Jeffrey Morris, of the proud Madison, Wisconsin tribe, is going to be a little weirded out by this, but I’ve cut and pasted his email to us and used it as his intro to his own piece. Even though I know him very little, I love this man. The tribe is former D1. The tribe is swimming.
For the past month I have been working on a little article about what it is like being a freshly retired NCAA athlete and how the 20 or so year career suddenly comes to an end. I try and detail what internal struggles that this “retirement” brings and the feeling of being lost that comes along with leaving your sport. For me, November Project was something to help cover up that void. I love November Project very much and it is truly the highlight of my week. I hope this article conveys that feeling while also trying to identify what it means to a lot of people. I was hoping you could throw it up on the website and Facebook and see if other people identify with it to a degree. I know DG has often said that you all don’t truly know what you all are doing by gathering us together and getting in a good workout, but clearly something special is happening. Otherwise you wouldn’t have the following that you do. I can speak for all of Madison when I say TG and DG have brought something special to the city and I know that Brogan started that out in Boston. I hope you enjoy this article. Let me know what you think.
Being an NCAA athlete in a non-major sport is an interesting journey. Competing at the Division I level is the pinnacle of your career outside of making the Olympics or World Championships. While most major sport athletes, i.e. football and basketball, have the hope and dream to perform professionally, non-major sport athletes; track, rowing, softball, swimming, etc.; have already reached the last leg of their journey. After graduation, the pursuit of perfection that, while in the sport feels lifelong, suddenly and abruptly ends for non-major athletes.
Despite this looming end, the four or five years these athletes get to participate in and be a part of the empowering spirit of collegiate athletics are remarkable. I was a swimmer for the University of Wisconsin and my entire existence centered on moving forward in my sport and becoming better for the team. There is something special about being a part of a team in which every member has the same passion, the same drive. In high school the vast majority of athletes only go through the motions. This majority will only put in enough effort to get by, move with enough meaning so they do not come in last, and chastise the minority that dreams of being stronger, faster, and better than anyone that came before them. However, in intercollegiate athletics, these big dreamers are surrounded by athletes with the same determination and immerse themselves in the overwhelming competitive spirit that is so appealing to us crazy souls. You are no longer an individual, but part of a collective One, with every part of that One working towards a common goal.
The first steps taken after my intimate involvement with the swim team brought an immediate sense of just one. In a single moment your membership to the club of elite athletes is terminated and you are left adrift. While your former teammates are still your friends and respect the journey you made, you are now apart from their journey and they plan on becoming better than you ever were. These haunting realities take many retired athletes who never return from it, and never continue their journey towards a healthy lifestyle. No amount of, “You did something amazing with your career!” or, “Think of all the great memories you have,” can heal the open wound that was left when your sport was ripped away from you. You know you could have gone farther in your athletics but you just ran out of time.
These unanswered questions haunt many of these retired athletes. I became very caught up in wondering what I could have done in my sport if I made different decisions, if I had chosen a different path at critical moments in my career, or if I had just one more year. In the first months after my athletic career ended, I focused on school. Once school ended my first post undergrad job filled my time; however, once I got settled in I found myself drifting through the young twenties lifestyle. Life was full of late nights and even later mornings. I only have a job in the service industry keeping me anchored, and a very superficial anchor at that. The pinnacle of the service industry is becoming a general manager or maybe one day opening your own restaurant, both of which have never been dreams of mine. My bartending job is just a position I hold until I find out what I really want to do with my life and I quickly discovered I was not on any meaningful path. I pursued my athletic career as far as I could and this was supposed to be a tool that would leave me with some sense of direction for finding a career and progressing into adulthood, but I was never given a map. I wasn’t even left on the side of the road but rather in the middle of the desert. There were no signs to point me in the direction of how to stay healthy and move forward into adulthood with a healthy mind and body.
These uncertainties are not exclusive to me, and everyone answers these questions differently when they are staring them in the face. Most of us are just looking for something to fill the void our sport left. After swimming, many immediately hurl themselves into two different activities: triathlons; which are way too expensive for recent college grads, or Competitive Masters Swimming which I have heard someone classify as a “never ending pit of ex-swimmers still pursuing their sad little dream after their time.” For myself, I wanted nothing to do with hopping in the water and paddling around ”with the masters”. My only form of exercise for 21 years was going back and forth whilst gazing at that black line on the bottom of the pool and I needed a change.
