Why College Isn’t The Best Time Of My Life

Hi guys! It’s currently 11:05am on this lovely Monday morning.

A little update before we get into the meat of today’s post– I’m back in the Bay Area! I wasn’t planning on returning home this summer, but I found myself missing my fam bam while in LA, so I spontaneously flew back home last Wednesday night. I’ll be flying back to LA for summer school this Sunday.

On to today’s content: why I miss my gymnastics days. So, I recently picked up figure skating as a new hobby, and have been spending almost every day at the ice rink. There, I see the little girls, no older than 8 years old, hard at work with training. They are at the rink every morning at 5am, practicing and practicing in the pursuit of perfecting their craft. Watching them, I couldn’t help but reminisce about my own days as a competitive athlete. Spending hours and hours each day at the gym, working towards a very specific, focused goal. It wasn’t easy. There were many days when I’d wake up, completely exhausted from the previous day’s training, dreading the moment I’d have to get out of bed for practice. I’d stare at the clock, counting down the minutes till my reckoning (ok, it wasn’t THAT bad… but trainings can be pretty brutal, if you’re working at 100%). I couldn’t appreciate it then, but looking back, my days as a gymnast were some of the best of my short 20 years of life. I had a strong passion. Something that drove me to wake up each morning. I had discipline and structure in my life. Everything I did, from gymnastics training to ballet and contortion class to swimming at the local Bay Club after a long day’s practice– it was all geared towards my goal of becoming an elite gymnast who represents her country in a sport she loved. There’s something so fulfilling about going to bed each night, knowing you’ve done all you could that day to get one step closer to your long-term goal, and looking forward to the next day, for more improvement.

Being a competitive athlete is indeed a lifestyle. And it was a lifestyle that served me well, especially as a person who thrives with structure and a strict regimen to carry me through the day. As I later discovered in my post-gymnastics days– a time I deem the “Lost Days”– my life collapses when I don’t have structure, lending way to depression, guilt, and shame. I’ve since struggled long and hard to recreate that kind of structured lifestyle I had as a gymnast. In high school, it was easier– you had your day’s schedule pre-set for you. Wake up at 6am, go to school from 8am-3pm, followed by extracurricular activities, then homework, then sleep. In college, you are tasked with the responsibility of creating your own structure, especially as your schedule changes from day-to-day, quarter-to-quarter. It’s not easy. And when I don’t have structure, I get depressed. And when I get depressed, I can’t do anything productive, let alone get back on track with my discipline. Depression is something I didn’t have to deal with as an athlete, and I suspect a big part of it is because my busy athletic lifestyle didn’t leave room for this mental illness to rear its ugly head.

People often say college is the best four years of your life. While there are indeed many great things associated with time at university– tremendous personal growth and experience of freedom, for instance– it is a misconception that college must be the zenith of your life. Many bright-eyed freshman come into college with sky-high expectations of what their college experience should be like, only to be gravely disappointed with the reality. I think those of us who were very involved in competitive athletics, music, or some other serious extracurricular activity in their youth, are much more prone to find their college experience less-than-fulfilling, when no longer able to pursue their passions as they did in the past.

I recent discovered a former figure skater who now attends UC Berkeley. Her name is Michelle Hong, and she has her own website dedicated to “empowering the next generation of figure skaters”. In her personal biography, she describes her all-too-relatable experience of transitioning from a competitive skater to full-time college student. Here’s an excerpt that resonated with me:

“There is an immense amount of emotional distress, physical pain, intense pressure, and thoughts of unworthiness that come with [figure skating], which result in athletes feeling drained and burnt out. Moving on to a brand new chapter in life can be seen as an easy decision. But for me, quitting my career as an elite figure skater was by far the hardest decision of my life as I was letting go of an art that allowed me to express my truest self, passion that provided me with valuable life lessons, and a lifestyle where I committed countless hours of hard work… Narrowing my focus on books, lectures, and even the fun social parts of meeting new friends and attending awesome college parties left me uninspired and unfulfilled… I felt stuck. Without skating in my life, I lost my identity and I fell into a deep depression. I completely lost all of my confidence, I gained weight, and I isolated myself as I drowned in my own self-deprecating thoughts.”

