A Real World Warrior
My heart is pounding my vision is blurring and my body hurts so bad I’m not even sure where the pain is coming from. I can’t breathe and I’m still thrashing my legs down thirty-four times a minute to finish out an erg test (fitness assessment tests in rowing) to reclaim my place on the team. These strokes will likely determine whether I get to travel to California and race or stay home.
There’s a mass of people screaming behind me, but a single and passionate voice tells me to “ride the pain” and those words dive straight into what’s left of my consciousness. I recognize the voice as one of the toughest people I know, and she is telling me that I can maintain this level of pain? I can’t let them down but damn, these chicks are crazy. It was baffling to me that this was my reality; no shortcuts, no outsmarting the competition, the only way through was to knuckle down and ride the beast.
Over and over I re-learned this lesson. I knew nothing would happen unless I committed myself to sit with the pain. Instead of my ranking on the team or my scores, I tried to define myself by my bravery. I decided I was going to be the one to search for the pain faster and deeper and I was going to hold onto it longer and with more composure. To get results I knew I could deliver, I needed to make pain my best friend.
This isn’t always an easy commitment to stand by. There were many times I failed; when I would stand up at the end of an erg piece and know somewhere deep down that I hadn’t been fully brave. I had touched the next level of pain and instead of diving in, I’d tried to go around.
As sharp as that disappointment was, what I learned in this evaluation process was more important than any medals I won- I learned how to see myself truly for what I was capable of and where I fell short. By evaluating my performance against my own bravery, I was able to take full-accountability. Even the days I fell short, I was learning to think like a warrior. I was learning to ride the pain and know clear-minded through it that I was capable of more.
Graduating into the Passion Void and “Transferable Skills”
You’ve poured your heart, mind, and body into a single mission for the past four years or more. Single-mindedly devoted to your craft, you didn’t have time to think about what comes next. “Don’t worry” the alumni said, you have so many ‘transferable skills’ there is no way you’re going to have a problem finding a job. Your athletic department re-posts articles with titles like ‘Student Athletes Go on To Wild Career Success.’ So, you trust you’ll find a job. These skills have always worked for you so why would that change now? Your athletic career has shown you how to get results from hard work, so you trust that the same will follow college. You’ll find what you want, work hard, and figure it out.
Then you graduate. Man, what a relief. You’re sad to say goodbye but after four years of working tirelessly, you can’t help but feel quietly thrilled to start your “real life”—the one where you suddenly have the freedom to choose how you spend your time. Maybe you realize with glee that you can work-out however you want now, no stressful fitness tests required.
And wow, freedom feels great. That summer after college you’re still rolling in the good feelings, floating high on all that you accomplished and all the possibilities before you.
But at some point- maybe it’s when the “Back to School Season” resumes, or deep into the next year, or maybe two years later, you look around at your life and wonder where all your passion went. You miss with a deep pang the sense of direction and purpose you felt on the team. You don’t want to be the washed-up, beer-bellied uncle and dwell on the glory days, but how do you re-create that feeling of daily purpose in a community you love. How do you even choose your next community/ hobby/ job? Your old teammates are all starting their own thing and you crave a new supportive environment that push you to be your best and make the process fun.
Despite all the ‘transferable skills’ you indubitably possess, nobody warned you about the indisputable and all-too-common woes of the transition process. And coming from a community of proud athletes, you’re not likely to hear it talked about in public nor with great honesty.
Well you’re not alone. What they didn’t tell you was that the NCAA has found 3/4 of graduating athletes experience difficulty and that it’s well documented that retiring student athletes often face depression. A study in Japan documented the phenomenon of how student athletes are much less likely to use campus career services than their peers because of their single-minded dedication to their sport. This, paired with the athlete tendency to not ask for help, makes the student-athlete transition much more difficult than an outside observer would guess.
Our community is so proud that we have very little discussion about the difficulty of the void after college. Know that if you sit in this void, you are nowhere near alone. In fact, you are likely in the majority- silent though it may be. Instead, take solace that the more devoted you are to something, the harder it is to leave it. So if you’re walking around feeling like it seems harder for you than your peers, wear it as a badge of honor, proof that you laid your heart on the line.
As for what’s next? The Japanese study found that the best way to navigate any intense transition is to give yourself a purpose and community as soon as possible. Even if you have no idea what you’re doing, sign up for that rock-climbing membership, do the extreme biking tour, commit to writing a book. Screw “finding your passion;” Instead get going now on following the things that you’re slightly curious about, and that just might lead to your next ‘thing.’ Curiosity may have killed one dumb cat, but it enlivened the hearts and minds of all the others. It’s time to let go of having all the answers and executing things perfectly. Let’s make the mpowhered community an oasis of honesty where we encourage ourselves and each other to saddle up and charge bravely into the future, knowing that you have a tribe behind you.
Strength training for the soul
During and since my time on my elite sports team, I’ve experienced more than mere physical pain. I’ve felt the pain of unhealthy relationships in my family, the pain of a rough breakup, the pain of loneliness, the pain of missing my team, the pain of not knowing how to love my body as it changes after my sport, the pain of not knowing what to do with myself next.
It seems the world is filled with pains and the people who hold them. Pushing through is also something I learned as an elite athlete. Tired, angry, worn out, frustrated, sad, when your goals are set on the NCAA Podium you become an expert at getting the work done no matter what. I am fully capable of shouldering difficulties and moving forward.
But I know now that is not the warriors’ path. The warrior does not trudge through the pain with blinders on. The warrior sits in it, feels it wash over her, and sees through it what she can do. The warrior does not run away or take detours. She knows that to become the person she is capable of; she must make pain her greatest asset. She knows that her points of pain just might become her superpowers.
Warrior in the “real world”
As we move on from college sports, we are the force of women that march into the world with our hearts and eyes wide open. We are not afraid of challenges, in fact we thrive in them. We don’t seek out pain, but when it comes our way we greet it with a slight, confident smile, because we know a secret; that we grow the most when we encounter challenges.
So as scary as it is, do not be afraid to make eye contact with your beast --in whatever form it takes-- and tell it to back the eff down, because surely, it’s no match for you. As seasoned warriors, we know that we can develop our bravery like we developed muscles- patiently, consistently, and with determination. We know that self-honesty can be brutal but is always worth it. Don’t be afraid to apply it to your own soul and know that you have an Mpowher-d tribe behind you.
If you ever want someone to talk to through your transition, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Author: Sophie Dalton
Sophie is currently spending at least a year living in Latin America, Sophie fills her free time with reading, writing, and seeking out like-minded people to have deep conversations. She's becoming a yoga teacher and dreams of creating a company that facilitates difficult and/or healing group conversations. She's also a graduate of the University of Washington rowing team and holds silver and bronze NCAA D1 medals.