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Guest Post: Handing in my stripes

August 19, 2009

Please welcome my workout buddy! Westwood is a writer, outdoor-enthusiast, and one of my best friends. She also reviews applesauce.

I’m westwood, and I am an elite, high-performance athlete.

I train 25-30 hours a week. I undergo comprehensive fitness testing every three months. I travel across the country six or seven times a year to compete, and work incessantly to be the provincial champion and maintain a top 16 national standing. I am sponsored by a company (Victor), who provides me with free (Victor) racquets and (Victor) shoes and (Victor) bags and (Victor) grip tape and (Victor) clothes and whatever other lovely (Victor) items I desire. I eat six times a day, as much food as I like. The other players, my friends, are Olympic hopefuls who spend months training in China, Denmark, and Mexico. I am debating joining them, but am not ready to sacrifice my academic life just yet. I go to class, do sprint training, go to my next class, hit the weights, and then head to the club to practice. Every day. When I am not studying or training, I coach, or cross-train by playing on three or four basketball teams. This is my life.

Wait. There is something wrong with this picture.

I’m westwood, and I was an elite, high-performance athlete… until a dislocated kneecap ended my badminton career. Although, I am nothing if not persistent, so it took dislocating my kneecap four times to force me to stop trying to be a comeback. At twenty, I have been retired for two years. And in terms of sports, I feel like my life has ended.

I’m still active, and reasonably fit, but nothing like I was. The trouble is, I still define myself as that person who stood on top of the world at the Canada Games. That person is who I am, deep down inside. My mindset hasn’t changed, which explains the weight that piled on unnoticed around my midsection before I took a reality check. It used to be a mystery to me why my sprint times kept declining, but I understand it now. It still frustrates me that I can barely hold a plank for two minutes when it used to be closer to ten. Push-ups? Forget it. I’m lucky if I can hammer out twenty.

I am not that super-athlete. I have to accept this. But I can’t, because if I do, I will stop running and lifting weights and cycling and eating so well. I need to have something to train for. I was taught at the age of nine that you haven’t had a good workout unless you feel like vomiting (or do vomit!) by the end, and I still believe this. I was also taught young that the purpose of sports is winning, and the purpose of exercise and nutrition is to drive you on the road to glory.

Recently, I was running hill sprints in the park behind my house. Sprint up, jog down, repeat. Three sets of twelve. A man walked by me with a dog, his expression serene in the warm evening sun. He asked me what I was training for, and I mumbled an excuse. I have plenty of them, which I use often.

I am training for basketball, because I played on a college-level team, even if I sat on the bench the whole time.

I am training for aikido, because I want to test for my next level, even though my attendance is poor and I can’t remember anything I’m taught.

I’m training for baseball, because I can throw really, really, really far, even though I’ve never played the sport in my life.

I’m training for biathlon, because I think I would like it a lot, even though I have no idea how to ski.

I’m training for badminton, because if my knee ever heals I might go back, even though I hate the fracking thing for killing my love of sports.

The list goes on.

In many ways, I envy the recreational athlete and those who engage in fitness activities just because they want to. Don’t get me wrong… I have had fantastic experiences with elite sports that I wouldn’t trade for the world. Training and traveling were incredibly rewarding. But I’d like to not feel like a failure because I barely manage to work out ten hours a week. I would like to not feel like a failure if I’m not the fastest runner in the gym or lifting the heaviest weights. It would be nice to exercise and manage my eating just because I want to look good and feel good. Because I want to be healthy and fit. Or, even better, because I enjoy working out. But I can’t. I do these things in pursuit of glory… I’m chasing after victory that will eternally evade me.

So I am trying to learn about new kinds of glory. Like the chatter of birdsong on my run through the park, or sun dappling through the trees during my bicycle commute to work. The superficial ecstasy of rediscovering taught lines of muscular definition in my back. The fun of laughing as I shoot hoops with a friend, and the glory of sweating out every last drop of water doing sprints in my backyard on a hot day. Or the swell of pride that comes with coaching, and watching the kid you’ve coaxed for months finally have the courage to drive to the hoop.

