Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Vanessa Aniteye. Her indoor track season started last December. She was a decorated 400-meter runner moving up to the 800 meters. At that point, she’d only raced the 800 three times. Just three months later this March, Vanessa became a national champion at that distance. A senior at Seattle Pacific, she brought home a first-place win, clocked the fastest time of the season, and also pocketed her ninth All American honor. All this achievement would be difficult enough for any student, but Vanessa was also returning to the sport after giving birth to her son. Vanessa, thank you so much for joining us today.
Vanessa Aniteye: Thanks for having me.
Amanda: Let’s start with the big win. How does it feel to be a national champion?
Vanessa: Yeah, it’s kind of still a surreal thing. I think it’s a pretty cool thing that I get to keep it and no one can ever take it away from me, which is pretty cool. I think looking back at it, actually this summer, like not too long ago, I had one race that actually didn’t go how I wanted it to go, and I was really struggling with it a lot. And I was like, “Wait a minute. I’m spending all this time about this one race that didn’t go well, forgetting about there’s also been times where it went really well.” And so I think it’s kind of nice to have that to lean on, to be like, “Okay, there are really, really good times and there’s things that I have achieved.” So no matter what happens, nobody can ever take that away. It’s pretty cool.
[T]his March, Vanessa became a national champion at that distance. A senior at Seattle Pacific, she brought home a first-place win, clocked the fastest time of the season, and also pocketed her ninth All American honor. All this achievement would be difficult enough for any student, but Vanessa was also returning to the sport after giving birth to her son.
Amanda: Right. Right. You’ll always have that. Did it take a minute for it to sink in, or did you cross the finish line and go, “I’m the national champion!”?
Vanessa: No, it took a day or two, actually, for it to sink in. I think when I crossed the finish line, I obviously realized what happened, but I don’t think I understood immediately what happened.
Vanessa: So yeah, usually you see people with their arms open and just excited, and I think looking at pictures or the videos, you’ll see that that was not the case for me because I needed time to really think about it. (laughs) But I was excited. It didn’t look like it, but I was, yeah.
Amanda: You started your undergraduate track career in Alaska at UAA before you transferred to SPU, and it was your coaches there who recommended sort of at the last minute you try the 800 meters. Were you skeptical of changing races at that point?
Vanessa: Well, in Alaska, I’d only raced the 800 one time, just because there was no 400 at that meet, so it was kind of like, “Whatever,” so I had a time, but I didn’t train for it or anything. And then when I came to SPU, I ran the 400 for my first year. I didn’t do indoor last year, so I only had outdoor. And then after that, my coaches here at SPU came to me with the idea, and I was kind of like, “Okay, 800. Well, let me listen.” But then it came in a combination of cross country and the 800, which at first I was like, “I don’t know about cross country.” It’s just not something that (laughs) I really wanted to do, but I didn’t say no because I kind of did like the challenge in a way. Basically, tell me I can’t and then I’ll show you I still can.
Amanda: Sure, absolutely, yeah. I don’t think you could pay me enough to do a cross country anything.
Vanessa: I feel it. That’s me now.
Vanessa: I don’t think you could probably pay me enough to do it again. You would have to pay me a lot of money to do it again. (laughs) Let’s just say that.
Amanda: But I definitely understand that feeling of, “Wait, what do you mean I can’t?”
Amanda: Like, “Wait, I can do anything. Watch me.”
Amanda: So you’re not into the cross country, but the longer, the 800 meters, why do you think that struck gold for you?
Vanessa: Before I ran track, I used to play soccer. The part about playing soccer that I really liked was the fitness stuff. I was always pretty good at just being fit and that kind of stuff. I used to actually like to run long distances and I still enjoy going for runs, but at that point in the runs that I go on, they’re not timed. It’s kind of just me enjoying nature. So obviously I didn’t know what I was in for with cross country. So when they suggested the idea, it was supposed to be like, “Let’s see how it goes.” So for me it was like, “Okay, I’m just going to do one or two races. I can do that. I can fight. I can be strong or whatever.” Then that was the cross country part. And then the 800, it was just like a, “Okay, I haven’t really done it that much,” so there was low pressure, which was the coach’s idea for me to not have to stress about it, and so that part I liked.
