It’s 3 a.m. and Karen Lueck’s phone is buzzing. Her son Kyler Lueck is sick and she’s used to these late-night messages. She rolls over to check her phone.
“Why am I even alive anymore? I’m sick of doing this,” it reads.
Kyler has been battling mental illness for years and this isn’t the first time she’s received a message like this. So, she texts him back to see if he’s OK.
This time though, things are different. Minutes go by and he hasn’t responded. She calls her husband, Eric, to let him know and their concerns begin to grow. Then come the unanswered phone calls. She reaches out to his friends who either don’t respond or say they didn’t know where he is.
Minutes turned into hours, and still there is no word from Kyler.
“This time something was more concerning to me,” Karen remembers.
Finally, after five sleepless hours, she and her husband get word that Kyler is at a friend’s house and unharmed.
That day, in fall 2015, the Luecks decided they had had enough of these late-night messages and they needed to go see their son. So, they hopped in their car and took the hour drive from Germantown to Madison to see Kyler, who was a redshirt freshman at UW-Madison.
“I remember the text being my first big cry for help,” Kyler said. “I felt like no one really believed what I was going through. So that message was my first big cry for help before I completely broke.”
Kyler said he was never suicidal, he just didn’t want to be alive any longer. He said he felt as though his life was not worth living any longer, but he never considered harming himself.
In the coming months, Kyler left UW-Madison, quit the track team that he had worked so hard to be a part of and found himself trapped in what he says was a living hell.
“You wake up in the morning and you almost don’t want to wake up,” he said. “I almost didn’t want to go through the day knowing what I had to go through.”
He spent a semester at UW–Milwaukee at Washington County, before finding a home at UW-Eau Claire in 2016.
Lacing up again
Kyler wasn’t planning to run track at Eau Claire. He thought he had quit the sport for good, but then track and field coach Dan Schwamberger convinced him to give it a try again.
Kyler initially just wanted to try out for the team to make some friends, saying he never planned on competing with the team. But, when he made the team, he said Schwamberger convinced him to give one race a shot. One race turned into another, which turned into another, and by the end of the season Kyler was an alternate for the national team.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly and Kyler seemed to have his mental health taken care of heading into fall 2017. He was running cross-country for the Blugolds when he began feeling uneasy again.
“It hit me hard,” Kyler remembered. “I was like I can’t run anymore because I was dealing with so much.”
He returned home for his second semester and fell to what his father called “rock bottom.”
Eric said his son spent most of his time secluded in the basement watching television. He wouldn’t talk to anyone and nobody knew how to deal with his issues.
“He kind of blamed us for a lot of things because he didn’t have anyone else to blame,” Karen said. “He basically told me that, ‘You aren’t doing anything for me, and you’ve never done anything to help me.’ And that was kind of hurtful.”
Eventually Eric decided he had had enough. Things had spiraled so out of control that Eric told his son he needed to move out and live with one of his grandparents.
“He ran upstairs, he packed his bags, and he huffed out of the house and off he went,” Eric remembered.
Karen said it was hard to see her son leave like that, but she didn’t know what else to do.
Eventually, Kyler decided he needed to seek help. He checked himself into Rogers Memorial Hospital’s psychiatric unit in West Allis to see a doctor.
“When you strain a muscle or break an arm … you don’t leave your arm broken, you go and get help,” Kyler said. “Same with mental injuries, you go and get help, and I think for me, I had to really toughen up to that.”
He said he was initially embarrassed to admit that he had a problem, but eventually leaving his illness untreated became unbearable.
At Rogers, he was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety. Over the next few months he began to learn how to cope with them.
“I felt so lost before that,” Kyler said. “I was trying so hard to get rid of that anxiety that it just kept coming back, it was like trying to push a beachball into the ocean, it’s just going to pop right back up.”
At the time, running was the last thing on his mind. Thinking about running was just an unnecessary stress for a young man who needed to find an escape from stress. He says he never thought he’d run again, but as his mind began to heal, he began itching to get back on his feet and onto a track again.
A new mindset
Over the course of last summer, Kyler began running again. With some help from his father, a track coach at Wisconsin Lutheran High School, and his younger brothers Dylan and Ryan, he began getting back in shape. He missed the fall 2018 semester, but when track season rolled around, he felt his mind and body were ready for another challenge.
He was wrong.
