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College athletes struggle to find new identities after graduation

Sunday, April 13, 2008 | 6:38 p.m. CDT; updated 5:57 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Despite not getting much playing time, Jason Ray plays a key role in the team's success during the 2007 season.

COLUMBIA — Nicole Wilson was an athlete at MU on both the volleyball and women’s basketball teams.

In her first four years, she broke Big 12 Conference records in volleyball, became a national player of the week and was honored several times by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.

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After four years on the volleyball team, Wilson joined the basketball team this season. As a center on the basketball team, Wilson gave the Tigers height in the paint. As the only senior, she was the acknowledged leader.

Wilson was a recognizable face on campus. Athletics defined her. Success motivated her.

Credibility stemmed from her accomplishments on the court.

Then, after she played her last basketball game in February, the graduating senior’s collegiate-sports career came to an end.

She lost her identity as an athlete.

As May approaches and college seniors move to the next stage of their lives, student-athletes like Wilson have an extra layer of decisions to deal with — continue with the sport and attempt to turn professional, or close the door and start anew?

Most MU athletes don’t have the option of going pro. Facing graduation, they struggle to make the transition from elite athlete to regular person, to come to terms with leaving the sport that has defined them and their lifestyle for so long.

The MU athletic department recognized the issues confronting senior athletes and is now beginning to offer programs that focus on support after eligibility ends.

The withdrawal from training and competition brings a number of concerns: confronting the physical crisis of losing an athletic body, dealing emotionally with regrets and unfulfilled dreams and disconnecting from teammates who have been 24/7 support systems.

Kim Martin, director of life skills for the athletic department’s Total Person Program, and Jodie Heinicka, a graduate assistant, are spearheading the effort.

Martin, a swimmer at MU from 1997 to 2001, and Heinicka, an MU gymnast from 2002 to 2006, have been through the identity, body and emotional crises.

“It was always, ‘Hi my name is Kim and I swim,’” Martin said. “It gave me my credibility,”

When her swimming career was over, the letdown took its toll.

“Lots of tears, lots of breaking down,” she said. “It was really tough. Not having to go to practice every day is a short-lived relief.”

Martin and Heinicka are planning the athletic department’s first senior retreat for athletes, regardless of sport, with a sport psychologist and former athletes who give the class a chance to talk about issues they are dealing with. They want to make this an annual event.

The two also helped establish an athlete career center this year that offers counseling and job placement options for the student-athletes.

For some, the abrupt detachment from organized sports turns their social life, as well as their physical condition, upside down.

After being sidelined by an injury near the end of the basketball season, Wilson went from being in the best shape of her life to sitting on the bench and now, with the season over, no longer being on the team.

Student athletes often spend more than 20 hours per week pushing themselves to the limit, and the payoff can be a great body.

Jana Heitmeyer, director of nutrition and assistant director of strength and conditioning for the athletic department, meets with many seniors about body and lifestyle changes when the training is over.

Using food logs and a Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry, or DEXA, body scanner, Heitmeyer reminds athletes that they cannot have their cake and eat it too.

The DEXA scanner is a top-of-the-line body composition scanner that measures fat, muscle and bone density.

It’s a hard lesson for many.

“You have to change the way you’re eating once you’re done being an athlete,” she said. “You are cutting out six hours a day of working out, but you’re going to still eat the same because that’s the way you’ve eaten since you were 5.”

Heitmeyer, who began gymnastics at age 3 and later competed at Kent State University, knows first-hand the mental distress of trying to keep an athletic body from breaking down.

“I still want to look like a gymnast,” she said. “I’m afraid to be fat, too. Working out is my drug.”

Time and wisdom have allowed her to look at eating and working out differently than she did when she left college.

“A lot of people go through the crisis of ‘I still want to work out, I want to do what I did,’” she says. “They aren’t comfortable with themselves as a person, not being an athlete.

“People have forgotten that you can go on a bike ride and make that a workout.”

Many athletes find it hard to interact with non-athletes who are not aware that they have finished participation in their sport.

“You’re a lot more aware that people knew you as an athlete, and now I’m just like the other 28,000 people here,” said Travis Floyd, a two-time captain of the MU swim team.

“I always liked the feeling of being a part of something, and now I’m feeling kind of lost.”

