November 17, 2012

An injured athlete reveals a wounded soul

Maine native Ashley Marble seemed to have it all, but behind her driven personality lurked darkness and depression. Now, after a debilitating ankle dislocation, she's focused on recovery – physical and emotional.

By Mike Lowe mlowe@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Pretty. Intelligent. Athletic.

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Ashley Marble, who excelled at college basketball and academics but struggled with depression and anorexia, aims to help others. “I want to change people’s lives,” she said.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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An X-ray of Marble’s left ankle shows the pins that stabilized the foot after surgery. During her ordeal, Marble decided she wanted to be a motivational speaker, where “you find the individual within the athlete.”

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ACADEMIC HONORS

In addition to her athletic prowess, Ashley Marble has been recognized nationally for her academic excellence. In 2007 she was named to the College Sports Information Directors of America academic all-America team.

She also received the ESPN the Magazine Academic All-American of the Year, College Division, and was recognized by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

Ashley Marble was, in many minds, perfect. She was an All-America basketball player at the University of Southern Maine. She represented Maine in the Miss USA pageant. She had begun a new career as a basketball official and was on the fast track to the higher levels.

But behind those appearances, Marble said she was also suffering from depression and anorexia, an eating disorder.

"I was my own worst critic," she said. "I never felt I was good enough. I played with a lot of anger and hurt for a fear of failure and a need for acceptance and approval."

As Marble recovers from a debilitating left ankle injury that has stalled her career, she has stopped looking for the faults in what she is doing and started appreciating what she has. After years of not telling anyone about her mental health, she says it's important to share her story.

Marble was one of the biggest basketball names in the state when she played for the Huskies, who made it to two NCAA Division III Final Fours with her, finishing third (2005) and second (2006). She excelled off the court as well, earning national recognition for her academic performance. (See box on Page A13).

That she would be dealing with mental health issues isn't surprising. College athletes suffer from depression at a rate that is three times the general population, according to some studies.

Marble, 28, who grew up in tiny Topsfield Township in Washington County and attended Woodland High School in Baileyville, first spoke about her personal struggles at the inaugural Little East Conference Hall of Fame banquet in October.

"I received a lot of positive feedback from schools," she said last week. "Several of them invited me to come talk to their students."

And that's what Marble would like to do next. "I want to change people's lives," she said.

TRYING 'TO BE SOMEONE'S IDEA OF PERFECT'

Marble's troubles began her freshman year at the University of Maine in Orono. She was a scholarship volleyball player and faced, she said, a weigh-in every two weeks. It was, she said, "the worst experience of my life."

The pressure to maintain her weight led to anorexia, an eating disorder. She transferred to USM to play basketball. But that didn't end her problems. She worried about her performance -- saying if she missed two foul shots in a game, "the next day I shot 1,000" -- and worried about her future without basketball. Nothing she had done, she said, was preparing her for that, and no one was offering help.

"I was never able to picture a future without basketball," said Marble, who graduated with a degree in Sports Medicine and Exercise Science. "It was all I knew."

While she was a once-in-a-lifetime player for USM, scoring 1,981 points and grabbing 1,157 rebounds, she said she began suffering from depression.

It continued long after graduation as she searched for something to fill her life. When she was representing Maine in the Miss USA pageant, she found herself on stage in her bathing suit wondering why she was there. "I was striving to be someone's idea of perfect," said Marble, who finished in the top eight in the competition.

While Marble said she tried counseling, she never said anything to her parents, who are now divorced, her friends or her coach, Gary Fifield. "He was a great coach," she said. "He was very supportive of me. But he was ... Coach. You don't talk to him about that."

That Marble never revealed her problems to anyone at USM is not a surprise.

"Part of it is, there's an expectation with stardom, with fame, whether limited or large," said Dan Lebowitz, the executive director of Northeastern University's Center for Sport in Society. "Athletes are competitive and they probably don't want to show weakness."

"There is a certain stigma associated with being mentally ill in our society," said Bill Gayton, a psychology professor at USM who specializes in sports psychology. "We do things to avoid that stigmatism; we don't talk."

'NOT A SECOND-PLACE FINISHER'

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 14.8 million Americans, or 6.7 percent, suffer from depression. Among college athletes, however, it's much higher. A 2005-06 study of 257 NCAA athletes published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine found that 21 percent of the participants experienced some symptoms of depression. Female athletes are at greater risk than males, the study found.

"I've seen everything, from eating disorders to depression to everything else," said Joanne P. McCallie, the women's basketball coach at Duke University.

