With the Olympics coming to a close, it’s hard for me not to think about how the athletes are feeling now that it’s time to come home. I recently read this article which talks about life for athletes once the games are over and the challenge of building a new identity after athletes have finished competing. Immediately following my return to school after competing in the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games, I vividly remember one of my high school teachers talking to me about my experiences and asking me how I felt about “having peaked before leaving high school.” I know she didn’t mean any harm, but to be honest at the time this comment was kind of a slap in the face. I had just gotten into Dartmouth; I was ready for the next chapter of my life to be just as exciting as the past one.
Prepping for the Olympic or Paralympic games is a long, uphill battle and it’s incredibly easy to become hyper focused. Once the games are finished, it’s understandable that many athletes find it challenging to create an identity for themselves that doesn’t center around their athletic careers. Luckily for me, starting school at Dartmouth just months after competing in my first Paralympics forced me to build my identity around things other than skiing. In some ways this realization was actually a little refreshing. For the first time in my life, my peers knew me because of the classes I was taking, the extracurricular activities I was involved in, and probably because I’m the only legally blind student at Dartmouth if we are being really honest, instead of the skier who always seemed to miss school.
When I decided I wanted to continue competing shortly after coming to Dartmouth it forced me to reestablish myself as an elite athlete while still carefully balancing my life as a full time Dartmouth student. I often feel like I am living two completely separate lives and I find myself having to choose between one or the other. I chose to come to Dartmouth because I felt as though the D-plan, where students can take off from school at various points throughout the year, would be a great opportunity to allow me to commit 100% to skiing over the winter and 100% to school the rest of the time. Every athlete knows that there is always more work to be done, and unfortunately every Ivy League premed student also knows the same. When is it appropriate to spend the extra hour in the gym instead of studying for my organic chemistry final? It is impossible to prioritize one of my two completely separate lives over the other.
Like any athlete, the ultimate goal is to be the best in the world. Every day I try to do everything I possibly can to make that a realistic goal. However, I also know that I cannot ski race forever. Sometimes I find it disappointing that I can’t fully commit to my ski career like most of the athletes I am competing against, and I have to remind myself of the bigger picture. It’s easy to get caught up in that one big moment, and blame yourself for things that might have gone differently. For me, my first Paralympics made me realize that skiing is so much more than the medals I win. In athletics, competition tends to be presented as a single destination. It is very easy to forget that what's truly important are the obstacles that lead up to that destination, and how those experiences play a role in shaping an athlete's character. Skiing has shaped my character in ways that are reflected in all aspects of my life. I have learned to be independent, manage my time well, forgive myself when I fall short of my own expectations, and above all strive to be better than I was yesterday.
It is so important for athletes to enjoy their moment and to take in everything that competing at an elite level has to offer. However, it is arguably more important for athletes to understand that those moments are fleeting. Win or lose, medals are forgotten but acting honorably at times when it would be easy to get caught in the hyper-competitive nature that every world class athlete shares is what really separates respectable athletes from respectable people. Every athlete is a person first. There are core character traits that come along with being an elite athlete and those traits are evident in all aspects of an athlete’s life, even after they are done competing. Character is a culmination of all of someone's life experiences both on and off the playing field. When I compete in the next Paralympics in 2018 I will not be the exact same me who competed in the 2014 Paralympic Games, but I will be the best me that I can be in that given moment. And as for peaking, I’m usually pretty comfortable hurling myself downhill, but for some reason I kind of feel like it’s only up from here.