It's been almost a year since I swam my last race at Pac-12s with Arizona. My legs remember that horrible mile/200 fly double like it was yesterday. Being a retired student-athlete has been a huge adjustment. It really didn't hit me that swimming was over until I moved back to Florida, where I'm now in grad school studying Criminology at Florida State University.
Aside from the usual big life changes that come with finishing an athletic career, being back in Florida means facing all the things I wasn't strong enough to deal with before. I may not swim anymore, but some of the things I experienced as a swimmer before transferring and coming out at Arizona can still be challenging sometimes.
I started swimming in 1999 and finished in 2015. That means my swimming career was the equivalent of a sophomore in high school who was literally born in a different century. It consumed my entire life. Anyone who knew me when I was in high school knew there was one school I always dreamed of swimming for. All of my pride and self-worth was invested in swimming for that team, and I thought making it there was the best thing that ever happened to me. So when it started to fall apart in the worst way I could imagine, it almost killed me. I was taught to believe that the people I cared most about were better off without me. I was constantly isolated and told that I was stupid. I was made to feel like the things that made me different were a burden on the people around me. I trusted the person who taught me those things. There was no reasoning otherwise with me. Finally, I had to walk away and I honestly felt like I was doing everyone else a favor. I was a wreck.
I was lucky I found all the love and friendship I needed to build myself back up again at the University of Arizona. They got me back on track. Here I am now in grad school, not far from the place I fell in love with and had my heart broken. I'm at a point in my life where so many things are uncertain. There's more to look forward to than taper meets and team dinners. When I think about my future now, I can see three major ways that my experiences as a student-athlete still have an influence on my life.
First, I have to think about school. School is the new swimming for me. Studying, writing, and class take up most of my time. I'm working on a Master's now, but I want to stay in school and get a PhD. When I feel like I'm not getting something in class I sometimes I get frustrated and feel like I might actually be an idiot. I think back to times when I was yelled at and told that I was stupid in practice. One of my worst memories is being screamed at in front of everyone about how my parents wasted thousands of dollars on my education because I can't get anything right. With time, patience, and help from friends, that feeling has started to fade. It's easier to open up when I feel that way, because my teammates were always there and they taught me that I don't always have to hold on to things and deal with them alone.
Second, I have to think about a career. I have an idea of the path I want to take, but it bothers me that I don't feel the same spark or passion about it that I felt when I was pushing to have an athletic career at my dream school. Truthfully, I've been afraid I will never want something else that badly. It's also scary to think about working that hard for something again. I thought I had it all before and then I lost it. Then I have to remind myself that I'm 23 and under no circumstances have I "had it all." I also remember how I made something happen, no matter how unlikely, and believed in myself when nobody else did. That's how I know I'll be OK. That spark wasn't always there. It doesn't have to be right now. I know I will find it, and when I do, I will find a way to get what I want.
Third, I have to think about relationships. It wasn't easy caring about other people so much, and having the people I cared about treat me so badly. Maybe it doesn't make sense to put myself out there for people anymore. It's a hard thing to do, but I still do it. I still want to be the kind of person who cares about other people beyond all rationality. I never want to change that. I want to always be here to do little, random things to make people smile, even if it's coated in sarcasm. As far as friends go, I'll gladly be friends with anyone who seems like a good person, no matter what makes them different. As far as girls go, I keep waiting for the right one to show up. I still believe I haven't met her yet. I really wish she would hurry, but in the meantime, I'm pretty much set.
The things that I went through during my swimming career might influence me in other aspects of my life for a long time. When you're not busy practicing or playing all the time, it's so much easier to see how sports ended up changing you for the better. Sometimes I struggle because I think I have to hold on to the bad things so I can keep the good ones. Then I remember there's nothing to hold on to. Those things from my past are already gone, but my future is still hanging around just waiting to happen.
Lauren Neidigh is Director of Social Media for GO! Athletes. She was a Division I swimmer at the University of Arizona and is working on her masters in criminology at Florida State University. She can be reached on Twitter @l_e_neidigh; facebook.com/lauren.neidigh; email (email@example.com)or Instagram.