Coming to Terms with the End of a Collegiate Career
At the age of 4, I dreamt of being an Olympic gymnast. I would set up my 101 Dalmatians
sleeping bag in front of the TV and practice doing somersaults while watching the elite gymnasts
on TV. Spoiler alert: I never became an Olympian or even a collegiate gymnast; but, that starry
eyed 4-year old’s dream led me to a 12-year gymnastics career that transitioned to a 7 year pole
vault career. Though I changed sports halfway through high school, both athletic careers were
centered on the ultimate goal of becoming an NCAA athlete. That dream was realized the end
of my senior summer when the pole vault coach at Florida State University agreed to let me walk
onto the team.
My freshman year at FSU is sort of a blur in my memory. I remember the workouts being the
hardest I had ever experienced and feeling more tired than I thought was possible. But the hard
workouts and psychological challenges of constantly feeling like I wasn’t good enough never
outweighed my passion for the sport and my need to prove my worth. While redshirting my
freshman year, I continually improved my vault, showing both my coach and myself that I
deserved my roster spot and that I was ready to compete for FSU.
My first year in uniform was
full of some great days with personal bests, some not so perfect competitions, and a lot of
learning experiences. I ended the year jumping 12’6” and nearly missing an 8 th place finish at the
conference championship meet (top 8 places score points for the team). I felt like I had arrived
as a collegiate vaulter and was motivated more than ever to work towards some new lofty goals I
had set for myself. I had decided that by the end of my college career, I would place top 3 at a
conference meet and I would make it to the final round of the NCAA National Championships.
The following two years at FSU constantly built towards those 2 career goals. My sophomore
season I improved by another six inches and scored for the team in both the indoor and outdoor
conference championships by placing top 8. I also made it to the east regional competition in
outdoor track and field. If you placed top 12 at this competition, you qualified to the final
national championship meet. My junior season (senior academically) improved upon the
previous year once more. I finished out the year jumping a personal best of 13’6” and qualified
for the east regional meet once again. To place top 12, you typically have to jump 13’6” on the
first attempt (out of 3 given attempts). Though capable of jumping 13’6”, I let the pressure get to
me and did not jump well. I learned from that competition and was more motivated than ever to
reach those final goals the following year.
I graduated from FSU in 2015 and transferred to Colorado State University where I could pursue
my master’s degree and still complete that list of goals I had set out for myself a few years ago.
Competing for CSU, I was determined to refrain from buckling under pressure. I had learned my
lesson the previous year. This mindset granted me a great deal of success my final season. I am
proud to say that I reached my goal of placing top 3 at a conference competition, by ending my
regular season career winning an outdoor conference title. I proved to myself that I could
compete in high pressure situations.
I entered my final regional meet with a fire, determined to
place top 12. I was going to qualify for nationals. Looking back, I can honestly say I competed
the best I ever had at this competition. I finally jumped that 13’6” bar in a regional competition,
but… it wasn’t enough. A first attempt clearance qualified for nationals that day, but I cleared
13’6” on my second attempt. My seemingly storybook career had suddenly come to a halting
stop without that fairytale ending I so desperately desired. This time I couldn’t’ learn from the
experience and use it the following year. I was out of eligibility. Despite feeling like I had more
to give to the sport, I was done. There was no more ‘next year’. I missed my goal by one miss.
It took me a long time to get over the fact that I couldn’t just go back to practice the following
year to build upon the previous year. I had been an athlete since the age of 4 and had always
been working towards some ultimate goal. What was I supposed to do now that it was not
possible to reach my ultimate goal anymore? I told myself I needed to move on from the pole
vault and find something else to be passionate about. The funny thing about passion for a sport
is that you never really move on. The truth is that our stories as athletes never truly end. They
may not always go the way we plan, but it is up to us to decide how the rest of our story will go.
We can choose to dwell upon a sad ending, or we can choose to shift our focus to a new chapter.
The next chapter of my athletic story began when my CSU vault coach convinced me to act as a
volunteer pole vault coach the following year. I went from training with my fellow teammates to
now watching them train and practice. At first this was difficult. I wanted to be like them. I
wanted to have another year to reach my goals. But, with time, I stopped focusing on my
personal pole vault goals and started to focus on the goals of my former teammates. Over the
course of the season, I started to improve as a coach, learning what cues helped which athletes,
and I felt a lot of joy each time something I said helped my former teammates improve their
performance. Eventually I became just as invested in their athletic career as I had been in my
own. Before I knew it, my sense of purpose in the sport had been restored.
After graduating from CSU with my master’s, I headed to Penn State University to pursue my
Ph.D. Hooked on coaching, I started volunteering for a university that I had never competed for.
I found myself working with athletes at all stages in their athletic careers, each working towards
their own lofty goals. These athletes didn’t know my story and would often ask me about my
career, looking for advice on how to get through some challenge they were facing. I was
surprised to find that these interactions were more fulfilling than any conference title in my own
I quickly learned that our experiences as athletes are not defined by a medal or a national qualification. They are defined
by the experiences that led up to those big moments. Pushing through a hard workout or
overcoming a mental block leaves us with experiences that help us reach our athletic goals.
These experiences also build our character in ways that help us achieve other life goals outside of
sport. Through sharing my personal experiences, I found myself no longer dwelling on the bitter
end of my career and instead looked back proud of all that I accomplished. I am proud to say I
started as a walk-on and improved so much that I had the opportunity to just narrowly miss
making it to Nationals. I am thankful for the challenges I faced, the lessons I learned, and for the
opportunity to share my experiences with others. I hope that by sharing this story I can help
others who face disappointment figure out how to turn over a new chapter. A shift in focus can
go a long way in changing a seemingly sad chapter to a beautiful story with a happy ending.