While coaches aren't necessarily trained to recognize symptoms of depression or eating disorders, she said, it is important that they get to know their players.

"You've got to be concerned about their physical and mental health," said McCallie, a Brunswick High graduate and former UMaine women's basketball coach who now oversees one of the top Division I programs in the nation. "If you want them to be at their optimum performance, you've got to know them."

Unless they hide their problems, which is what Marble did.

"I never saw it, I can tell you that," Fifield said. "She was driven, driven, driven, whether she was on the basketball court or academically or in anything she was doing. She had one of those personalities that, if you told them they needed to run two miles, well, then four miles would be twice as good, so she ran four miles."

Her father, Butch Marble, said her drive was probably part of the problem.

"Ashley was not a second-place finisher," he said. "She's very dedicated to winning. She always strived to be No. 1."

DISLOCATING HER ANKLE

Sometime after college, Marble became a personal trainer -- or, more precisely, a "wellness" trainer. She encourages her clients to not only become physically fit but emotionally fit as well. She works with local professionals to improve their practices. She has a Facebook page called "A Better You" that offers inspiration, encouragement and tips for exercise and nutrition.

"It's not about winning or first place," Marble said. "It's about the personal growth, discovery and embracing your personal journey to be better than you were yesterday."

She also became a basketball referee, working high school and lower-level college games. She was good and was looking to move up to Division II.

"She takes it very seriously," said Reggie Grant, a veteran official and mentor for Marble. "Her court demeanor, professionalism, focus, it's good. She gives her best. And I think people see that."

She was happy enough to begin playing basketball again after a three-year layoff. So last summer she started playing in a recreational league. "I wanted to have fun, to not worry about the outcome," she said.

But on July 17, Marble was driving to the basket when she stepped on the top of her defender's foot. Many times, this leads to an ankle sprain. But Marble's left ankle, which had undergone surgery two years ago, dislocated and was hanging at a right angle to her leg.

On July 23, she had surgery with six large pins inserted into her leg. "Dr. (Greg) Pomeroy told me I was this close to losing my foot," she said, hold ing her fingers an inch apart. "Life as I knew it had ended."

"When an ankle is dislocated like that," said Dr. Pomeroy, "the arteries and nerves are often pinched so the foot is not getting a proper blood supply. The key to saving the foot is to get it back under the leg, where it's supposed to be, and take the pressure off the blood vessels."

She had a second surgery Oct. 29 to remove the two largest pins. She is undergoing treatment from Dr. Garry Bracken, who is using a therapeutic technique called neuromuscular reeducation to bring the foot back to life.

When she arrived, he said, "we were dealing essentially with a limp foot." Now she can walk, with a limp, and stretch her toes. That's because of what Bracken does, massaging and stretching the muscles that had tightened and contracted during the injury and the surgery. He's trying to get the muscles to remember what they do.

He called her progress remarkable and added: "I hope I never see anything like that again."

Pomeroy said Marble will eventually be able to bike, swim, work out and run. She can even return to officiating. But, he said, "the only caveat to that prognosis is if she develops traumatic arthritis from this injury. And we won't know for three to five years."

FINDING, SHARING INNER STRENGTH

Marble now calls the injury a blessing. Ten weeks of bed rest followed surgery. During that time, she decided she wanted to become a motivational speaker. She wants to implement programs in colleges or school systems where "you find the individual within the athlete."

No one ever found that in her. Her life's success had been measured by her success as an athlete.

"Once the lights went out on my career, they went out on everything for me," she said. "I was lost. Nobody said to me, 'What are you going to do after?' "

She doesn't blame anyone. It's just the way it is.

Now she has the strength to talk about her personal struggles in the hopes that others will find strength in her words, though it still isn't easy.

Tears welled in her eyes as she talked about what she can do these days.

"I can walk," she said. "I can go up stairs and down them backwards. But I can change lives and I can inspire people. And I can motivate people that no matter what they're going through, there's a reason for that. And that they're not alone."

Strengthened by the support of her boyfriend, Aaron Wilcox, and her father, Marble is content. She recently spent several days hunting in Topsfield with her father.

"She has come a long way," said Butch Marble. "It's amazed me how well she's doing. I think we've all learned that there are more things in life than hunting, fishing and basketball. It's about being happy. And that's where she is right now." 

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

mlowe@pressherald.com

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

 

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Additional Photos

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Marble, a former All-America basketball player at the University of Southern Maine who is recovering from a dislocated ankle, undergoes treatment Nov. 6 with Dr. Garry Bracken to help her regain use of her left foot.

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