“O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,” I mouth the words, watching the American flag being raised over the Olympic Park. It’s February in southern Russia but the evening’s cool rain feels unexpectedly welcome. It’s enchanting. What’s more, it is grounding me in the moment. I close my eyes. Remember. The small drops of water give tangibility to the night. Something I can touch. Something to distinguish this night from all other nights. To distinguish it from a dream. “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
The last note echoes in my ear for a moment before I hear the crowd’s cheers. I spot a few signs, posters and banners written in English, scattered throughout the massive gathering inside the main square of the Sochi Olympic Park. This is the moment, I think to myself. Take it in. I feel the weight of a gold medal around my neck and wave to the crowd as I’ve seen Olympians do on television so many times before. I’ve also been on the podium before. Standing one step down at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games with my lifetime skating partner, Charlie White. It feels like a century ago now. It’s been a long, hard four years.
“Please pick-up your medal boxes on the table to the left of the stairs as you exit the stage.”
I hear the announcement over the loudspeaker, first in English followed by French and then Russian. I’m surprised. In my mind, the moment had seemed infinite. When I imagined it, the scene felt supernatural and always out of reach. Now I’m here, stepping off of the podium, walking through the rain and following Charlie into the holding room backstage. I feel confused and slightly lost. An unfamiliar feeling of unpreparedness. Together, we had trained for the performances and for the highest level of competition. Planning, preparation and readiness, that’s who I am. That’s who we’ve had to be since we started this journey as hopeful young skaters over 17 years ago. As we begin the walk back to the Village, I realize, I hadn’t prepared for the “after.”
I lie in my bed in Plymouth, Michigan, draped atop my own soft, mangled nest of linen and down. It’s just before 7 A.M. on a Wednesday and the sun peers delicately through the white, wooden blinds of my bedroom to dust my lavender walls and bedding with light. I haven’t set an alarm today and have nowhere important to be. The gentle breeze of my ceiling fan has wisps of my dark hair dancing back and forth across the left side of my face. As a little girl, or even a teenager, I loved nothing more than when my mom would come into my room early in the morning to let me know that it was a snow day. “Keep sleeping,” she would say softly. “No school today!” I would curl-up tightly and pull the comforter close, floating slowly back to sleep.
Today is not a snow day and although my bed is no less cozy than it once was, I feel ill at ease. I turn over to grab my phone off the nightstand, moving as little as possible. I finally grasp it with the tips of my fingers and let them aimlessly begin browsing for an episode of some mildly interesting television show or a movie to watch. I never get to do this. Enjoy it, I think to myself. A single tear escapes. I lie on my left side now and the tear absorbs surprisingly quickly into the cotton of the pillowcase beneath my cheek. Unmoving, my face rests in the warmth of the damp fabric. While it feels good to be emotional (my normal stoicism being a necessary source of strength for so long), this is a sadness I haven’t anticipated. An emptiness. Hadn’t I achieved what I wanted? Hadn’t I lived the dream? I close my eyes and fall asleep.
You hear stories of athletes who say they knew from a young age that they wanted to be a champion. Despite appearances, that isn’t me. Sure, I could envision wild successes when people would ask the predictable “Do you want to be an Olympian when you grow-up?” or when watching a competition on TV, but I lived for progress. I didn’t have an exact goal in mind, but day by day I knew I was doing whatever it took to get “there”—plus a little bit of drama, stress and struggle along the way. Perhaps I enjoyed that, too. I was working towards something big and that gave everything meaning.
After spending my life deep in the pursuit of a dream now realized, I find myself hollow, empty, vacant, and without purpose.
In the old days, I’d begin mornings by slipping my legs slowly off the bed, so sore. I loved that feeling, though. I’ve always loved that feeling. Even now, it’s those full days of training that feel like my “real life.”
By 8 A.M, I’d be full speed with Charlie on the ice. Despite the low temperature in the rink, I’d break a light sweat. The hours passed and even my sports bra and loose tank top became suffocating. My arms and legs were heavy with fatigue, my lungs burning from the constant rush of cold air. I struggled to regain my breath. At times, I’d catch a glimpse of stars in the corners of my eyes. That’s when I’d know it was working. Progress.
When I’d get the invites from my high school friends for quick catch-ups while they were in town, they probably knew I wouldn’t come. We’ve been friends for nearly two decades and I rarely did. I have absolutely no idea what I did to deserve friends who are still nice enough to ask. “I’m just so tired,” I’d often reply in our group message. “I’m sure you understand.” They always did. They also know me well enough to see right through my texts. I was exhausted after training, but I also like being by myself and they recognized that. I was recovering from a long day on the ice and preparing for the next. This had been my purpose, my routine, and my comfort zone my whole life.
