Anyone who has retired their competitive athletic career, whether that's in high school, college, or professionally, knows that the time period after hanging up the cleats, sneakers—or in my case, oars—is a life-altering time.
The early mornings, hours of exhausting hard work, and countless sacrifices all go away in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, you're left with more free time than you know what to do with. At first, it's great. You can see friends and family without having worry about scheduling them into your packed agenda.
You can get work done on your own time. You can even go out more than every once in a while. You don't have to worry about how what you eat or do affects your sport. It's a euphoric feeling, to finally do what you want on your own time. For me, the bliss of breaking up with rowing lasted about two months.
I officially ended my six-year rowing career in early 2015, after battling a lower-back injury for two years. When I first started rowing my freshman year of high school, there was a lot of happiness. Rowing and I had met by fate, and I thought it would be a great, long-lasting relationship. I achieved quickly, placing fifth in an international indoor regatta in my first year, but I also plateaued quickly, not getting a personal record for a year at a time. What kept me going was my pure love and passion for the sport. There was no better feeling than sitting at the starting line, hearing the horn sound to start, knowing that all that stood between me and winning was 2,000 meters.
The adrenaline rushed through my veins, and the pain flowing across every inch of my body felt completely irrelevant. I poured my heart into every stroke, so when I fell short of winning, I knew what I had to do: work harder. This was something I could wrap my mind around; it was a clear equation. Work harder, get better, win more.
But eventually, my body couldn't keep up with my mind and aspirations. So toward the end of my time with rowing, my fiery passion turned into resentment. I hated that rowing was the reason I was in pain when doing simple tasks like bending over to tie my shoes and the reason I had to get three steroid injections in my back. It was the ultimate betrayal of my body, and even more so the biggest frustration in my mind.
When I finally decided to quit, I had the support of my friends and family and the comfort of knowing that I never had to do the thing that was causing me so much pain ever again. Little did I know that I hadn't even experienced the real all-consuming pain: the pain of feeling lost without the guidance of rowing.
Since my back was doing substantially better in the absence of rowing and I got the OK from my doctor, I tried to ease this loss by agreeing to train for a half-marathon with a friend. This friend had many of the same goals and feelings as I did about exercising, and I knew we would be great training buddies.
All in all, things were going well. It was great to be working toward a goal, and doing it with a friend made it even better. It wasn't the same, but it did fill a little bit of the void that rowing left.
We completed the half-marathon (it went as well as it could for a hot day in the middle of summer in Philadelphia), but my need for a purpose crept back in quickly. I tried to calm this innate feeling of needing a path by participating in different workout classes including spin, yoga, barre, and several others, as well as my own cardio and lifting workouts.
It was time to stop riding the “I was a D1 athlete” sob train—I was ready to pursue other passions and be something other than "a rower" or even an "athlete." There was a thrill in knowing that I had a beautiful opportunity to fill my life with things that actually made me happy. My friends and I joined a yoga studio because it was a way for us to do something together, sweat, and hopefully shed a few pounds.
That's when I fell in love with yoga. Now, every time I practice, whatever the class level, I learn something new about myself. With every balance pose or inversion, I am challenged to dig deeper, and with every stationary pose, I try to actively connect with my body. I feel more at peace with my life inside and outside of the four corners of my mat than I ever did while being a competitive athlete, and I believe I owe this to getting lost.
I am 20 years old, and in the next year I will have graduated college and could be anywhere in the world doing anything I choose. "Un- becoming" an athlete has not only taught me about myself, but it has also taught me that not having everything in complete control can be just as inspiring as the commitment I had to my sport and my team.
This journey of "un-becoming" an athlete has guided me toward being more in touch with myself. Through opening my heart and letting myself feel the pain of losing something dear to me, rather than try to rationalize and put words to it, I was able to overcome my cluttered mind. I know that I will find times in the future when I feel lost and maybe even helpless. In those times I will be strong enough because, if there's one thing being a competitive athlete taught me, it's that every time you get knocked down, there is an opportunity to learn about yourself and become two times stronger because of that.