To everyone else, Sarah Cole seemed to be on top of the world. She attended school at UC Davis, played club volleyball and majored in engineering, all of which her father did. She earned top marks in all of her classes and was even awarded a scholarship as one of the top female engineering students in the entire school. In her first year, Cole seemingly adjusted perfectly to college life at Davis.
But one of her closest friends, Haley Goldlist, saw past all the fake smiles. Something was off about her. Cole didn’t work out as much anymore. She skipped classes. She seemed unhappy and uninterested with life.
Two doors down from Cole in the dorms, Goldlist grew closer to Cole as the school year progressed. One night, in the confidence of her dorm, Cole confessed to Goldlist that she suffered from mild depression. Cole tried to convince her that it wasn’t a problem yet and that it was getting better, but Goldlist left Cole’s dorm that night more worried for her friend than ever.
A few weeks later, Goldlist invited Cole and some other friends to her house in Lafayette, Calif., to hang out before everyone went back home for the summer. When Cole left for the restroom, Goldlist realized that it could be the only opportunity for her to confront her friend about her depression. Outside the restroom, Goldlist expressed her concern for Cole and told her to find help.
“At the moment it struck me,” Cole says. “I thought it was weird, and it caught me off-guard. I was still sort of in denial.”
Cole tried to explain to Goldlist that it wasn’t a big deal and that she had it under control. But Goldlist wasn’t convinced, not this time. She gave Cole an ultimatum: tell her parents or step aside and watch as she told them for her.
Cole returned home for the summer, dreading the thought of telling her family about her depression. Worse yet, they were headed to Maui on a family vacation, and she didn’t want to ruin their trip with her news. Cole knew shehad to tell her family — she just didn’t know how.
She knew her family saw her a certain way, and she was afraid to shatter that image. All her life, she was the model child — a daughter she thought her parents could be proud of. She earned excellent grades and was a top athlete in high school. With this news, she thought all the reasons her parents had to be proud of her would disappear.
“Whatever she did, she was good at,” Cole’s mother, Mary, says. “She had really good grades, was a great athlete regardless of the sport and was admired by friends.”
One day during the trip, Sarah and her mother decided to visit the mall. While they were walking around and window shopping as Mary casually chatted about life, Sarah suddenly stopped responding. She then turned and looked straight at her mother, voice crackling.
“Mom, I’m not happy, and I don’t know why,” Sarah says. “I have everything. I have no reason to not be happy.”
Midsentence, Sarah started to cry. Mary leaned in toward her daughter and hugged her. The only seat in sight was right next to the children’s play area, but it didn’t matter. They took a seat as Sarah broke down and told her mom everything. She says she missed volleyball and wasn’t happy with her major. Then, almost like an aside, Sarah told her mom she was bulimic.
Mary’s mind jumped straight to October when she got a handwritten letter from Sarah at Davis, explaining that she might have body image issues and that she never liked the way she looked. After receiving the letter, Mary asked if she had an eating disorder and if she’d be willing to talk to someone. But at the time, Sarah thought she had it under control.
“You think if you’re smart, you won’t be in denial, but I totally was,” Sarah says.
Mary knew exactly what steps needed to be taken to get her daughter help. Her immediate goals were getting her daughter comfortable enough to tell the rest of her family and finding professional help.
With the support of her family, Cole started the healing process. She began to see a specialist about her depression and bulimia. Toward the end of summer, her therapist brought up the idea of withdrawing from the fall quarter to focus on getting better. After the encouragement of her family to do so, she decided to stay at home indefinitely.
“That was the best decision I’ve ever made because it allowed me to take a step back from everyone else putting in input on what I should do with my life and think about what I actually want to do,” Cole says.
As the school year began for her alma mater, Presentation High School, Cole asked her volleyball coach if she needed any help on the team. She was then offered an assistant coaching position there, and she tutored kids in her free time.
“When the high school volleyball season started, that’s when I started to see that she was happy,” Mary says. “She was helping other girls on the team, and things were going well for her. She was getting more active and coaching. I think she even says that she was in love with volleyball.”
Sarah found her bulimia and depression stemmed from her need to be perfect in everything she did. She didn’t know why she had to be perfect, but she was engulfed by an overwhelming need to fulfill everyone else’s expectations of her.
“I think in a passive way, we kind of promoted the sense of perfectionism in her,” says Sarah’s father, Chappy. “And so she ended up putting a lot of pressure on herself to excel.”
Cole needed the gap year to revitalize herself, not only athletically but also intellectually. At Davis, she viewed her life as a collection of chores and tasks. Her life there consisted of studying to get the highest grades possible to keep up the impossible standard she had set for herself. She even quit the school volleyball team two weeks into the start of training camp her freshman year at Davis. All of this led to the realization that Davis wasn’t for her.
She started to read and study for knowledge’s sake, whereas before, she was studying until the break of dawn for the sake of a letter grade. She realized she had a passion for biology, which prompted her to change her major from engineering to integrative biology when she transferred to UC Berkeley in August 2013 after she was recruited for volleyball by coach Rich Feller. Although she didn’t get on the court too often during her inaugural season with the Bears, she now knows that she wants volleyball to remain a part of her life for as long as possible.
“I realized I really love learning,” Cole says. “It sounds really nerdy, but it’s okay because I am. Like learning is so cool — I get to absorb knowledge. I wish I had five lifetimes to learn everything. There’s so much out there you don’t even know.”
“This too shall pass” — Cole’s journey from UC Davis three years ago to now at Cal can be summed up in four words. Tattooed on her ribs, the phrase serves as a reminder to her that everything is fleeting, even emotions.
“If you’re going through something rough, that’s OK because it’s going to end eventually,” Cole says. “And if you’re going through something good, don’t take it for granted because that’s also going to end.”
Now, it’s the offseason, but Cole somehow finds her days busier and more hectic than they were during the season. She returns home after a day of volleyball practices and summer school, roughly 12 hours after her day starts at 6 a.m.
She’s exhausted but musters up the energy to study and finish her homework for the day. After, she finally gets to turn in — appreciative of the opportunity she has to repeat it all the next day.
Winston Cho is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho