Sophie Chase didn't want to be an athlete anymore. She wasn't having fun and was tired of trying to live up to expectations. Especially her own.
The distance runner had been beaten down by injury, illness and disappointing results in her first two years at Stanford and thought she might be better off erasing "athlete" from her student-athlete status.
"I was in such a dark place," Chase says. "I didn't have the same joy doing athletics that I once did in high school. I was pretty much ready to give it up."
But she held off. She took a step back and focused on her Christian faith. She realized she'd put too much pressure on herself. Sophie Chase the athlete had smothered Sophie Chase the person.
"My entire identity was in running, so when things started to go south, I really lost a sense of who I was and I just became really depressed and not able to overcome that," she says. "Ultimately, finding my identity in my faith is really what gave me that freedom to enjoy running again and not to care about what other people were saying, or the external pressures."
Once she'd restored that balance, the joy returned to her running. Now 24, Chase says those dark days were a turning point. She's actually grateful for them because she was able to find herself.
Today, Chase is one of USA Triathlon's brightest young athletes. After strong junior and senior seasons at Stanford in track and cross country, she's succeeding in a new sport and thriving on the perspective she gained almost four years ago.
"You can kind of lose a sense of what really matters and what's really important," she says.
Chase, whose father was a captain in the Navy, says she and her family moved eight times when she was young. But a constant was swimming. She started competing in the pool at age 5 or 6.
She took up running in high school in Virginia to stay in shape for swimming but then found success and loved it. Stanford offered her a scholarship to run track and cross country, and swimming took a back seat.
But in her senior season, former Olympic triathlete Barb Lindquist attended an NCAA regional track meet, looking for swim-bike-run prospects, and she learned of Chase's swimming background. Lindquist, USA Triathlon's collegiate recruitment program coordinator, talked to Chase about trying triathlon after graduation. Chase was interested.
"She opened up this whole world of possibilities with triathlon," Chase says of Lindquist.
To get into the USA college recruitment program, Chase needed to hit some benchmarks in swimming and running. When she hit those -- and talked to the program's coaches and athletes, who analyzed her stroke and running form -- she was offered a scholarship into the program. So, after graduating from Stanford with a history degree in June 2017, Chase packed up her car and drove south to Carlsbad, near San Diego, to train in the development program and begin competing.
The transition was a challenge. She was an experienced runner and swimmer, but she was a cycling novice. The prospect of gaining enough skill to race in a pack was daunting. But, step by step, Jarrod Evans, head coach of the development program, helped Chase become a strong cyclist.
"Becoming confident on the bike is one of the most important things, especially with a pack of 50 or 60 other riders," Chase says. "So, starting on grass, slow, we learned how to brake, maneuver our bikes, then layering on that defending, hills, maintaining consistent power."
Then come longer rides and hill work. "You put the skills and strength together in a race and, hopefully, be able to stay with the pack," she says.
By fall 2017, Chase began competing -- and winning -- on the Continental Cup level of racing, below World Cup and the higher World Triathlon Series. (She competes in Olympic-distance races that consist of a 0.93-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike and 6.2-mile run.) She won three of the four races she entered, in San Diego, Puerto Rico and Malibu. The only race she didn't win, she had to pull out of because her bike frame broke when she hopped on it after the swim leg.
Lindquist says no other college recruitment program athlete had ever started so well.
In 2018, Chase won three more races and moved to race in World Cup and the World Triathlon Series races. She finished 2018 ranked 55th in the World Triathlon Series and 83rd in International Triathlon Union (ITU).
The performance that meant the most to her was a 19th-place finish in Montreal at the ITU World Triathlon Series event. It was her debut at that level.
"It's where the best of the best compete, which was super exciting for me," she says. "Up until that point, I hadn't yet competed against Katie Zaferes and Kirsten Kasper (Americans who rank first and third in the world, respectively). All these women who are the bright lights of triathlon. I didn't have any real expectations of pressure going in, just seeing how things were going to go and just enjoy it the best I could."
She came out of the water with the leaders, but she fell behind on the bike leg and couldn't make up ground on the run. Still, she was in the top 20.
"I really pushed myself as hard as I could go," says Chase, who trains between 20 and 30 hours a week. "I was definitely pleased with the result for that first style of racing."
Chase pushed herself hard in scheduling, too. Looking for as much racing experience as possible, she attempted to race eight consecutive weekends in the fall, but she was exhausted after five weeks. So she shut down her season.
"Looking back now, that was the best decision," she says.
Now, after time to rest and the team training camp, Chase is entering 2019 hoping to build on her strong first full year of racing. She'd like to compete well enough to qualify for the U.S. team at the Pan American Games this summer, while also earning enough points at World Cups and on the World Triathlon Series to set up a push to make the U.S. roster for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. She knows that's a long shot, because there are so many great American triathletes (10 Americans ranked higher at the end of 2018) and she's still relatively new to the sport. If that doesn't happen, she'd like to try for the 2024 Games -- if she can continue to make progress and enjoy what she's doing as much as she is now.
"I love every moment of this sport, whether it's waking up at 5 a.m. to go climb Palomar Mountain on my bike in 30 degrees, like we did two weeks ago, or to jump in the ocean for a beautiful sunset swim, or fly to China and be biking through those crazy streets with millions of cars," she says. "I just have had so many incredible experiences this (past) year I couldn't be more grateful for.
Lindquist believes Chase is positioned to take some big steps forward after what she did in 2018.
"Sophie has all the intangibles we are looking for in a world-class triathlete," Lindquist says. "She has competitive grit and is an incredibly self-motivated hard worker who stays positive even through difficulties.
After hitting the wall as a college sophomore and doubting her future, Chase is all in as a triathlete. She's enjoyed the transition to professional athlete in San Diego, with its travel, its commitment and challenges.
"It's such a unique lifestyle," she says. "Not a lot of people outside the sport truly understand it, but I love it."