A New Dismount

Getting in the swing of life after athletics

 
Mclellan.png
 

When I was a sophomore at the University of Illinois (UIUC) my Men’s Gymnastics team coach and mentor, Justin Spring, gathered the team and asked, “What’s a belief?” Following minutes of consideration and several incorrect answers he divulged “A belief, is nothing more than a recurring thought.” This quote stuck with me for my entire collegiate career and thus began my fascination with the simple concept which forever changed my perspective.

A belief, quite simply is an understanding of a topic, situation, or status.  It is directly related to perception and impacts action. Repetition builds our intrinsic understanding. Through vocal repetition, thought, and action we solidify a belief in ourselves which strengthens our identity. In athletics this often begins early. From a young age athletes will introduce themselves first with their name followed by their sport in an outburst of unwarranted excitement. It’s a compulsion all athletes suffer, and allow me to say, I’m sorry!    

Athletics is a lifestyle, and as we repeat and reinforce the actions of an athlete, sport becomes deeply intertwined in our persona. The phrase “I’m a…(insert sport here)” is said more frequently and as we develop socially, mentally, and spiritually, our respective sports molds us and undoubtedly becomes part of our DNA. In no time at all athletes of reputable caliber come to know themselves as this one thing.  But, something no athlete can escape, is the day they ‘hang it up.’

I was a gymnast for 19 years. I began in Mommy and Me classes at age 3 and never missed a practice (by choice) until the day I retired as a senior graduate from the UIUC. I competed as a member of the varsity team at UIUC all four years contributing to numerous successful seasons and, most notably, to a Big 10 Team Championship win during my senior season in March 2018.  

Throughout middle school and into my adolescence I was known as “the gymnast.” I trained year long eating, sleeping, and breathing gymnastics. When I got to the collegiate level, this cycle only intensified. Though I knew my career would last just until I completed college, the thought of what came next remained ever present but incomprehensible. What will it look like? Who will I be without gymnastics? These questions plagued me because I couldn’t have the answers since that person never before existed. But sure enough, like time does with all things, my final routine came to pass in April 2018.  

Though it was not so long ago, I will never forget the feeling of my final routine on pommel horse. It was arguably the best routine of my career and as I hustled back to my team yelling victoriously, I was hugged by a teammate who said to me “Congratulations brother, you’re done.” Suddenly, as if I hadn’t seen it coming, reality hit me like a hammer.

For the majority of my life, I’ve ingrained in myself this understanding that I AM a gymnast. I’ve always been proud to say it. Even in middle school knowing I’d be teased for doing a “girls sport”, I was confident to proclaim it.  Now, after nearly two decades of repeating that thought and strengthening that belief I’m retired which begs the question, who am I?

College was a very developmental time for me, as I know it is for so many other young adults. I spent countless hours over the years discovering who I am and believed I had a firm understanding of who in fact that person was. Once gymnastics ended it's been challenging. Having to fight these feelings of uncertainty and aimlessness regarding my persona. I regularly have dreams in which I have one more competition left, but I am not prepared.  I’m frantic and desperate wondering, how I’ll be able to perform knowing I haven't practiced in what feels like an eternity. This may not seem very frightening, but to an athlete, it’s a nightmare. I go through days feeling as though there’s somewhere I’m supposed to be or something I need to do, and I am continually reminding myself that I no longer have training. Even things as little as eating I need to relearn. All of my meals have been strategically timed and measured to optimize my performance.  Now, eating provides no additional purpose. I find my appetite has changed and often forget to eat during typical times of the day.

 Photo by Monica Wilner

Photo by Monica Wilner

So what can I do? Well, as I think I’ve made evident, belief is a powerful tool. I try to go through life viewing each circumstance as a glass half full. Gymnastics may be over, concluding a substantial chapter of my life, but as one episode ends, a new chapter begins. My years in gymnastics have opened many doors providing me with access to resources I can leverage towards my professional success. As I continue into the ‘real world’ I’m realizing more frequently that my experiences are valuable and innately transferable. I’m discovering my passion professionally in the same manner in which I built and found my love for athletics.  

Each day is a challenge.  What I think many people don’t consider is that athletes center their lives around their sport.  This center includes an athlete's support system, a critical part of that foundation. Gymnastics offered me a means of escape.  On my locker hung the saying ‘This is our church. Leave it at the door.”. When times were tough the four hours I was in the gym allowed me to leave the outside world behind.  When I was in need of someone to talk to I had the brotherhood and friendship of my teammates who never left my side. We lived together and shared the same daily hardships. Now retired, I’ve moved away.  My most profound relationships were with athletes who I no longer see anymore. States separate many of us while others live out of the country. There are times I can’t help but feel alone, and no amount of belief will change that.

 Photo by Peter Ngai

Photo by Peter Ngai

‘You can’t change circumstances, but you can change your attitude.’ I try to focus on what I can control, and further develop who I want to be.  It is easier said than done but I work to remind myself that it’s a process. Along the way, milestones justify my ‘belief’ confirming what I work to tell myself daily. It’s not about forgetting that I was a gymnast but about understanding and accepting that I am now, and have always been, more than that. It’s about growing from my athletic experiences and evolving.

All athletes undergo a certain level of emotional stress at retirement, so athletes must make sure they create for themselves the most opportunities to propel forward in life once it becomes time to move on. Believing you’re more than an athlete starts early.  For me, it was through my collegiate studies. Developing an external focus and fostering it while competing can provide an athlete direction when it comes time to leave.

For me, the process continues. I’m nearly two months removed and by no means consider myself ‘transitioned’.  The journey forward will be a challenge but with each day my self belief will continue to strengthen and in time I will be proud to introduce myself - rediscovered.


Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes.  Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes.  Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.