Anna Glenn is a former member of the UCLA gymnastics team, a 2018 NCAA Team Champion, a 2018 NCAA Columbus Regional vault co-champion, and the founder of the UCLA Athletics Bruin Brave Campaign. In my conversation with her, we discussed the physical and mental toll it takes to be a student-athlete and the injuries she’s endured that shaped her character and made her who she is today. When it got tough, Anna leaned onto her support system and always found a way to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Her vulnerability, determination, and passion don’t go unnoticed as she is a strong advocate for mental health and makes an impact wherever she goes.
Q: Did you gravitate towards gymnastics at a young age and was it always your goal to compete at the D1 level?
AG: I was adopted from China with my twin sister Grace and when we came to the U.S. we had underdeveloped gross motor skills. So part of the reason why my parents put us in gymnastics was to build our strength because of the malnutrition that we experienced back in China. My twin sister and I enrolled in gymnastics classes when we were two years old and it stuck for us. We both got recruited at the end of our eighth-grade year and offers started pouring in. We narrowed it down to our top three schools and chose UCLA. It was a crazy recruiting process but in hindsight, I think we made the best decision.
Q: You mentioned that you and your twin sister Grace were each other’s biggest competitors growing up. How has that helped you become a better gymnast?
I don't think that I would be as good of a gymnast without Grace. I don't think I would have been as competitive as I am today. Luckily, it was a very healthy competition, because we built each other up. It's kind of like the whole concept of ironing, sharp, sharpening iron. I really do think we were each other's biggest competitors growing up. So that put us in a place where we’re constantly striving to be better. That's what got us both to the number one university, UCLA.
Q: As an elite student-athlete, dealing with the intense pressure of balancing school & gymnastics, When did you start becoming aware of your mental health?
AG: I started dealing with mental health issues during my freshman year of college. I tore my labrum on my shoulder my senior year of high school so I ended up sitting out that year and rehabbing it. Thinking I was going to go into college so strong, I ended up tearing it again during our pre-season training camp. I got surgery that January and was devastated because I had to sit out my freshman year. That's when it really started plummeting for me. You know, not being integrated with the team, dealing with some weight gain, and just having a really hard time adjusting to the college lifestyle. I dug myself in this deep hole of depression and I ended up going to therapy. I saw my therapist up until this past year and it helped me get through the last couple of difficult years.
Q: How did you realize that mental health is something that oftentimes isn't talked about in athletics?
AG: After those two injuries I had nagging injuries up until I retired this past year and graduated so it was an uphill battle for me. During my sophomore year, I pulled myself out of it and got to the point where I was at my top peak. We won a national championship and school was going well so I felt good about myself. That's when I realized mental health is something that isn't really talked about a lot in athletics. Knowing that as a top university, we have all these resources and money for UCLA athletics so why don’t we put that to good use? That's when I started getting invested in mental health and advocating for it.
Q: As the co-president of the Student-Athlete Mentors Program at UCLA (SAMs), what are you doing to get the conversation going around mental health?
AG: SAMs is designed to help students with resources and provide support as they navigate their mental health and wellness. I took it upon myself to start the Bruin Brave Mental Health Campaign which became a huge project of mine for the last two years. It created this great open space for people to talk about it and to get people familiarized with the concept of mental health and normalizing the topic.
Q: Do you think a majority of student-athletes utilize the mental health resources that are available to them?
AG: It's hard because mental health is a topic that has a stigma around it, especially in the athlete community. Owning up to your mental health issues and the struggles is a sign of weakness for a lot of student-athletes. As athletes, you don't want to be seen with any weaknesses at all so you create this facade of being tough. Sometimes student-athletes don't prefer to use the resources because they think they can do it on their own. They think that it'll just go away, which isn't necessarily the case for a lot of people. I think UCLA has done a great job so far with the resources we do have and the staff that are available for us. For my team, we had our own team sports psych, and we took ownership of using the resources.
Q: When you start feeling overwhelmed and stressed, how do you give yourself that mental break?
AG: I was a psychology major, so it was a very high-demanding major to have, especially doing athletics. When all of that got overwhelming, I gave myself time to kind of relax and distress. Sometimes disassociating from social interaction for a while helped me. But on the flip side, sometimes going out with friends and having some time to enjoy myself helped me reset and refocus.
Q: It seems like you’ve been through a rollercoaster of ups and downs. How has your support system helped you during those hard times?
AG: I didn't compete my last two years because of the injuries so that was definitely a disappointment. I had a nagging back injury for the whole preseason of my senior year and I could barely train. And then I ended up digging myself in that hole again that I did freshman year and I was at that point I just wanted to medically retire. The whole fall quarter I was in this rut and I just didn't want to be there. I felt so miserable. I remember distinctly this one practice where I went in and was just in tears. I couldn't stop crying and I literally had to walk out of the gym. I was like, I can't do this anymore. I remember going into my head coach’s office, Chris Waller, and just cried it out. Thankfully, I had great coaches and parents to support me and get me through it. I realize that after all of that, I can get through anything. During that fall quarter, I was working eight hours doing an internship, training, dealing with injuries and rehab, school, and doing extracurriculars. I overbooked myself but if I could do all of that, I can do anything. Everything I went through is definitely going to help me in the future. Keeping that in hindsight and using it as perspective is something that has helped me get through those tough times.
Q: What was your response to the season being canceled two days before your senior meet?
AG: For me, I was already getting to the point where I was ready to move on from gymnastics so I was kind of relieved that it was canceled but I was also frustrated that I wasn’t able to finish out on my terms. I was looking forward to my future and because of the injuries, I've gone through a lot. It took a huge mental and physical toll on me. It was a bummer that we didn’t have the closure we were expecting but talking it through with our teammates and having each other's backs was very meaningful for me.
Q: You said that being a student-athlete is a tough lifestyle but very rewarding in the end. What advice would you give to those who are struggling?
AG: It's going to be tough, no doubt about it. Taking it day by day and having a strong support system around you to be there when you need them is so beneficial. Leaning on those friends, coaches, teammates or classmates is something that I found to be helpful for me. I also found it to be helpful and grounding to have friends outside of athletics. They may not necessarily understand the pressures you deal with but have different pressures in their lives. I was able to talk to them if I needed to vent about something and they wouldn't be sick and tired of hearing me talk about gym or vice versa. If I didn't want to talk about gym, I could talk about something else with them. So that was beneficial for me in terms of finding different outlets. You don't get these days back and it's an experience that not everybody gets so remember to enjoy it.
Q: Have you found your passion outside of gymnastics?
AG: I have a strong passion for making people feel better and making people happy. I found my purpose in helping others and making sure that I can serve the rest of the public. Working with kids with autism this past year was an extremely fulfilling experience for me. I think that all my experience in college has gotten me to this point where I realized that and I want to bring joy to the world.
Q: Not too long ago, you were a part of a conversation with Kevin Love around men’s mental health. Can you share the key takeaways?
AG: I know that men's mental health is definitely a topic that needs a lot of work. Seeing someone in the professional realm digging in deep into his emotions and being vulnerable was truly eye-opening. Realizing that like it's not a weakness, it's a strength to recognize how your emotional state is. Treat your mind, like you treat your body. If we start thinking about it like that, I think that mental health will become a more normalized topic and it will help people in the end.