“The season started, and I thought I was ready to go,” Kyler said. “The first mile race that I did, did not go the way that I wanted, and I almost took last. It would have been easy for me to just get down on myself and be like that was all pointless.”
A few years earlier that’s probably what he would have done. His parents remember a race during his freshman year at UW-Madison where he quit in the middle because he couldn’t take the pressure any longer. But this time, things were different, this time he wouldn’t quit.
“I think in the past that frustration could have been very detrimental,” Schwamberger said. “But he actually used it in a positive manner.”
Two weeks later, Kyler broke out. He finished first in the 800-meter run on Feb. 8 at the St. Thomas Invite in Minneapolis.
Heading into the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships, Kyler was confident he could win the 800-meter run. When the race started, Kyler settled in near the top of the pack like he typically does, but as the race began to wind closer to an end, he made his move to the front. Unimpeded, Kyler crossed first, finishing almost a half second ahead of the second-place finisher.
Then came the bad news. He had crossed into a lane too early and was disqualified from the race.
Once again, this could have sent him into a depression, but Kyler stayed positive.
“It was more like OK, it happened, I can’t do anything about it now, I have to deal with what the result was, and take it into my next race as motivation,” he said.
Going for a record
The next race was the NCAA Division III National Championships on March 8 and 9. Kyler was confident coming into the race, maybe even too confident.
Just days before the race he sent a text message his to father.
“He said ‘Dad, I know what the record is, and I know who has the record,’” Eric said. “My first thought was why are you even thinking about records, just be happy to be at the national championships…. Why set yourself up for the possibility that you’re not going to achieve it?”
He wasn’t just thinking about the record, he already had his winning celebration planned out.
In the preliminary round, he finished first in his heat, just barely missing the meet record.
“When I saw him in trials and he missed the record by a tenth of a second, I was like ‘oh my goodness, if he has an open path to just open up, we’re going to see something really cool on Saturday,’” Eric remembered.
The following day Kyler said he was calm.
“I usually get super anxious, but I knew the training was there and I knew I had to trust my coach and trust myself,” Kyler said.
When the race started, Kyler once again settled in near the top of the pack.
“With just over 250 meters, about a lap to go, he made a big move to get to the lead,” Schwamberger said. “He just shot to the front, and you could just tell that nobody was going to go with him.”
As he crossed the finish line, he pointed to his head. For years, this had been the thing that had tormented him, that had made him lie in bed wishing he wouldn’t wake up. Then, he flexed his muscles.
He says he wanted to show the world that it takes more than physical strength to get to be a national champion.
“For me that was mental, and it’s always been mental,” he said.
For his parents, watching their son cross the finish line was incredible. Just a year earlier they had sent him to live with his grandmother because living with him was too unbearable for everyone; now they were celebrating with their son as he clinched victory.
“I was so proud of him and all the work he did both mentally and physically to be back racing at that level,” Karen said. “I really felt the victory that day was him saying to all his supporters, ‘Thanks for believing in me. Thanks for not giving up on me.’ I was so proud that he didn’t let OCD steal his dream away. It was a victory in so many ways.”
Kyler says he can’t describe the feeling of winning a national championship. He says it’s just one of those things that you can only know if you’ve won one.
An ongoing battle
This, however, is not the end of Kyler’s battle. Just because his mental health is under control now, doesn’t mean he’s never going to struggle with it again.
“It’s not one of those things like when you break your arm and you can let it heal and you don’t have to necessarily keep treating it,” he said. “For my mental health, I know it’s never going to go away completely, it’s a day-by-day thing that I have to work on every day of my life and I’ll always have to, but I think it’s one of those things where you have to accept it.”
Even with all his success, his family is still wary of becoming too optimistic.
“There’s still moments with Kyler where I will think that that was a great moment, but I’ve learned that with this OCD thing it has its ups and downs and he could back step from all of this,” Karen said.
Now Kyler is looking forward to the outdoor track season at UW-Eau Claire and he plans to return for one more year to defend his title. He also says he wants to help other people battling mental illness.
“I know there are people who deal with stuff that is worse than stuff that I’ve dealt with and my stuff felt like the worst stuff you could deal with,” he said. “I want to be an inspiration for people dealing with their own stuff whether it be physical or emotional or family related or anything.”
The other day, Kyler received a text message from his younger brother, Ryan, who has been recovering from groin surgery that has caused him to miss the end of his senior track season.
It said, “Dude, you’re my inspiration.”