Today, I have nothing to do, nothing to do tomorrow, and I’m so incredibly uncomfortable with that.
My friends are gathering tonight and I wish I wanted to go. They really are amazing. Wasn’t this kind of the point of it all? Work now, play later? But it wasn’t. At least not for me. “Ugh, I can’t,” I write, slightly adjusting my usual reply. A total lie but the best I can come up with. “Can’t believe I’ll miss you guys again but hopefully I’ll catch you around the holidays.” Now that I’m not training, I wonder what they think.
Before the Games, when I did spend time with friends, I mostly gravitated towards the ones I’d made through sport. I’d get dinner with my girlfriends who had been there before. The ones who understood the training and dedication from the inside. Even without having known them as long as those incredibly kind, thoughtful and lifelong friends from school, I felt closer to skaters. These were not only friends but former athletes who supported my pursuit with a deep understanding and empathy for the challenges I regularly faced. Most of my closest “skating friends” having already retired, they would often share anecdotes about the specifics of their respective, post-retirement challenges. Marriage, career, motherhood, etc. No matter the nature of the stories and independent of the various challenges each woman faced, almost every conversation would include some sort of comment referencing a belief that everything was simpler “post skating.” To each of these women, their new and respective challenges felt small as compared to their years of trials faced in rigorous training and competition on the ice. “Everything is easy after skating,” they so often said. Puzzled, I would nod in agreement as if we were on the same page.
Now that I’m here, nothing could be further from the truth.
I suppose I never fully understood why I was so dedicated to skating. I always knew I loved it and that the “sacrifice” never really felt compromising. While others looked forward to the post-competitive days of “freedom,” I could rarely relate. It wasn’t until I stood atop that Olympic podium that I understood. There was nowhere left to go. For me, working towards my dream was my freedom. All my life I’d been in the pursuit of betterment. That was all I needed. In some way, I always felt that the chance to chase that dream was a gift.
Once upon a time there was something noble about skipping a grade school sleepover, a friend’s birthday party or a senior trip to Cabo. Indeed, there was even something productive about a lazy afternoon in bed. Stretching, recovering and watching Netflix. These were the respectable, logical and responsible choices to make as I embarked on my seemingly insurmountable quest. Now, the quest is won and I can finally be “normal.” There is no day of training from which to recover or forthcoming competition for which to prepare. I have possibilities, choices and time. I loathe all of it. How disappointing.
In the four years since the Sochi Olympic Games, I’ve struggled in ways I hadn’t imagined.
To find one’s self working towards discovering a new place in the world after living with such a defined sense of purpose can be quite alarming. Forced to uncover an identity and know myself outside of the world I’ve lived in all my life is a struggle.
Even though my competitive career ended on the best of terms, draped in literal glitter, glory, and gold, I must mourn the life I leave behind. Athletes are creatures of habit. We obsess, we analyze, and we grow. It is not the rigors of the process that intimidate. We love a challenge. In finding new goals, a new mission, and a new sense purpose, I find myself lost.
Having stepped away from competition after the 2014 Sochi Winter Games and officially transitioning into competitive retirement in February of 2017, Charlie and I have continued to skate professionally in figure skating tours around the world. While we’ve lived incredibly busy, demanding, and rewarding professional lives, I’ve worked hard to find new passions, interests, and goals beyond the ice. Truthfully, it is only now, four years later, that I find myself gaining my footing and feeling confident and comfortable in my post-competitive life.
When I’m not working to find my next act, professionally, or in school, finishing-up my undergraduate degree in anthropology at the University of Michigan, I’m embracing the opportunity to enjoy my personal life. Recently engaged, my fiancé and I most enjoy our time outdoors with our 1-year-old Minisheepadoodle puppy, Bilbo. While I still don’t have a clearly defined career path in mind, I’m now finding myself exhilarated by the possibilities and moved by the freedom more often than I am weighed down by the uncertainties.
There are still some days that I long for the comfort and familiarity of my old life, devoting myself fully to something I knew, something I was good at and something I loved, but I’ve learned to accept that that was who I was then. I desperately want to grow in new and different directions. I want to embrace new challenges, open myself up to a world of fresh possibilities. I want to learn something unexpected. I want to surprise myself. This is who I want to be. This is who I strive to be now.