Trophies on shelf with dust
Abby Schreck/Daily

As these final weeks of summer hum with the anticipation of a new semester, I approach the upcoming school year with all the unearned confidence of a rising sophomore. It’s no secret that people change in college. In fact, growth is encouraged. While my transition into this “new phase of life” provided many evolutionary experiences, none were more influential than exploring my new identity and community as an ex-athlete. 

The genesis of my college career featured 18-year-old me, a clueless and doe-eyed freshman, beelining through the Festifall madness to the tables dedicated to club sports and athletics. In the first couple weeks of the semester, my schedule was littered with meetings for the Run Club, Snowboarding Club and Swim Club. These gatherings were stressful to balance with new classes and workloads, but I went into every practice with an unrelenting determination to find “my people” — a phrase I’m sure we’ve all heard once or twice when referring to college. 

Though I hate to admit it, with a type-A personality, I’m (stereotypically) driven by competition and goals. As a kid, these qualities were easily manifested in sports. I wouldn’t say I’m exceptionally skilled, but because I went to a small high school, I spent my teenage years as a member of three varsity sports: swim, ice hockey and soccer. I met my best friend, and now roommate, on the swim team in the fourth grade. For eight years, we bonded between killer sets of butterfly strokes and tragic renditions of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” at the “halfway there” mark of a practice. Though we sometimes raced against each other at meets, we created an atmosphere of support and encouragement — united only against the opposing teams. When I eventually picked up ice hockey and soccer, I seamlessly blended into the communities of my new teammates with the same attitude. Unified under a common interest and the motivation to win, I was comforted by an overwhelming sense of camaraderie and belonging in high school sports. 

However, given that even club sports are selective and time-consuming at a Big 10 school like the University of Michigan, I decided to participate in collegiate organizations non-competitively, hoping to find a community similar to the one I cherished in high school. But despite my ambitious efforts to keep up with the Run Club’s seven-mile jogs, the burning in my lungs and the overwhelming regret of my inner monologue told me to let go of sports. I felt disconnected from the club under a non-competitive umbrella. If I wanted to move forward in college, I had to find a new passion to foster deep relationships with those around me.


Instead of Run Club and swim practice, I went to the gym solo. I no longer had a team, so I had to step out of my comfort zone to meet people and connect. I found my best friends from random parties and classes. We bonded over similar interests and the shared trauma of exams. Throughout my freshman year, I met amazing people whom I see being a part of my life for years to come. Yet, even with every positive moment I had without sports, I still felt the loss of my team and athletics at the core of my identity. 

I missed playing hockey when I watched our skaters race around the rink at Yost Arena. I was jealous of my brother as he cheered for his team on the baseball field this summer. And with each passing moment, despite everything I gained this year, I viewed myself as less-than because I was no longer an athlete. But the longer I felt insecure in my self-image, the more I began to wonder — what does it even mean to be an athlete? 

Formerly, I saw athletics as something that only exists within the confines of a team and competition. While those elements can be true for sports, the term “athlete” may define a broader scope of characteristics. Though I spent most of my time in the gym alone this year, I still pushed myself to try new workouts and tested my limits physically. My skills and abilities have definitely changed without sports, but I remain active in ways comparable to my former definition of “athlete.” I lift weights and run with the goal of getting stronger, faster and healthier — the same way I would practice stick handling for hockey to improve my technique in an effort to help the team win.  

My community has expanded beyond any one specific team. I found people I connected with in all different corners of campus. From co-workers at The Michigan Daily to classmates in my Middle Eastern Studies lecture, my new idea of community is forever changing. Letting go of the “instant friends” concept I valued in high school sports has allowed me to dig deeper into my new relationships. Now, without a team and with a campus of 35,000 undergraduates, I choose who I surround myself with — no relationship is by circumstance. Though my friends and I can’t cheer each other on from the field, we support and encourage one another in the challenges of adult life, which is ultimately more valuable.  

To better explore what it means to be an ex-athlete finding identity and community in college, I wanted to speak with other freshmen from similar athletic backgrounds and ask them to reflect on their first year without sports at the University of Michigan. 

Ben Gordon, a rising sophomore in LSA, described his definition of an athlete since leaving football, baseball and golf behind in high school. 

“In the most general sense, I would consider an athlete to be any individual who participates in active movement of their choice,” Gordon said. “Being an athlete doesn’t have to mean running super fast or hitting a ball really far. To me, anyone who uses their body in a controlled manner, whether that’s jogging on their own or practicing an art form like Tai Chi, is an athlete.” 

While I thought the social and competitive elements of sports were defining components of athletics, Gordon has a more inclusive idea of the term.

“I think competition is important but not vital to athletics,” Gordon said. “Some people compete against themselves, and some compete against others, but regardless of the opposing force, I still consider each of them athletes. From my high school experiences, I’m used to athletics in a social context, but that element isn’t essential to my understanding of what it means to be an athlete.” 

Although Gordon feels like his identity as an athlete remained intact through college, he recognizes the difference in how he built his community without sports to guide his friendships. 

“I think the route I took to make friends in college was very different from how I made friends in high school,” Gordon said. “I met so many people this year, whether through talking to them in class or sitting next to them in the dining hall. In high school, my friendships were definitely driven by athletics. I didn’t tie my identity to a specific sport but, rather, to my team. So at Michigan, I continue to tie my identity to the people I surround myself with — my new theoretical team.”

Talking to Gordon allowed me to understand the different ways a former high school athlete can carry their identity and team mentality with them throughout college. In comparing our personal experiences, I recognized the importance in expanding your community beyond one single interest or group. It is easy to limit ourselves to sports in high school — one school, one town, one team. But in college, you have the opportunity to diversify not only your interests but also the people you surround yourself with. 

When I quit sports in college, I thought I had to let go of that part of my identity. But now I realize that the lasting friendships I’ve made this past year are a product of the lessons I learned as a teammate throughout my childhood. I continue to push my body in ways that sports once did, and I offer encouragement and support to my friends as if I’m cheering them on from the sidelines. 

The best advice I have for incoming freshmen is to understand your identity as an athlete and allow yourself to move forward with different passions. Your experience as a teammate never leaves you. Instead of disconnecting from those memories, as I once did, you can choose to embrace that part of yourself as you work to build a new community. 

Statement Columnist Reese Martin can be reached at