Paralympian Deja Young-Craddock talks mental health journey and unwavering determination

Paralympian Deja Young-Craddock, currently competing at the Tokyo Games, survived a suicide attempt and is constantly working to manage her mental health. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Deja Young-Craddock, a three-time Team USA Paralympic medalist, was born with brachial plexus, an injury sustained at birth that caused limited mobility in her right shoulder. She dominated in her first Paralympic Games in Rio, earning gold medals in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes. Young-Craddock, 25, currently competing in Tokyo at the 2020 Games, collected a bronze medal on Aug. 31 in the 100-meter dash. Ahead of her 200-meter dash event on Sept. 4, Young-Craddock discussed her depression, surviving a suicide attempt and walking away from an injury-causing automobile accident in 2016. The Texas native spoke to ESPN about how running, support from her family and working to heal physically and mentally have helped her manage life's many obstacles.

There's a lot of things in life I'm not in control of.

I'm pulled in a thousand different directions all the time. But when it comes to track and field, I'm in control of what I could do, when I can do it and how I can do it. That's really what drew me in. I love team sports, don't get me wrong. But there is something about doing something for myself, by myself, that is so empowering.

Running is freeing. It's easy. It's individualistic.

So, I stuck with it. In 2019 I went to an orphanage for the deaf and visually impaired in [Nigeria], which also happened to be a school. On the back of their uniform, it had a quote that read, "In disability, there's ability." That stuck with me. You are capable of any and everything that you put your mind to. And the biggest "no" that you will take personally is from yourself. I could have never imagined where this sport would take me, including becoming a gold-medal-winning Paralympian in my first Paralympic Games -- something I didn't even know existed until the year before I became one.

In 2015, I was a freshman in college at Wichita State University, competing in the 4x100 meter relay, 100m and 200m races. We host this huge indoor track and field meet every single year. Paralympian Tobi Fawehinmi and his coach were there. They saw my arm [which has limited mobility due to a brachial plexus birth injury] and thought I looked like I could be classified as a Paralympic athlete. When his coach approached my coach about it, my coach was kind of nervous about asking me. He didn't want to offend me, thinking that I wasn't good enough for the Olympics, but we hadn't done our research yet. When I looked into it, I was like, "Wow." There was a whole community of people out there that would understand me, would get me, and I had no clue about it my entire life.

Less than five months later, I entered my first Para meet. I was having one of the best collegiate and Paralympics seasons in my career. I made my first indoor conference team, made my first outdoor conference team, became an All-American on the 4x1 relay, went to the NCAA outdoor track and field championships. And my schedule didn't end there. I continued to the 2015 United States Paralympics in Minneapolis. I didn't know what I was doing there. I was tired but trying my best. I came in first at nationals. A couple of months later, the world team was announced, and I'd made it. I went to Doha, Qatar, and competed at the 2015 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships. I was thrown into the professional world as a baby. I came out with a gold medal in the 100m and a silver medal in the 200m, and I guess from there, it's history. That was one of the best years, just because there was no pressure. It was literally just running.

By mid-2016, in the midst of my newly blossoming career, I began to feel overwhelmed. I had just turned 19, and there was so much going on all the time. I was in a major that I was not enjoying. I'd been gone so long with a busy race schedule that I wasn't really socializing either -- everyone kind of socialized together when school started, but I was isolated and misunderstood. It was my second year in this new state, and my closest family members were about five hours away. I felt all these emotions, and I kept trying to reach out, but not hard enough.

At that point in my life, it felt like I was in control of nothing. It was kind of this overwhelming sensation ... of just, I don't want to be alive because I can't control anything. A month before the U.S. Paralympic team trials, I attempted suicide. Gratefully, I did not succeed. I eventually got the coping mechanisms that I needed and the help that I needed.

It was really hard. I was also on a very heavy antidepressant at the time. But I started to feel like I had a choice. My support system provided options. They let me know I didn't have to compete. I can just chill, relax. There's no pressure. They still loved me. They're still proud of me. Or, I could go and see what happens. So, that's what I did. Three and a half months after the attempt, I competed in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

It was amazing. I left with two gold medals in the 100m and 200m.

I knew I had to tell my story just because there are people out there thinking, "Man, I can't do this," or, "Man, I've tried to attempt [suicide] and did not succeed. Now, I don't know what else I'm supposed to do." I was able to share my story and show people that you can get through this. I get painted as America's sweetheart or perfect Patty, and I hate it just because I'm not perfect. I struggle, like everyone else. Yes, I won two gold medals, but you don't realize what I've been through to get there. I went ahead and just said it [in public forums]. I feel like talking about mental health a few years ago was like talking about politics or religion in a professional setting. It felt awkward, like you shouldn't speak about that or talk about it. I didn't care. I was going to talk about it. I wanted to let it all out, because why not? Sometimes it's going to be hard. I'm not perfect. I still have bad days. But at the end of the day, you can be your own light in your darkest times.