Amanda: There’s something sort of freeing about nobody’s looking for you, right?
Amanda: It’s not like you won last year and everybody expects you to win again.
Vanessa: Yeah, exactly.
Amanda: Yeah, for sure. Well, your husband was also on the track team when you guys met, so he must understand exactly what it’s like to be an athlete. Did you always know that you were going to return to running after your son was born?
Vanessa: I think in the beginning of pregnancy, not immediately, but I would say halfway through, which I wasn’t able to work out like some moms do. Just for health reasons I wasn’t able to work out, so I had a lot of time on my hands, a lot of thinking. I really missed running, and in that time I just always felt like …. Because 2019 I was just starting to get really close to my PRs again. It finally clicked again and so I felt like I can’t let that one year of eligibility that I have just sit there. I felt called to kind of go back to running, yeah.
Amanda: And finish what you started?
Vanessa: Yeah. I just felt like I wasn’t done. That’s probably the biggest thing.
Amanda: I’m sure there are a lot of moms listening to us that understand that feeling of, is this the end of certain dreams for me?
Amanda: So it’s so inspiring to me that you were able to really, really do it, to not just get back in the game and finish the year, but finish as a national champion. What were your biggest obstacles to get back in the game and back on the team?
Vanessa: I think multiple. I think the first one was I had left the team in Alaska right before I got pregnant, so obviously I had entered the transfer portal, and I knew my story, but the coaches on there didn’t know. So I actually had a lot of places that I could have gone, but I also have family, so for me it looked a little different. I couldn’t just take the best offer and just move to Florida or something, because it’s just too far. It has to work for the family. So that was probably the biggest one, is knowing, okay, it’s got to be somewhere close to Alaska so that it could work out for my family. That was the number one.
And then I had to find a coach that will take a mom on, that had a child, that was pregnant, to just trust that I would do my best and not just quit the team. I think that was a really, really big one. And then the next was also stuff like there’s childcare and things like that, and there’s unfortunately no funding in the NCAA for that. So you’re essentially paying for your dream because it’s either you stay home and watch your child or you do what you want to do, but you’ve got to pay for somebody to watch them while you’re gone, so ….
Amanda: Right. So there’s the money and the time and all those things that are a big deal. But what about just that emotional sense of trying to be there for your child and also …. I mean, I think a lot of students who are top-tier athletes, doing both of those things sort of takes everything you’ve got.
Vanessa: It’s hard, yeah.
Amanda: And now you add raising a baby.
Vanessa: Yeah, that’s a lot. I think the physical and emotional, that’s definitely the next part that’s a big one. First, finding your body and yourself again after you had a child, that’s a big one. It’s just like things change. Your body changes. You feel different. Your hormones change. For me, I was breastfeeding, so that was a challenge in itself. Your joints are kind of looser, stuff like that. You could be more prone to injury because you need a lot more nutrition than you do before you breastfeed. So it feels like your child is sucking the good things out of you.
Vanessa: And I did that for 18 months, so I returned to the sport, to running, at some point and I was still dealing with all those hormones and all that, so I didn’t feel like I could do my absolute best, but that’s what it took, because I was like, I wanted to do this for my child but also compete, so that’s something I definitely dealt with, was how can I balance that? And then also the emotional, like loss of sleep. I didn’t get the sleep that athletes probably should also have for their recovery. So that’s a lot. And then for me personally, I was in the NICU for four weeks, so that was emotionally draining. It’s not like my first thought in the first four weeks was like, “Let me get on a track,” because it’s a survival mode and trying to make sure my child is breathing, doing well. So that was a big one. But I also think going through all that and being in the NICU and having those challenges of extra life threats, I mean, it sounds harsh, but that’s what it is. It kind of shows you, like, “Hey, I was able to deal with a lot. Running one lap, which at that point it was just 400s,”is not that hard in comparison to that.”
