Being a ‘quitter’ is never a good thing, especially not in the world of competitive sports. But there comes a day in every athlete’s life when they must hang up their jersey for the last time. Longevity in sports varies greatly and is contingent on an infinite number of factors. However, one thing that is for certain is that athletes of every ability, from high school varsity to Olympic, know that the inevitable end of their career will one day arrive and that along with it, a new chapter will begin.
With the varsity sports season coming to a close, I thought it was an apt time to write about this topic. Contrary to popular belief, quitting isn’t always the easiest way out and the transition can be an extremely stressful period of time. So many aspects of life change and do so almost instantaneously, forcing athletes to not only adapt to different routines and lifestyles, but also new bodies and self-perceptions.
My own athletic career abruptly came to an end when I was cut from the varsity swim team in first year. It didn’t come as a huge surprise (I was never that impressive of a swimmer), but that didn’t ease the pain of rejection in my first week of university. After competitively swimming for ten years, I was at a loss for what to do without it. Since the age of seven, being a swimmer was part of my identity – it was what I was known for and what people refer to me as. I skipped a lot of school for competitions and even enrolled in a half-day sports program in high school, for athletes who trained more than 25-hours a week. My best friends are girls that I grew up swimming with and when I wasn’t training, I shared my passion for the sport through coaching. Safe to say, for more than half my life, my world revolved around this sport. And now it was all over.
At first, I hated being a swammer (aka an ex-swimmer). Unlike most of my friends, I never once considered quitting swimming at any point in my career. Despite the 5 AM practice times and the competitions that took over my weekends, I truly enjoyed every aspect of the sport, including its grueling schedule. The first and biggest shock of my non-athlete life was how much time I had. Suddenly I had time to sleep in, hang out with friends, do homework, go for a walk, and most of all, do nothing. As someone who was used to such a rigid schedule, this was a foreign feeling to me. And if I’m being honest, I kind of hated it. Without the urgency of a schedule, I had little motivation to do schoolwork or tend to responsibilities because it felt like I had all the time in the world when, in reality, procrastination was getting the best of me. All those time management skills I had supposedly learned in high school? Out the window! To put it simply, I literally had no idea how to function as a normal person.
This lack of motivation fell through in other aspects in my life too. Since being a high-level athlete inherently means training an immense amount, athletes are usually in pretty good shape without having to do much else outside their sport. At least, this was the case for me. Because I never had to exercise on my own before, I had no idea how to motivate myself to workout. This, in combination with the all-you-can-eat format of the cafeterias, did not bode well with my body. If you’ve seen the SNL skit or the Youtube Challenges dedicated to Michael Phelps’s diet, I can confirm that swimmers do eat an absurd amount. I was no different and to make matters worse, I had an irresistible sweet tooth and a penchant for junk food. To put it nicely, my body got soft. Luckily, I didn’t put on a tremendous amount of weight, but muscle definitely turned to fat and my abs quietly disappeared as quickly as the dessert on my plate. Clothes that once were too big now felt snug and the idea of being “fat” threw my self-esteem for a tailspin.
For both guys and girls, changes in physique (while expected) can shake up one’s self-esteem, perceptions of self-worth, and identity. For me, this was the hardest part of being an ex-athlete and something I struggle with still, four years later. Despite spending most of the last 10 years in nothing but a bathing suit, first year was the first time I had felt truly felt insecure about my body. While there were several times in high school when I would throw around the word “fat” to describe myself, I realized I never meant it until the end of my first year. Articulating it now feels dramatic, but at the same time, I remember pinching the fat on my torso in front of my mirror and hating so much of what I saw. To make matters worse, I found it difficult to motivate myself to exercise or eat healthy knowing that I would never be as fit as I once was when was a competitive athlete; an hour at the gym dwindled in comparison to three hours in the pool. With so much of my identity tied up in being a swimmer, I was completely lost and without direction when I quit. People at my high school would refer to me as “one of the swimmers,” so without that, who was I?
In hindsight, getting cut from the swim team was the greatest blessing in disguise. It forced me to reinvent myself, pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and accelerated my personal growth. Quitting allowed me to explore interests and passions that I had sidelined in the past, like writing and fashion. Had I kept swimming, I wouldn’t have pursued other extracurriculars (like MUSE!) and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet several like-minded people outside of my usual social groups. With a little extra time on my hands, I have been able to cultivate strong friendships and spend time with people who mean the most, even if it means doing nothing together. And most importantly, being an ex-athlete changed my relationship with my body and redefined my self-worth, so that it no longer is contingent on external factors, like my results in the pool. Learning to love myself from the inside out continues to be a challenge to this day, but I have grown incredibly in this aspect in the past four years.
So, for anybody who is preparing for life beyond competitive sports, or is in the process, don’t think for a second that your glory days are over. Though my athletic career peaked when I was 12 years old, I would like to think that the best is yet to come for me. Your sport may be your life now, but it won’t always be, so my hope is that you find a way to reinvent yourself and explore new passions, experiences, and friends once your athletic career is over. Though one defining aspect of your life may have come to an end, it’s important to remember that you are so much more than “just an athlete” and (as cliché as it is) the end every chapter is the beginning of a new one.
Mariana Uemura is a fourth-year commerce student and an Online Contributor for MUSE.