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Walking away from high-performance sport

By Emilie Medland-Marchen, February 23 2016 —

The day I knew I was ready to move on from long track speed skating stands out more to me than my best races. I remember skating alone in circles, wrestling with a year-long depression I couldn’t shake. I remember stepping off the ice and knowing I was done.

My decision to quit wasn’t made in a single moment — it is the hardest choice I’ve ever made, and I struggled for months to come to it. But after futile attempts at getting back to where I once was, it was during this solitary moment that I knew I was ready to move on.

For many, athletics are tied to identity. Athletes tend to define themselves by their sport, and have done so for most of their lives. When that suddenly goes away, it feels like a major loss — it’s hard to picture what will come next, especially when an entire community that’s been a major part of your life suddenly disappears.

Many university students know Sarah Pousette as a Students’ Union executive. As vice-president operations and finance, she was an integral part of this year’s MacHall dispute. However, few students are familiar with Pousette’s career as a high-performance speed skater.

Pousette was a gold medalist at the 2011 Canada Winter Games. She skated for Team British Columbia and the Canadian National Development Team into her early 20s, before leaving the sport in 2012.

“It’s funny, you forget a lot of things,” Pousette said. “I remember one race I got a huge personal best — it was in the 3k — and that was a year after my gold at Canada Winter Games. I had this race where you’re in that zone that very rarely happens in skating, where you’re working hard and your body is working so well, working perfectly, gliding on the ice. And you remember hearing the people in the crowd. I remember that one race very specifically. You get to that feeling and you realize that’s what you’ve been aiming for in skating.”

Topping those emotional highs can be difficult after walking away from high-performance athletics. There’s no environment quite like it. High-performance athletes usually train for four hours each day, forging connections in their sport’s community that become more important than those outside of it.

Some speed skaters continue their university education while pursuing their sporting careers, but many cannot. Pursuing an education while pushing yourself to mental and physical extremes twice a day is a delicate balance. At the highest level, skaters are limited to one or two classes a semester, or none at all. Trying to attain athletic excellence while taking a full course load is all but impossible. Pursuing the highest levels of achievement in any sport is an all-consuming experience.

This was one of the reasons Pousette chose to leave speed skating in the third year of her undergrad.

“I realized that as much as I love skating — and I do love it — I was loving school more,” Pousette said. “I realized at that point that the challenge from skating, the competitiveness, I could have that in other areas of my life. I had a dream obviously — to go to the Olympics and to World Cups — but my other dream, to do development economics, was starting to be more important to me.”

For many athletes, giving up on Olympic dreams brings a sense of failure. Every athlete has to face walking away from their sport eventually. The difficulty is knowing when the time is right.

But leaving high-performance sport doesn’t mean giving up. Since quitting long track speed skating, Pousette has travelled to Ghana on an international exchange focused on economic development and won an executive position in the SU.

“I don’t think I gave up a dream — I think my dreams changed,” Pousette said. “I realized that I had been afraid to move on because I wouldn’t be good at anything else, and skating was always something that I was naturally talented at. I think I realized how much more of a world was out there, that I could participate in in different ways. That’s what led me to be so involved on campus — realizing that the Oval wasn’t the be-all and end-all of this campus. It was actually just at one end, and there were so many other things in between.”

When I made my own decision to leave speed skating, it helped to know that there were people like Pousette who had come before me, who had seen success both within the sport and outside of it. The feelings of inadequacy didn’t go away, but I was comforted by the knowledge that people do move on and grow into other identities.

Ali Banwell is currently attending medical school at Queen’s University. But in 2011, she skated on the same gold medal-winning team as Pousette. Banwell pursued her skating career until 2011, when she decided to focus on her studies in natural sciences.

“I remember finishing my last Saturday morning race and being relieved,” Banwell said. “I wasn’t actually worried that was it, that was the end. At that point, I was at the level where I was asking, ‘Why am I still skating? Am I happy to be still skating? Is it taking away from other aspects of my life?’ And I felt like it was.”

Banwell explained that skating was always about achieving specific goals. She had her sights set on the Olympics, but eventually found herself re-evaluating her focus.

“It was a process,” Banwell said. “A lot of people seemed perfectly happy to skate for the sake of skating, but for me there was always an end goal. They talk about the level of sacrifice that you need to have, but there’s sacrificing time and effort and energy and then there’s sacrificing years. And I just wasn’t prepared to sacrifice years.”

Since moving on from skating, Banwell has completed her degree in natural sciences, went on an exchange to Sweden’s Lund University, won the PURE Research Award and graduated from the Arts and Science Honours Academy. But she still has moments of doubt.

“One aspect of it that I struggled with the most was identity,” Banwell said. “I skated with the same people for so long that that was a big struggle. But someone outside of skating put it really well to me — just because I quit skating doesn’t mean I quit being an athlete. And I didn’t need to define success in that way. You can wrap your identity in different boxes, and just because you’re quitting that particular competitive sport doesn’t mean you have lost that part of you, necessarily. Reframing that was definitely a big part of the grieving process.”

That process can be a jolting one. Leaving high-performance sport brings both a shift in identity and a significant change to your daily routine. However, Banwell and Pousette are proving that there can be success after sports. In fact, the skills you learn as an athlete — competing, working through adversity, striving towards a goal — are all applicable to other aspects of life.

“This year [as vice president operations and finance] has been probably one of the hardest of my life,” Pousette said. “And the only reason I think I got through it was because of the skills I gained as an athlete. I wouldn’t trade this year for anything else that I’ve ever done before. This fall I had the chance to give a guest lecture on research that I got to use in Ghana, and that guest lecture was one of the coolest things I’d ever done. At the end of that lecture I felt more inspired than I had in my last year of sport, and I knew I made the right choice.”

My experience will be different from others who have walked away. But one thing is true for all of us — the university campus is bigger than just a 400-metre ice surface. The hardest decision an athlete is forced to make is when to walk away. But after that, the whole world opens up. And it’s worth taking part in.

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