Losing My Sport and Finding Myself

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People tend to live or die by sports. Even from a young age, eager parents throw children into competitive tee-ball leagues with over-enthusiastic coaches. Once you find a sport you like, somehow you find yourself investing so much time into your sport that your life becomes that sport. Fortunately, a majority of people genuinely love the sport they’ve practiced and improved, just like me.

Sometimes things you love aren’t around forever, no matter how hard you work.

During the home stretch of high school,I was offered the opportunity to cheer as a freshman for the University of San Diego. And boy was I ready for it. My life finally fell into place. I got accepted into my dream university in the Golden State and better yet, I made it to the big leagues, literally. I became a D1 college athlete. Most dreamed of preforming at that level.

I built castles in the sky before I even arrived at USD. Despite the hard work piling up, cheering on the Toreros and doing what I love exhibited promise. At first, cheering proved to be difficult but my new teammates carried me through it. Soon after, I showcased my tumbling in the routine; everything I imagined came true.

Until my castle in the sky came crashing down.

The day started out like any other. I rolled myself out of bed and left my room for my 10:45 a.m. with too much enthusiasm for a Tuesday morning. The day played out normally. I spent my time working out and watching Riverdale reruns with my roommate after class. When practice rolled around, I grabbed my bag and booked it across campus to make sure I arrived on time.

Before practice, trainers gave us a presentation about concussions. We talked about what a concussion was, the symptoms, treatments: been there, done that. You could call me an expert on them. It’s like I was asking for it, to be honest.

By the time we started practice, I itched to start stunting. And then it happened. My flyer came crashing down on me at such a fast speed, I couldn’t react in time. I felt a sharp pain in my head from the body that landed on me. I struggled to focus and I only saw the blurry movements around me. Muffled voices of my teammates swarmed around me.

I knew the symptoms of a concussion. I didn’t need urgent care to diagnose me… again.

This wasn’t my first concussion rodeo. My last concussion left me out of play for almost six months. I couldn’t attend school because my headaches were terrible and I couldn’t read. But after months of therapy, I returned back to what I loved: cheerleading. Coming back to cheerleading could be described as a dream come true. Almost too good to be true. But, I didn’t care because nothing would keep me apart from what I loved.

The headaches of my past caused me complications in different ways. I had sharp pains in my forehead, like a migraine. The current concussion made me experience the feeling of dull headache that never went away. Ever.

Imagine sitting in class and a nonstop pressure in your forehead is pounding away. You can’t focus on your economics professor talking about excess capacity. You are too busy thinking about how hard it is to concentrate.

On top of that, a lot of people didn’t understand. No cast could be wrapped around my head that people get to sign with a sharpie. With an invisible injury comes a lot of doubts. Many of my teammates didn’t even think I had an injury at all. I attended class just like everyone else. My normal day-to-day life didn’t seem to be disrupted because of my injury. If I could go to class and participate in activities outside the classroom, why couldn’t I go to practice?

My teammates thought I could take “a little break.” Little did they know I wanted nothing more than to be able to run suicides and preform with them. Explaining concussions to people is difficult, especially to college athletes.

I thought things couldn’t get worse than this. But then my neurologist sat me down in his office. I felt that something was up. I could sense it in my bones. He told me I could not continue cheerleading. And right in that moment, my worst nightmare came true. My life fractured into a million pieces. While he explained the risks of permanent brain damage, I couldn’t stop thinking about never cheering again.

I faced an identity crisis after being diagnosed. Who am I? I wasn’t a hardworking athlete anymore. And I wasn’t even a team member. I no longer identified myself as a cheerleader. After thinking I knew who I was for so long only to be wrong, I didn’t know what to do. I felt helpless.

The time I spent practicing with my team, performing at sporting events or training by myself was now vacant. Instead of seeing this as a time to grow, I focused all my energy into feeling sorry for myself. The longing to be a part of something more than myself exhausted me. Going to bed instead of hanging out with my friends and feeding myself lies about returning soon occupied my time. My last concussion felt worse, so why couldn’t I bite the bullet and continue? Instead of these false hopes helping me feel better, they kept me stuck in the past.

After wallowing in self-pity and continuously scrolling through my camera roll, looking at photos of who I once was, two options presented themselves: sit in my dorm and let life pass by or pick myself up and accept the new challenge of reinventing myself.

Giving up what I loved was the most difficult thing I had to do. Like many athletes, I attribute a large part of who I am to my sport. After putting blood, sweat and tears into something, it never truly leaves you. Accepting that my cheerleading career might have ended earlier than I intended, I realized amazing things could come out of it. This unconventional path led me to explore other passions I had to put on the back-burner because of cheerleading.

Discovering my new passion will take a lot of soul searching. Because of my injury, I have been able to explore my love for writing and working with disabled children, both activities I never had much time to do. I even started to work as a Torero Ambassador, a role that helps prospective students hopefully find their place at USD. By occupying my time with surfing classes and other activities, I am one step closer to finding my new passion.

As I explore the world of possibilities at USD and beyond, I don’t have to fully give up cheerleading. Parts of what I love about the sport can be found through amazing people and opportunities. While I would give anything to perform onstage one more time, I know the future will all be worth it.

Zoë is a freshman studying marketing at the University of San Diego. Lover of life and cats. She's probably at the beach eating Açaí bowls while reading Harry Potter.

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