‘I know other people struggle’

Most track athletes compete in relative obscurity compared to those playing popular team sports.

Unless you follow college track closely, you’ve probably never heard of Wichita State’s Rebekah Topham, but she’s a winner.

She has won nine conference track titles in the Missouri Valley Conference and American Athletic Conference, highlighted by earning Most Valuable Performance honors in the AAC 2019 indoor and outdoor meets, and the 2020 indoor meet.

In 2019, she finished eighth in the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the steeplechase.

But there’s far more to her story. Paul Suellentrop, a senior communicator at Wichita State, recently wrote a story about Topham’s struggles, which I’ve condensed below.

Topham tells the unknown story about her difficulties reading when she came to WSU in 2015.

Not many people know, she says, outside of her family. It’s a scary thing to talk about. She is one outdoor track season from wrapping up an outstanding career, and it is time for people to know.

She wants to tell the story to inspire others who might fear essay questions or see letters scrambled into an unintelligible pile and wonder if they can get through college and pursue whatever they love. She wants to tell the story to be authentic in a world where social media can make everything seem like gold medals and selfies.

“I’ve been through a lot, and if other people are struggling with similar things, it might help them have hope,” she said. “I used to have a panic attack with a two-page paper. Looking back, it’s kind of funny. My freshman year, I was stressed about the littlest things. I remember crying every single day. So much anxiety.”

Topham says “I can’t read” as a shorthand way to describe her journey.

That is an exaggeration in that she could read well enough to navigate daily life and familiar settings, such as in a grocery store or restaurant.

She wasn’t interested in college. “I didn’t think I was smart enough,” she said.

Topham, home-schooled along with three siblings by her parents, both of whom are former teachers, points to a learning disability that impaired her reading and comprehension.

When she said tests did not show dyslexia, she said she switches letters and numbers out of sequence when reading. When she was younger, her eyes did not track properly, she said.

“The first year (at WSU) was kind of nightmare for her,” said cross country coach Kirk Hunter. “I was there with my door open in the office so she could sit there and cry. She did a lot of that her freshman year, because of the stress.”

Topham remembers anxiety and tears and 15-hour days on campus for practice, class, study hall, and tutors. Every assignment loomed as a mountain of new instructions, difficult words, and pressure. Essay questions presented a new level of stress – a tangle of reading, comprehension, and spelling challenges.

“She had the skills to be successful in terms of being organized and disciplined in her work,” said Sarah Mathews, Wichita State’s director of compliance. “We just had to catch her knowledge up. She used all of her resources available to her. It was a lot of time and a lot of stress and a lot of effort, and it paid off.”

On her Instagram account, Topham posts pictures of her on the medals stand, smiling with friends and hugging family. She also posts accounts of the stress of running, the exhaustion, and health problems that bothered her.

“I don’t like it when people only post good stuff,” she said. “I don’t want people thinking my life is perfect because it’s not.”

Throughout the academic stress, running kept Topham motivated.

Last month, Topham posted a picture on her Instagram account while wearing her mortarboard to celebrate graduation. Remarkably, she graduated with a 3.89 grade-point average.

She majored in sport management to prepare for a career in coaching and enjoys those classes because of their connection to athletics.

She will continue school at Wichita State to pursue her physical education coaching certificate. In the spring of 2021, she will use her final season of outdoor track eligibility, replacing the one canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Topham knows a runner with her success enjoys a platform to help others. “I know other people struggle,” she said. “I want them to know they can be successful, too.”