“I was in the NICU for four weeks, so that was emotionally draining. It’s not like my first thought in the first four weeks was like, ‘Let me get on a track,’ because it’s a survival mode and trying to make sure my child is breathing, doing well. So that was a big one. But I also think going through all that and being in the NICU and having those challenges of extra life threats, I mean, it sounds harsh, but that’s what it is. It kind of shows you, like, ‘Hey, I was able to deal with a lot. Running one lap,’ which at that point it was just 400s, ‘is not that hard in comparison to that.'”
Amanda: Right. I can understand that for sure, that becoming a mom can make a lot of things in your life more difficult, but exactly as you said, when things get difficult, you kind of say to yourself, “Well, I’ve done these other things.” (laughs)
Amanda: “If I can stay up all night three nights in a row and still get through the day, I can finish this lap.” Or, “I can push at the end.”
Amanda: I love that attitude. What advice would you give women out there who are sort of struggling with that right now? Can I finish this dream? Can I return to this and still do motherhood justice?
Vanessa: I think the first thing is that it’s okay for it to be hard, like to basically be honest and just realize you being a mom, it’s harder than, for example, comparing me to somebody that’s not a mom. And it’s not to make, like, “Oh, my life is harder or worse.” It’s not about that. It’s just the fact of you have other responsibilities that you have to take care of, and it’s okay. I think the number one thing is knowing, as a mom, you can’t schedule for things to be perfect like when you were just an athlete, because your child is still your priority. So if things don’t go the way that you wanted them, like you have to skip this practice because the child has a fever, it’s not ideal, but make the best out of the situation that you have and for it to just be like, “Hey, that’s just what I have and I’m going to do the best for my personal life.” That looks different for everybody else.
We have amazing examples of moms that we can look up to and be like, “Why is it not working for me?” I think we don’t know what their circumstances are, and nonetheless even though they did it, it might not be the same for you. Just knowing that’s okay. You have your own journey, and just focus on that, not on others.
Amanda: We have two children, and each of them were the baby that doesn’t sleep. Did not sleep through the night until they were almost two, and they’re two years apart, which means I didn’t sleep for four years. (laughs)
Vanessa: That’s hard.
Amanda: And I remember looking around and I had friends whose babies, at three weeks old, were sleeping through the night. And they were like, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Just do this. Just do that. It’s easy.” Like, no, it isn’t, though. Then when we got to the next stage, a lot of them had the toddler issues, the struggles with the terrible twos and getting out of bed and all these things, and I didn’t have those problems because I had sort of had all my problems at the beginning. I think it’s so important, exactly like you said, to take inspiration from other moms who are sort of making it all work, but you can’t compare yourself to other moms because their situation is never exactly the same as yours.
Amanda: Well, congratulations on earning your degree at SPU.
Vanessa: Thank you
Amanda: We’re taping this interview just days before you walk the stage and receive your diploma in Exercise Science. Okay, so we’re talking about being a national champion track star and being a mom. Oh yeah, you were also a student and trying to finish up your degree. How did you fit your studies into all of this?
Vanessa: Yeah, that’s a big one. I think the one thing that I really wanted to do was I wanted to finish my schooling, because actually at UAA I was really close. I was probably two classes short of earning my degree, so I actually did more than just a regular bachelor’s degree, to be completely honest, if you look at all the credits that I did. But I’m finally earning this degree. I was really close, so I think half a year after I had him, I told myself, regardless, I didn’t have a team yet or anything, so I told myself, “Okay, I’m just going to go back to school.” So I took one or two classes, which at that point they were on Zoom, so that was good. I was home with him the whole time and also doing the school thing. So, yeah, that’s what I did.
And then when I finally decided to join a team and I came to SPU, it looked different because I was a full-time student now, also had to attend practices. And so, yeah, my schedule was interesting. I was practicing at 7 a.m. every morning, so I did that, came home. I had a couple classes still on Zoom, so I was able to kind of juggle that with him being home, trying to move his nap time to when I had classes and working ahead is probably the biggest thing that I had to do with schooling, because you just never know how things are going to be on that day. Then the next few quarters, it returned to being back in person, and so life looked different then too.