Floyd recently wrapped up a 17-year swimming career with two top-eight finishes at Big 12 Championships, but he still said he is dealing with the goals he never reached and watching the team succeed without him. A freshman took over his locker the day after he left.

The major difference, he said, is the way he talks to people who knew him outside the pool.

“Saying I’m a swimmer, it was always a good icebreaker. Now I look for things in them to ask about,” he said. “I still say I’m a swimmer from time to time. I’m still a follower of the sport, I watched NCAAs while sitting on a beach in Panama City (Florida).”

Heinicka said a one-dimensional identity makes athletes feel even more disoriented.

“That was always the topic of conversation that came up first,” she said. “I kind of had to figure out what to talk about now. What’s new in my life? What are my goals now?

“Because all my goals up to that point had been about my athletic ability, I had to refocus and figure out what I wanted to do with my life.”

Shifting from a varsity team to a job after graduation means earning respect all over again.

Chris Peters, an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for MU swimming, had been a swimmer since he was 6. He remembers when he left college as an All-Big 12 swimmer at MU and joined the working world at ESPN.

“It shakes your confidence when you get into the working world because you’re starting over,” Peters said. “It’s great people respected you as a swimmer, but now what you did in the pool is done. You have to find your respect in different ways. There is a lot of remorse, depending on how you look at it.”

Jason Ray, who just wrapped his final season with MU football as captain, found himself without the same status on campus.

“I am no longer on the team; that is the reality of it,” he said. “It is hard to fathom that I am no longer a Missouri football player and the tag and that identity is no longer there.”

Although Ray competed in “pro day” at MU with fellow seniors, he is not holding his breath about his chances to make an NFL team. Like the majority collegiate of athletes, he needs to look elsewhere.

Ray has decided to extend his athletic career by competing for the MU track team this spring. After that, Ray would like to work for the MU athletic department in some capacity.

“I want to stay in athletics at MU whether in administration or development,” he said. “Athletics are my passion. Being involved in sports in some way or fashion is my goal.”

Overwhelmingly, when MU athletes talk about their dream jobs, it is tied to their sport. It’s a way to cement the connection, as well as maintain their agility and strength.

Julie Abaray, a senior gymnast, said she wants to continue her connection to athletics. She plans to attend the University of Oklahoma to get a master’s degree and further her career in sports administration.

Wilson and Floyd also say their dream jobs would be coaching, a common pattern among former college athletes.

In fact, the majority of MU athletic department employees are former collegiate athletes, many working for their alma mater.

Working in college athletics helped her deal with the transition from the mat to a desk. “I never had to deal with saying goodbye to college athletics. I can sort of live vicariously through the student athletes that are still here,” Heinicka said.

Peters left a lucrative job at ESPN to become a swim coach. Martin left her job with the Muscular Dystrophy Association to come back to athletic department at MU.

“I realized college athletics was my passion,” she said. “I felt like I’d come home. I wasn’t Kim the swimmer, but I was still in athletics.”

Justin Cole, a senior wrestler, plans to coach a high school team in Kansas City to supplement a job in finance.

“I have to find something else to be dedicated to; to take the place of competing,” he said. “It’s who I am.”

Finding new interests and healthy ways to fill their time is key for most senior athletes. Cole and senior teammate Tyler McCormick still work out together almost daily.

“We’ve lived in a lifestyle where we work out every day, and if we don’t, we feel lazy,” said McCormick, a wrestler since he was 4.

Heitmeyer said the overnight de-regimentation of a strict schedule makes it harder for athletes to deal with changes in structure and identity.

“It’s scary because everything is planned,” she said. “You have to have a percent of your degree done by a certain point every year and you always know where you have to be, you have to eat all your meals, there’s a punishment if you don’t meet these requirements.”

Heinicka found it tough to switch from physical to mental skills.

“Emotionally it was hard because you go from dedicating your whole life to your body to all of a sudden just relying on your brain,” she said.

But no matter what, all college sports careers inevitibly come to an end, and it’s up to the athletes to cope with the changes.

“It’s hard,” Wilson said. “You’re used to the grind, and then it just ends. You were with people you enjoyed being with, doing something that you loved, and then it’s over.”


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