During one of the best moments in my life, I was about to be dealt yet another blow; 2016 was not my year.

After Rio, I went to Washington, D.C., met President Barack Obama and everyone at the White House when they hosted Team USA after the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics and Rio 2016 Summer Paralympics. Then, I went back to college. I was having fun with my friends. I remember going out for Halloween -- I dressed up as a mermaid. I was having a good time and feeling like myself again. My sister was turning 18, and that was a big deal, so I told my mom I was going to drive down to Dallas and surprise her at her birthday dinner. I ended up doing that, and she was so happy. Me and my sister are best friends. It was our first time really being apart for that long. So, I went home and hung out and it was great. Being there made me realize I was homesick. I didn't want to go back. I ended up staying an extra day but needed to be back on the road by 5 a.m. to make it to practice that afternoon.

I got up early, and it was raining. My mom told me to be careful repeatedly. I told her to relax. I'd done this drive lots of times. But this time, she was within reason to worry. I never made it to practice. I reached Oklahoma during my five-hour drive back to Kansas, but I was tired. I'm pretty sure I was [starting to] fall asleep behind the wheel. Because of the rain, my car hydroplaned and, as I overcorrected, began to flip and rolled into a ditch. There were no guardrails or anything. I landed upside down. Thankfully, there weren't any cars around me. A nurse and a truck driver, who later cut me out of my car, were the ones who pulled over to help. I'm very grateful for them.

I had sutures in my face. I had sutures in my foot. Because my arm was pinned against my body and the door when I landed, I had a severe bone bruise to my left arm. I had a little bit of nerve damage in both of my wrists and a very small fracture in my right wrist. My arm was so swollen that you couldn't see any of the bones. The circulation from my bone-bruised hips to my legs was really bad. I remember swinging my legs over the bed, and it was the worst pain I've ever felt. My legs were swollen. I looked at my mom and asked, 'Why me? Why does this have to happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? Did I do something wrong? Why am I in this position?"

I went back down the rabbit hole of depression. I was mad. I was angry. I went through the seven stages of grief because I felt like I was losing myself all over again.

Having my mom, dad and sister there was really helpful. Being asked if I'm OK and talking about things helped. Going to therapy and continuing to be on my antidepressant was so important for me. At that moment in time, I don't think I was capable of being able to do that on my own. I was really young and had just gone through two traumatic events within the span of the year. But I talked about things, stayed on top of things and got through it.

It was about three months before I could get back onto the track. Having that break really helped me reset. I needed just to step away because sometimes being a track and field athlete becomes a personality trait. Having that balance was really nice. Getting back onto the track was the best. I never thought I'd miss dry heaving at practice because I was so tired from doing repeats. I was out of shape, and I had gained weight, but I'd never been happier to be back on the track.

In the past couple of years, I've taken time to reflect, be grateful, take in gratitude, look forward to the future instead of comparing myself to the person from the past. I'm still the same person, but just better. That gratitude takes me a long way.

Now, I'm here in Tokyo. At first, I wondered if I should be here. If I deserved to be here. I haven't had a great season. I didn't know what I was capable of or what I was supposed to be doing. I was very sad. About two months ago, I was ready to quit. I remember getting home from a track meet in Arizona and literally lying in bed for a week, thinking, "I don't think I can do this. I don't think I'm capable. I don't think this is for me anymore." It was kind of one of those things where I was questioning my entire career. Maybe I was going through a quarter-life crisis.

I went back to the training center, talked to my coach and realized I had to make a choice. My coach said he'd support me if I didn't want to go. But I made the team for a reason. I'd gone back to the training center for a month, and I put all the pieces back together. I got here and after my first race, my prelim, I realized I deserve to be here. It doesn't define who I am as a person whenever I cross that finish line. I know I still have supporters. I have people who still love me. I will be OK.

Knowing all of the sacrifices I made, I don't want any of that to go to waste. I've been married for five months, and I haven't seen my husband, maybe two of those five months. So constantly being gone and training late nights really made me put everything in perspective. I don't want any of that to go to waste, so why not just leave it all out there? I have nothing else to lose. And if it doesn't go the way I want it to go, I still put everything out there that I wanted.

The most important thing is, I have to finish. I have to finish for myself and not for everyone else.