This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.

Winning isn’t everything—just ask former top-50 tennis player Rebecca Marino. In July 2011, she reached a career high with a WTA ranking of No. 38.  She was at the top of her game, a star in the making. But in February 2013, she surprised fans around the world when she announced she’d be retiring after dealing with crippling depression and cruel cyber-bullying. “On court, I was still able to compete. I knew I loved tennis,” recalls Marino, now 27. “It’s just that eventually I lost my passion for it.”

“It was super hard to make the decision to retire at 22,” she adds. “I knew I was young to be leaving the sport, but I also knew that I needed to put the person first—to take care of myself before anything—so ultimately that was why I stopped. It took a lot of talking through.”

Marino is a private person, but she is very open when it comes to discussing the important role communication plays in mental health. Shortly before she retired, she was traveling on tour, and “I think it became more apparent to the people around me that I wasn’t in a good spot mentally,” she says. “It’s not like all day I’d be in a depressed state. I was able to function, but some days would be worse than others.”  Eventually, Marino was confronted by her coach, who suggested she seek professional help. “I still tell him to this day that it was one of the best things that could have happened to me,” she says, “having that talk and starting to get help.” 

To start, Marino made the choice to strengthen her roots in Vancouver, reaching out to family and friends, and enrolling at the University of British Columbia, where she studied English literature and joined the varsity rowing team. Having experienced the loneliness of competing in an individual sport like tennis, “it was really nice to be on a team sport, and a team of all women, everyone working together for the same goal,” she says. “It made my university experience so much more enjoyable because I felt like I was part of a community.”

Not that her recovery was a snap of the fingers, she adds: “It took a lot of work. It took me going to psychologists and consulting with doctors as well as settling back into regular life.” And part of settling back into regular life, even now, means not dwelling on hard times in the past. “I had an awful interview last week, where it was really negative, and I was kind of being stuck in this label of ‘the sad girl,’ ” she says, “and that’s not what I’m about. I’m about moving on and being positive.”

Marino certainly has moved on. Last year, after a stint coaching tennis in Vancouver, she came back to the sport she thought she’d never play professionally again. She was helping some local kids train when she realized she enjoyed playing more than coaching. “I found myself wanting to get there early so I could hit with some of the kids,” Marino says. “But I kind of put it out of my mind like, ‘No, no, just stick with what you’re doing, you’re almost done school.’ ”

Then, last February, Marino’s father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which “put a lot of things in perspective for me,” she says. “Life is really short…  I thought, ‘This is just the perfect chance for me to go for it, and if I fail, then so be it, but at least I go out knowing that I left nothing on the table.” A couple days before classes started, she left university. “I dropped everything I was doing just so I could come back to tennis,” she says.

“I was a little hesitant at the beginning because I thought maybe everyone’s going to say, ‘She’s too old for this’ or ‘Come on, give it a break, you’ve had your chance,’” Marino adds. “But everybody’s been super positive and very responsive to my comeback.”

?3 in a row! #dejavu

A post shared by Rebecca Marino (@beccamarino) on

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Marino’s father is doing much better now, and so is she, but the athlete is approaching her career a little differently this time around. “This is like Career 2.0, and it’s kind of fun because I can use all my past experiences,” she says. “I know what I’m getting into now. It’s kind of comforting that I understand the process, and I know what’s coming, and I can prepare for it.”

One thing she’s learned? It’s important to stay grounded and spend more time at home in Vancouver between training blocks. (She trains in Montreal, where she’ll be for up to four weeks at a time.) When Marino does travel, she keeps in touch with FaceTime and other apps. Such technology makes it “easier to communicate with people back home,” she says.

And communication is key, Marino stresses: “I just try to live my life as openly and honestly as possible, and whoever reaches out to me for help or just to talk, I’m always open to that,” she says. “Oftentimes, my message is, ‘Just start the communication, just start talking to someone about what’s going on in your life; reach out, get help.’ 

She has particularly good advice for young people still finding their way: “Just relax a little bit. You don’t have to be the person you think you’re going to be at 18. You can wait a few years and slowly find your way there.”

It’s advice Marino now lives by. She hopes to finish up university via online classes in the next year or two. And she’s taking her tennis career day by day. “It would be nice to get back to where I was, but realistically I have to start by getting my ranking up,” says Marino, who hopes to one day compete in the Grand Slams. For now, “I have to go with my little baby steps.”

We want to hear more amazing stories about #RealLifeStrong women. Nominate yourself—or a friend or family member—here. We’ll be sharing the most inspiring stories we receive in the months ahead.

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