This is not a happy ending, though. There is no take-home moral. I am restless and unsettled, constantly displeased with the quality and quantity of my workouts. I feel like a loaded gun with no target. At least, no target that is realistic to hit. How have you done it? Whether you played high-school sports, recreational games, or are an ex-Olympian, I want your advice. How did you fold up your jersey and relegate it to collect dust in the basement? Anyone who has played competitive sports understands how they give you meaning, give you purpose… they define you. When it was over, how did you fill that enormous void?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I refuse to be retired, to be an ex-athlete, to be washed up. But I can’t write any more, because I need to go do a lay-up circuit and shooting drills on my driveway. I’m training. I’m training to make the university basketball team when I do my Master’s degree. I swear I will do it. Whether or not I really want to, or have time to, doesn’t matter. I swear I’m training for something.

I am an elite high-performance athlete and somewhere, somehow, there is glory ahead. I will be the champion. Of what, I don’t know. When, I don’t know. Perhaps it is all just lies and delusions.

Whatever. I just need an excuse to keep me going.

P.S. Badminton is not a sissy sport. It is actually one of the most played and most difficult sports in the world, and this is what it really looks like:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1jED7lu-r8&feature=fvw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r590F7mRTw&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHKczoFrPK0

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20 comments

  1. I really feel for you! It’s awful to have the thing that motivates you, that you’ve lived and breathed since you can remember, ripped away like that. I hope that you discover a new purpose that will bring you joy and motivation.


  2. Badmitton is one of my favorite sports, ever. We have a badmitton net in our backyard, and it’s a game we play at all family/summer cookouts. I leave the course sweating, so it’s not a sissy sport. Those videos are awesome!


  3. I can sympathize. I played competitive basketball for 10 years and golf for 4, and although I wasn’t at your level it was still hard to let go. To let go of both the competitive drive and the feeling that you belong somewhere and have a real, immediate purpose. It’s been 9 years since I played any sport competitively. My life has been filled with academics since then, which became a competitive sport of it’s own in college and then again in grad school. Now that school is done, I’m faced with what will fill that void and am starting marathon training. I guess I’ve never really let go of competition, just shifted the focus.

    You know, though, I don’t think you need an excuse for training so hard. You train because you want to. Maybe one day you’ll do something spectacular with that training, and maybe you won’t. It doesn’t really matter as long as it gives you purpose and makes you feel good about yourself and your life.


  4. Hi Westwood!

    I had a friend, she was a world class tennis player from South Africa. During her preparation for Wimbledon she was struck down with spinal meningitis and never recovered her former elite status. Talking to her one day, a few years after this, when reflecting on her life, she said it was the best ting that ever happened to her! Before this her entire life was tennis 24/7, now she was married, had a child, and was leading a full happy life. We don’t always see the bigger picture in the short term. Best of luck!


  5. Thank you so much for sharing your struggles, and I so admire your dedication to fitness, and to sports.

    I hope that you will be able to find things in your life that fulfill you in a way you never would have dreamed possible.


  6. Nice to meet you! Wow, that’s a tough one. The one thing that stuck out for me was this line:

    “I was taught at the age of nine that you haven’t had a good workout unless you feel like vomiting (or do vomit!) by the end, and I still believe this.”

    No wonder you are so hard core!

    I was a four season athlete growing up. Field Hockey in the fall (I played through college), indoor track in the winter, outdoor track in the spring and then softball in the summer.

    I loved organized sports! I ate anything I wanted and no wonder I was working out 3 hours a day for YEARS!

    I was 116 pounds when I stopped playing sports. My first “real” job was a desk job and what do you know, I still ate the way I always did, but without burning it off.

    Within 3 years I weighed 210 pounds! Although the weight gain to me seemed slow, I didn’t even notice I was buying clothes with elastic waist bands!

    You are still so young, I wish I had good advice to give you – maybe pick events to train for – a biathlon, triathlon so you have something you are actually training for?

    Thanks for sharing your story with us!


  7. She IS just that hardcore ;)

    Westwood and I want to improve our fitness but our current intention to train to be super athletes might be a little vague. I like your idea, Biz, of picking something specific to train for.

    Oooh do I detect a buddy system fitness challenge in the future?


  8. WOW! What a story. I’m so sorry that your one passion was taken away. You are very determined. I hope that you find joy in the new journey


  9. Wow, that’s a tough situation that I don’t have any answers for, but I hope you find some answers for yourself. Perhaps you could try emailing some athletes who have been in a similar situation and they might explain how they figured it out?


