse, the two friends easily fell back into a rhythm. They'd stayed in touch over break, texting frequently, and even though they'd known each other only a few months, both seemed to believe the relationship would last.
AH you are actually the cutest and best person ever. THANK YOU BEST FRAND!!!!!!!!!! I was going to send ya a long message before your flight left tomorrow but I guess I'll just do it now. Here goes! So in all honesty I don't know what I would have done without you this semester. Even though it took a little time to find each other, and while we are both still in the long and tedious process of finding ourselves (lol will we ever??), I can say that with you here it's made the transition a lot easier. And by no means did I expect the transition to be THIS hard, but each day things are getting better, and I know we will make the most out of second semester and not let the time slip away without loving the rest of our time here. So thank you again for being YOU and becoming one of my best friends. Even though it's only been a couple of months I can confidently say that I hope we stay friends for life. And maybe even pretty soon you can show me some things to do in Cali . So second semester let's vow to live it up, continue our lunch dates at huntsman, not lose each other when we go out (get leashes), not black out (possible?), sing more karaoke at blarney, get into those damn sororities, and accomplish tasks on our soon-to-be-made bucket list. Also ace that Chinese final tomorrow… REP YOUR RACE!!!!!! Once again thank you and I love ya with all my heart
At lunch, Maddy seemed to light up around Ingrid, the two of them brainstorming how they would make second semester great. Ingrid brought with her a copy of The Happiness Project, the bestselling book about one woman's yearlong pursuit of joy. Jim listened as they talked about rushing for sororities. How did it work, exactly? Neither knew for sure, but they cobbled together bits and pieces. They knew the process would start in earnest the following weekend, and they spoke breathlessly about what that might entail.
Jim smiled as he paid the check. Maddy seemed genuinely excited to see Ingrid. And Jim couldn't help but stockpile these moments, these small reassurances that offered him a brief respite from worry.
The Penn-Princeton women's basketball game started at 4 p.m. at the Palestra. They arrived an hour early to watch Princeton warm up—perhaps the only time they would see Jackie in action. Ingrid's sister Nicole was hurt, so she was sitting on the bench in street clothes, and Jackie had missed a few weeks with a broken finger, so she was still working her way into shape.
Nicole had given Ingrid two Princeton practice jerseys, reversible black-and-orange mesh cutoffs that the two Penn friends eagerly put on, Penn's blue and red be damned. That afternoon, their loyalty clearly lay with the Tigers.
Jim, Madison, and Ingrid found Jackie's parents, Susie and Kobus Reyneke, and the group sat in the bleachers behind the Princeton bench, the three adults in one row, Maddy and Ingrid perched just behind them.
Jackie tried to stay focused on the game, but she thrilled at having Maddy in the stands. She was so proud to call her a friend. They had spent so much time in high school talking about this moment, and now here they were supporting each other at college. Even when her eyes should have been on the court, Jackie kept sneaking peeks over her shoulder at her friends and family.
The Reynekes hadn't seen Madison since she'd started college, so during the game they leaned back to make conversation. Madison seemed distracted to them, inside her own head, often staring forward absentmindedly or looking off to the side. She moved around a lot, too, seemed unable to stay seated. Occasionally, when Princeton made a great play, Susie Reyneke would lean back to Maddy and excitedly ask, "Did you see that?" And Madison, having drifted somewhere else, would snap her attention back to the court, saying, "Oh, oh, I wasn't watching—what happened?"
They knew, through Jackie, that Madison was struggling. But many of their daughter's friends were having trouble with the transition to college, exacerbated because most were playing sports and overwhelmed with the time commitment. The truth was, none of the parents had any idea what to say or do—for their own kids, let alone for someone else's.
Of course, the time commitment was just one part of why the transition was so difficult. So, too, was starting again at the bottom of the food chain—and not just any food chain, but a new, more competitive one. Madison, Jackie, Nicole, and Ingrid were going from being the best player on a team, often one of the best teams in the area—sometimes even the state or the country—to being only one among a collection of equally talented athletes. The dramatic shift in status was triggering a crisis of self, since much of a young athlete's ego is fueled by on-field success. Dropped into a situation where positive feedback, that fuel for the ego, was much more difficult to earn, meant that they had to fall back on their still developing sense of self. This was one variable Maddy was dealing with.