In her own words, Michelle felt “uninspired and unfulfilled” without figure skating in her life. I underwent a very similar experience when I first quit gymnastics due to an injury. I fell into a deep depression and my self confidence plummeted– something I’d never experienced before in my life. Most of high school was dedicated to me overcoming that depression and finding a new identity. One good thing that came of it all– I started this blog as a coping mechanism, and it quickly turned into a creative medium through which I enjoy expressing my inner thoughts and emotions.

Then, I found ballroom dance. This new hobby filled the void that gymnastics had left in me, and I found myself inspired and full of hope once more. Coming to college was difficult for me, as at the time I left for UCLA, I still had many unfulfilled aspirations with my dancing. I had so much potential for improvement, but hadn’t the time to bring my dreams to reality. College cut short the momentum I experienced with dance. And, in turn, I felt lost yet again.

I’ve since grown disillusioned with ballroom. The difficult reality of finding a dance partner and the tremendous amount of politics, exploitation and negativity that comes of this world, opened my eyes to the ugly truth, and made me fall out of love with dance.

Where am I now? I am left feeling lost, again. Though I’ve finally settled on a great-fit career as a sports and performance psychologist, a big part of me is not yet ready to let go of my former life as an athlete. I’m not ready to go behind the scenes, working with athletes. I want to BE the athlete. I think a large part of this stems from having had my athletic career cut short, when I was not yet ready to let it go. First with gymnastics and the injury; then with dance and college. In both cases, it was circumstance that drastically altered the familiar path I was on, leaving me feeling lost without direction.

All hope is not lost, though. Like I said, I recently fell in love with figure skating, and have many hopes and goals for the future. I’m not stupid– I know I won’t be going to the Olympics (in this lifetime). That said, I still wish to compete and perform in the future, at the adult level. I started skating at the beginning of this month, and like with anything I pursue, I tried my very best to improve at a fast rate. I’ve gone to the rink for a couple hours each day since I started, and am already seeing some good results.

Despite whatever adversity I may have endured in the past, I have a great life. The opportunity to get a great education, an incredibly supportive family, and a chance to pursue my many creative hobbies. There’s really nothing to complain about. I only wish… I don’t know. I wish I could go back in time, to relive my past life as an athlete. It was a great one. And I’m sad to say that, in spite of all the new experiences college has presented me, I have yet to recapture my “mojo”. I know it’s dangerous to live in the past. But I simply speak my mind. There are many days– especially the down days– when I yearn for gymnastics, and the kind of lifestyle that came with being a gymnast. I was inspired! I want to feel that all-consuming passion once more. But, as I enter the new chapter of adulthood, I can no longer be driven simply by my heart. I need to start using my head. There are many new responsibilities to take on, and I can no longer wholeheartedly devote myself to the pursuit of my craft. That’s the part that saddens me. It’s that, no matter how hard I try, I will never again experience the former glory of my past. My new goals must center around a career that will put food on the table. I only wish I could feel as passionately about academics as I did gymnastics. I only wish the life of a college student could bring me as much fulfillment as did my life as a gymnast.

I’m sure many former athletes transitioning to college face similar struggles. For many, their college experience is tainted by the bitterness of not being able to pursue their sport and passion as they did in their past life. College is indeed a new life chapter. What many don’t understand is, some people are just not ready to take that next step. And when you rush into college with your heart lying elsewhere, as I did, that may be a mistake. Because if your heart isn’t in it, your degree ends up being nothing but a piece of paper.

I shouldn’t fall into the trap of self-pity and regret, though. For doing so will make life painful and regretful. Everything post-gymnastics will be but a downward slope, and I don’t know about you, but peaking at age 14 is a little bit sad, don’t you think? I must keep moving forward with my journey, and continue to search for something that will bring me as much joy as my former life as a gymnast once did. And I will have faith that one day, I will find that something that will make me click. There’s no timeline for finding passion. It doesn’t have to happen in college. All I want is to feel inspired once more… and I don’t know if figure skating is my answer. Maybe there isn’t just ONE answer. All I know is, I WILL keep searching. Relentlessly.