  10. Thank you for sharing your history and your hopes. I’ve never moved beyond recreational athletics, so I have no suggestions. I wish you the best in your journey.


  11. I’ve been an athlete all my life so I definitely know where you’re coming from! Badmittion is a kick ass sport! Way to go :)


  12. hanlie -
    I appreciate that. And I also think I will… and new perspectives will be worth the loss. I hope.

    gina – glad you play! Keep it up, and if your kids are interested, I am sure there are lots of local clubs that offer lessons. It’s a fantastic way to stay in shape.

    gena – marathon training, hey? That’s inspiring. I’ve been thinking about going something along those lines myself… super-endurance sports. Clearly traditional sports aren’t enough of a challenge for people like us. Do you think it’s something innate or have we been conditioned to be such overachievers?

    Dr. J – glad to see there was a happy ending for your friend. She certainly reached quite and impressive level and it is very inspiring to see that she was able to fill that void with family.

    Diane – thanks for your encouragement!

    biz319 – I really appreciate your in-depth thoughts on this. I know what you mean with the four-season athlete… I would love to return to those days! And you can commiserate about how that weight seems to come on out of nowhere. It’s as if we are not expecting it given that it is never something we’ve had to seriously consider. And I agree, I think that for people with this kind fo drive, finding something to train for is probably the best bet.

    Sagan – buddy system fitness challenge, eh? Music to my ears… want to come swimming with me tomorrow or fri evening?

    SHE-FIT – I like your interesting word choice: ‘joy’. That’s never something I associated with fitness. But maybe I should!

    Spring Girl – that is good advice, I will look into it!

    Cammy – Thanks for your thoughts. Recreational athletics may in fact be the way to go for me as well, but time will tell! They bring a lot of enjoyment to a lot of people.

    Julie – I love it when people label themselves athletes. Keep it up!


  13. That’s really interesting, great guest post. I never knew that badminton required the kind of physical exertion that necessitates all that training.

    I’ve never really thought about this before, but I can totally understand how it would kill you to not be able to perform at your previous level. My only related experience is that I played golf in high school (though that did NOT require elite athleticism), and now that I haven’t played in years, it’s just not fun to play anymore when you know how good you WERE, but can’t perform at nearly that level.

    Your experience is obviously a million times more intense, but I can’t imagine that with the drive you still have you won’t find something to occupy it. Is it possible you’ll find fulfillment in something other than sports? (Business, for example?)


  14. Great post! I was a competitive trampolinist. It was my life, my friends, everything. I didn’t have an injury, I just walked away. The politics finally became too much. I miss it. The sad part was I never found anything to hold my interest the same way until now. It has been 16 yrs. I wish I had held the same motivation as I had back then because now my body is showing for it. I wish I was hard core.


  15. This is an awesome post! I could only imagine how tough it is to be kept away from your favorite sport (that you’re so great at) because of injury.


  16. This sounds like i wrote this post. Been there, but still these. I learned to love my knee and see it as opening my eyes to all sorts of other sports activities and actually meeting my Hubby. I was so Active my live was out of balance. I figured it was a natural way of balancing my life out. At least that’s what i tell my self when I’m dying or dreaming of playing soccer on the US Olympic team.


  17. LOL! i should really read thru my comments before posting…eh…all the more fun i guess.


  18. Really amazing post


  19. I was going to say you can be the champion of enjoying what you do… but i’m torn. Because while i’m not a high-performance elite athlete, I feel amiss when I don’t have my next race in sight. Almost gives me a sense of purpose… maybe the key is to sit back and realize all of those other things that bring joy to our life!


  20. Matt – I COMPLETELY agree on the attempting to go back and being frustrated by the comparative lack of skill. It’s a huge deterrent for a lot of ex-athletes ,I find.

    jody – Trampoline must have really added a lot of pressure given the young peak age of the athletes. I hope you find something that piques your interest… try a sport you’ve always wanted to do!

    healthy Ashley – actually, in some ways, being injured is a relief. It means that my final retirement was not because I became washed-up, heh.

    Fitness Surfer – I’m glad that your injury brought you balance (is that an ironic statement? Heh). I agree that it can be quite a good thing from that perspective.

    Alejandra – thanks!

    Shannon – Joy, the key word. I think you are well right about that.



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