FROM TOKYO TO TEXTBOOKS: LIFE AFTER THE OLYMPICS
Just a few short months ago in the summer of 2021, I found myself standing at the top of the Olympic podium, singing the U.S. national anthem alongside some of my best friends and teammates. The moment I had dreamed of since I was a little girl had finally come true.
The moment I had dreamed of since I was a little girl had finally come true.
As I sit here writing this piece at USC, I have chills thinking about that moment. Although that moment was merely five months ago, it feels like a different lifetime. My everyday life now looks completely different than it did then, to an unrecognizable extent. Everything, from the people I see to the thoughts I have, has completely shifted.
I began my freshman year at USC in the fall of 2017. After studying and competing as a Trojan for two years, I took a year off from school to move to Los Alamitos, CA to train full-time with the USA Women's Water Polo Team. Then, with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Olympics were postponed from summer 2020 to summer 2021. This threw a wrench in the trajectory of my college career for several reasons. First, this change meant that in order to keep my Olympic dreams alive, I had to take another year off of school at USC to train for the rescheduled Olympics in 2021.
Not only was the thought of another year of full-time training in Los Alamitos scary, but the uncertainty of playing and preparing for the Olympics amidst a pandemic was terrifying.We trained everyday knowing that there was a chance the Olympics weren’t going to happen at all.
We trained everyday knowing that there was a chance the Olympics weren’t going to happen at all.
For the entire year and a half leading up to the Olympics, we were constantly seeing articles about the severity of the COVID spread combined with daily claims that the games were getting cancelled all together. With periodical words of encouragement from the IOC and Tokyo, we kept relentlessly training and hoping that the games would carry on and that we would get the chance to fulfill our childhood dreams on the world stage. We adopted strict COVID protocols in order to ensure our team could carry on– which meant daily nose swabs, mask mandates, limited time indoors, thorough cleaning of common areas and strict orders to limit contact with people outside of our bubble. A positive test leading up to the Olympics or at the Olympics would be devastating. One team member testing positive had the potential of ruining yours and your teammates’ Olympic dreams, which was incredibly stressful to say the least.
Competing in the Olympics and finishing at the top of the podium was a feeling that is hard to put into words. The Tokyo 2020ne games did look a little different for us though. The main difference between the Tokyo games and all previous games was the absence of friends, family and spectators. Although this was initially a hard pill to swallow, we made it work. Not having spectators at the games made returning home from Tokyo that much more exciting. I wanted so badly to come home and share my medal with all the people I loved and who helped me fulfill my dream.
I wanted so badly to come home and share my medal with all the people I loved and who helped me fulfill my dreams.
The amount of love, support and hugs I received when I came home had me in tears. It was so overwhelming.
A few weeks after my return home, as the Olympics mania seemed to gradually slow down, I moved back to school and life was looking pretty normal again. The two previous years were so intense and overwhelming for so many reasons that it was weird making such a dramatic shift. The older girls on my team had warned me of the challenges that come with the transition from the Olympics back to normal life, but I didn’t really know what that meant. That transition is something that is seldom talked about, but has become a more common conversation recently, and is even discussed in depth in Michael Phelps’ documentary, Weight of Gold. Michael Phelps said in his film, "If your whole life was about building up to one race, one performance, or one event, how does that sustain everything that comes afterward?”
Eventually, for me at least, there was one question that hit me like a ton of bricks: "Who was I outside of the swimming pool?"
“Who was I outside of the swimming pool?"
This question is one that many athletes struggle with after giving their everything to their athletic careers and goals.
The post-Olympics switch for many smaller sport athletes like water polo players can look a little different. We often are not these major celebrities who are constantly being recognized on the streets, getting huge media coverage or being showered with massive brand deals. We return home from the Olympics, and we typically have a few opportunities to be recognized and celebrated, and then the Olympics hype fades. There are many expectations about what Olympians may act like, look like or how they live after the Olympics that can be very misleading.
There's a widespread assumption that once you achieve something amazing like an Olympic gold medal, you must be on top of the world, just gushing with confidence and self satisfaction. I even assumed that for myself; but the reality is, I'm still me.
There’s a widespread assumption that once you achieve something amazing like an Olympic gold medal, you must be on top of the world, just gushing with confidence and self satisfaction. I even assumed that for myself; but the reality is, I’m still me.
I still essentially live the same life, with the same insecurities and doubts I had before, plus a whole pile of new ones. It’s weird to dedicate essentially your whole life to one dream, and then see it end.
There's a common belief that once you achieve something – once you get the job you wanted, once you find your significant other, once you get that promotion, or finally buy a house, etc. – that is the final destination and that is where you'll find happiness or satisfaction. I have found that that’s simply not how life works. Happiness and satisfaction are found in the journey, not the destination.
Happiness and satisfaction are found in the journey, not the destination.
After the conclusion of the Olympics, I have been so lucky to have such a supportive community to come back to and such exciting experiences to look forward to. With that being said, I have undoubtedly faced some challenges as well. I remember feeling an immediate sense of insecurity and doubt once I returned back to campus. Most people probably had no idea and would have never guessed. An overwhelming feeling of being an imposter overtook me. Being complimented for my achievements obviously felt good, but it was weird for me in a way I can’t really describe. I felt like I was the same as everyone else around me, so the compliments and acknowledgements almost made me uncomfortable. I struggled to see myself in the same light that other people did.
I wasn’t sure that I fit everyone's expectations of me. Did I look like an Olympian? Did I act like an Olympian?
Did I look like an Olympian? Did I act like an Olympian?
I haven’t seen some of these people in over 2 years, am I still the same person people remember? When I got back to training at USC, I felt like I needed to play well, like an Olympic gold medalist. I was almost constantly fighting an imaginary battle and judging myself for the smallest decisions I made. In a lot of ways, I felt like I had lost myself. I convinced myself that I had to meet all these expectations that other people had for me, when in reality, none of that mattered. These judgements about me probably never even crossed most peoples’ minds. My team and I achieved an incredible feat, and no one could ever take that away. I’ve learned I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. The only approval I need is my own. It sounds cheesy to say, but it is a realization that has been incredibly freeing. I’m still working on changing that mindset and limiting that self-judgement, but recognizing it has been an important first step.
All this is not to say that competing at the Olympics was not an absolute dream come true. It was one of the hardest but most rewarding experiences, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.
It was one of the hardest but most rewarding experiences, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
However, it is important to recognize that success is not always rainbows and butterflies. We are all human and we all struggle, so remember to be kind to both yourself and others.
Photo courtesy of Paige Hauschild
Photo courtesy of Paige Hauschild
Photo courtesy of Paige Hauschild