Amanda: That’s the story of my life, the working-ahead thing
Amanda: Because life is so unpredictable. And if you want to juggle all the things, you do the things that are in front of you when you can.
Amanda: Knowing that that time may not be there for you later. Well, congratulations.
Vanessa: Thank you.
Amanda: Is there another degree that’s coming next? Or you think you’re done with school for a minute?
Vanessa: I actually don’t mind schooling, so I’m looking into more schooling, not this year but potentially next year.
Amanda: Will you go for more kids so you have another baby to take care of while you’re in school? (laughs)
Vanessa: (laughs) Once I finish all the running and all the schooling, then that’s something that I would think about, but not right now. (laughs)
Amanda: You’re like, “I just did that. Give me some time.”
Vanessa: Yeah. (laughs
Amanda: And now you’re back living in your home country of Germany. Are you still competing right now?
Vanessa: I’m competing this summer, yeah. I have a meet next week and then mid-July I have German Nationals. Then I kind of go from there.
Amanda: So you could be an American national champion and a German national champion.
Vanessa: Technically. (laughs) I mean, it would have to work out that way.
Amanda: Well, I think we’re going to make this happen. I think we’re going to get a lot of fans sending you good vibes from here.
Vanessa: I love it.
Amanda: I want to see you holding both trophies at the same time. (laughs)
Vanessa: That would be very cool.
Amanda: Well, what’s next for you? What’s your dream? Say you get the grad degree. You become the German national champion.
Vanessa: I mean, I never said that was my main goal. (laughs)
Amanda: (laughs) That’s me. That’s the goal for me. My goal for you. Do you have a plan for later? What do you want to do career-wise?
Vanessa: Career-wise, I obviously really enjoy running and sports, and I could see myself in the sports medicine field. I think as an athlete I have a lot of understanding for it. Took a lot of different classes. Did some internships in an athletic training room and I really enjoyed that. So somewhere in that route of sports medicine, ortho. I definitely would want to do that. But I think really going into that career field, I would eventually have to retire from the sport. That’s something for a little later.
Amanda: Maybe you could specialize in women trying to get back in shape after —
Vanessa: That’s what I’m also thinking, is that, yeah.
Amanda: That’s fantastic. Well, Vanessa, we wish you all the best as you graduate, as you compete this summer, as all these new things come into your life, and your family.
Vanessa: Thank you.
Amanda: Let’s end with our famous last question. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have all of us do?
Vanessa: Oh, that’s a great question. I think the main thing that I would want for people is to think more about your neighbor, because, for example, the running part for me, to some people it’s like you see these times, great. But if you really think about why I’m so passionate about running more, it’s because what it allows me to do is actually tell a story about myself, and with that I can help others do their best in different circumstances. There are a lot of people that have a positive impact on me regardless of what times they put on the track, just because they listen and we share and exchange stories. I think the more we do that, the better everybody gets at whatever their goal is. So in terms of that, I think being less selfish and thinking more of our good friends, family. That would be a big one.
“But if you really think about why I’m so passionate about running more, it’s because what it allows me to do is actually tell a story about myself, and with that I can help others do their best in different circumstances. There are a lot of people that have a positive impact on me regardless of what times they put on the track, just because they listen and we share and exchange stories. I think the more we do that, the better everybody gets at whatever their goal is.”
Amanda: Yeah, for sure. Focusing on who you are more than what you do.
Amanda: Feels like the people who make a decision to do that end up doing wonderful things. And if you focus on the thing, sometimes even if you get it, five minutes later you’re like, ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
Vanessa: Exactly, yeah.
Amanda: You see athletes, right, who, in the Olympics they get a medal but then it’s, “My whole life was about getting this medal. Now I have it. Now what?”
Vanessa: Mm-hmm, now what? You don’t have anybody to maybe celebrate it with or whatever, yeah.
Amanda: Well, Vanessa, thank you so much for joining us today. Congratulations again on your degree, and have so much fun receiving your diploma.
Vanessa: Thanks for having me.