When you do a sport for 10+ years, it becomes a part of your identity. For 17 years of my life, I was a synchronized swimmer. And suddenly, the day after we finished competing at the Rio Olympics in 2016, I wasn’t.
A lot of people struggle to find themselves after they retire from competitive sports, and I am no exception. I knew that I would retire after Rio, but I still had a hard time redefining my identity now that I wasn’t an elite athlete anymore. When I used to sit next to someone on the plane and they would ask “What do you do?” I would say that I am a synchronized swimmer training full time. As of September 2016, I had no idea what to say anymore!
Now, two years later, I feel like I am still learning about who I am outside of my athletic career. I know that I’ll always be an Olympian, but that couldn’t be my entire identity anymore. There was no guidebook on how to transition into “real life.” Throughout this process there were three areas of my life that significantly changed and I learned a lot in each of them, which is what I want to share with you today.
2016 - Two weeks before the Rio Olympics
2018 - Two years after the Rio Olympics
Going from training for 8-10 hours a day to suddenly sitting at a desk for the same amount of time was a big change for my body. I didn’t really know what to do for my workout routine or what to eat to look and feel the way I wanted to. It took me some time to figure out what I enjoyed doing for exercise. I tried different workout programs until I found something that clicked. Right now I am obsessed with the PWR program by Kelsey Wells on the Sweat app. I love the format of the workouts and the structure it provides. I also throw in yoga and sometimes swimming (but let’s be honest - no one wants to swim outside in 50 degree weather). Same goes for diet - I still feel like I don’t have a perfect system of what I eat and when but I feel a lot less stressed about it than I did in the first months of retirement. My advice in this area is to try different things until you figure out what you like. It’s okay to not have everything figured out right away and it’s okay if it takes some time to streamline your diet and exercise routine!
One of the great things about sports, and especially synchro, is that you are in a community of like-minded people, all working toward the same goal. You spend so much time with your teammates that they become your second family. And when you retire, you don’t have that anymore. Yes, you may still be friends with some of your teammates but everyone goes their separate ways - some keep swimming, others move across the country, and everyone moves onto a new challenge of their own. I definitely wasn’t ready to leave the synchro community altogether, which is why I kept coaching with the Walnut Creek Aquanuts and stayed on the USA Synchro Board of Directors as an athlete representative. Whether or not you stay involved in your sport, you need to find your “tribe.” For me it was reconnecting with my high school and college friends. While I was training and had a boyfriend I sort of neglected those relationships, and especially in the last few months I have made it a priority to allot more time and energy to reconnect with those friends, which has been amazing. You can also get that feeling of being a part of a team at work, where you and your coworkers are all working toward one mission, which can be both inspiring and motivating. Once you feel that you are a part of a community again, you don’t feel alone anymore.
As an athlete you have a very clear path to success - improve this and that skill, compete at the World Championships, qualify for the Olympics, win a medal, etc. Many of us have had the goal of competing in the Olympic Games since we were young. After you retire though, you have to decide what your next goal or challenge will be. On the one hand you have so many options of what you could pursue, but on the other hand it can be pretty overwhelming! Even when you do know what you want to do, there are often many ways of getting there, which was certainly true in my case. Something I still struggle with is accepting that there is not a clear path to my end goal and becoming comfortable with the uncertainty of what that journey will look like. It has helped me to set smaller goals that will bring me one step closer to what I want to accomplish long-term. I like setting annual, monthly and weekly goals because it helps me stay on track and builds my confidence when I reach those micro goals. As athletes, we need to have something we are striving for and setting small objectives is perfect for that.
When I was at Stanford I tried to explore many different areas of study until I found what I was interested in. I think it’s important to, again, try different things while you are still competing so that at least you have a direction that you want to go in once you retire. You can figure out the specifics later. Just know what you are drawn to in terms of a career or passion.
Most importantly, I’ve realized that being an elite athlete will always be a part of me, but it no longer defines me. Before, I was an athlete, period. Now, I am an athlete, comma. There is so much more to me than my athletic career, and the process of learning who I am and who I want to be is an exciting one!