"How are things?" Kobus Reyneke asked Maddy during the game.
"Everything is good," she said.
"And how are things going with track?"
"Not that well," she said. "It's tough."
"Well, just hang in there," Kobus said. "Things will get better."
Madison paused, then said: "We'll see."
That afternoon, the Tigers dominated Penn. With about eight minutes left in the game, the coach signaled for Jackie to go in. As she ran to the scorer's table, she glanced again into the stands—Madison was smiling and clapping. Jackie scored the first two baskets of her college career, and the moment seemed perfect because Madison was there to see it, and because Jackie had told her teammates so much about her high school friend. Now they would all get to meet her.
After the game, Jackie quickly showered, then came back out to the court to see everyone. First semester had been challenging for Jackie, too. She was trying to find her place on the team and in the classroom, but this day felt like a promising start to second semester.
"You were amazing!" Madison said, wrapping her friend in a hug.
"I'm so excited you were here," said Jackie. Then she found her parents and hugged them both.
Madison handed her iPhone to the Reynekes and asked if they could take a picture of the three friends in their Princeton gear, with the court in the background. Jackie stood in the middle, hair wet and pulled back, with Madison on her left and Ingrid on her right.
A few minutes later, Madison uploaded the image to Instagram:
(Madison Holleran Instagram)
Jackie introduced her teammates to Madison, and they all lingered in the stands talking as thousands of fans poured into the Palestra for the men's game, which was also Penn vs. Princeton. The field house, famous for its arched rafters and high windows, is one of the most celebrated college courts in the country, even if it is also a relic compared to the modern arenas in which most Division I teams played. A few of the Princeton women's players were staying to watch the men's game, but Jackie had decided to go back on the team bus.
"Come on," Madison said. "You should stay!"
"I can't, I'm sorry," Jackie said. She would have stayed to spend more time with Maddy, but the two friends had already made plans to see each other: Madison was coming to visit Princeton in just two weeks.
So they hugged and Jackie left to catch the bus. On the drive back to Princeton, Jackie's teammates kept saying how beautiful Maddy was, how striking. Some of them had grown up in the area and knew about Madison because during her high school years her picture seemed to appear daily in the sports section of the Bergen Record—first for soccer, then for track. Somehow she always managed to look graceful, her silky dark hair pulled back, often with a red-and-white ribbon, the official colors of Northern Highlands High School.
Jim had to get back to Allendale. Maddy and Ingrid were staying for the men's game, and they invited him to stay and watch with them, but he wanted to get home in time for dinner. Even so, he was reluctant to leave his daughter. He looked at her, noticed again the shifts he couldn't stop seeing: how distracted she seemed to be, the way she wasn't staying focused on anything for long, how her energy was just—off.
She's not happy, he thought. That's not a happy kid. But she was with Ingrid, and he knew she adored her friend. And he couldn't stay forever. He couldn't pitch a tent outside her dorm room. She was in college now. Plus, he reminded himself, Stacy and Mackenzie, his wife and youngest daughter, were coming to visit Madison in just a few days. She had a meeting scheduled with the Penn track coach to talk about her future, and they were driving down for moral support.
Jim believed she would be okay until then.
He hugged her, and he thought he noticed that she held on to him for just a split second longer than usual, giving him an extra squeeze before letting go.
"Love you, Daddio," she said.
When Madison got back to her dorm room that night, she sat at her desk and powered up her MacBook Pro. Over winter break, she had asked her friends what she should write to Steve Dolan, the Penn track coach, about how she was feeling. The only problem: none of her friends knew how she was really feeling. Only she did.
She scooted her rolling black chair closer to the desk. Above her right shoulder were four square corkboards onto which she had pinned dozens of photos of her high school friends. One of her favorites was from the New Balance national championships just a few months before. Madison is standing with her relay team, the four of them shoulder to shoulder, beaming.
She began typing.
Although this has been extremely difficult to put into words, I'm going to do my best to explain my first semester at Penn and where it's led me.