Running became the substitute. Shoes are cheaper than a bike and riding equipment, so that threw out triathlons, and the appeal of being able to run absolutely anywhere at any time, and without paying for some elite gym membership was very convenient. My time on the road and trails became my private time: a time when I could push myself like I did when I was swimming and find that place beyond comfortable where I discover the physical limit of exhaustion I am capable of reaching. While this is freeing and a special time to look deep down within yourself, it can be lonely. The lack of a body next to you reaching for the same carrot, pushing closer and closer to a goal alone, and receiving no outside words of encouragement brings an emptying feeling. Then I heard about the November Project.
At first I was very reluctant to attend November Project. Meeting at 6:27 on Wednesday and Friday morning was a bit too early for my new nocturnal lifestyle. This was even tougher considering Wednesday was my day off, so that meant Tuesday was the night to stay out later and find a little extra trouble to get into. A dear friend of mine constantly pestered me to go. As one of the earliest attendees, joining a mere month after the Madison chapter kick started, she weathered the cold and used this new community to motivate herself every day. Every week she asked me to go. Every week she told me of the wonderful connection within this community she found. Every week I told her no. Finally after months of recruitment I just went. The first step is always the hardest and setting the alarm for an hour actually in the AM took a lot of will power. Six o’clock came quick and simply getting up and moving was a challenge. Joints cracked and muscles ached as I slowly dawdled across the room to my alarm clock but I reached it, shut off the incessant beeping, and made my way into the foreign twilight of morning.
I remember my first workout as being relatively easy. It was in early days of summer so the sun rose quickly and early. When I first arrived there was a slight chill in the air but once the body started moving the sweat poured. Our fearless and oddly enthusiastic leader Dan Graham, or DG as we all know and love him, greeted us with his booming voice and the newbie introductions began. For those who have attended a November Project-Madison workout before, you know the drill. We all form a circle and if you are new, one by one, you step to the middle and proudly say your name. In response you receive a resounding, “Hi, whatever your name is!“ You are instantly accepted into this club; however, on that first morning I was not so sure I wanted to be accepted quite yet.
Not to my surprise I handled the workout with ease and finished feeling very confident about my physical health. However, the closing statements by DG surprised me, but I did not realize how much at the time. He thanked the group, and then me personally, for just getting up and coming. DG singled me out and made sure I knew how much my attendance meant to him and did the same for all the other newbies in attendance. After his speech and a few awkward, sweaty hugs that were apparently mandatory, I left and went back to the shelter of my sheets. This was the routine for a couple weeks. Wake up, work out, feel good about myself, but quickly return to my late night lifestyle that was the norm. I ignored most of the encouraging statements and just grinded forward into the workouts. Running Bascom Hill is difficult when the flat roads of Madison are where you build your weekly miles, but my fitness level proved a formidable match for the workout. I was often at the front and while people would pass me, they often faded back into a place I did not care for or even knew existed. I was there solely for myself.
After a very short period of time, the encouraging comments, high fives, and sweaty hugs become something you cannot quite ignore during those morning workouts. I found myself no longer groaning at the alarm, but instead quickly made my way to the top of Bascom Hill in the center of UW campus, standing in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln not waiting for the workout, but waiting to see the others I had joined. The early morning hellos and how you doings began to feel good. I began to welcome the comments from DG and the others about how great it was to have me there and I returned them whole-heartedly. I was no longer greeting everyone with the fake, “It is so good to see you!” I had actually started to mean it. When I received words of encouragement during the workout, I no longer rolled my eyes but shouted back and told them how awesome they were. It was a strange realization that this group had become something that I cared deeply about. I was not shocked at my acceptance, the November Project happily accepts everyone that makes the effort to get up early to come work out with them. It was the acceptance of them that grew within me internally that struck me as strange. I started caring about my fellow November Project attendees that at first were just there as I ran. Now I was running with them, struggling with them, sweating with them, and laughing with them. While I use to get up just to work out, I now was getting up for everyone else. I absolutely had to get up so I could encourage these insane people and move forward with them. Not all of us were moving towards anything in particular or training for a specific race, but we were all pursuing a better self. The abandonment I had felt from the end of my swimming career was gone. I had found a group of people that enjoyed diving into the challenge of becoming better. No longer was it about the workout, but rather it was about just moving forward.
That is what November Project means to me: moving forward. I am still just a bartender in the often short-lived service industry, but now I have something to move me forward, something to better myself, and a group of people that are moving forward with me. Where it is leading me I am still trying to figure out, and as it turns out, November Project itself is still trying to figure out what exactly that destination is or how exactly we are getting there. Where is this movement taking us? What are we making by coming together two times a week and just simply working out? These questions remain unanswered, but we are searching. The question as to why we do this is simple. It is a connection between like-minded, semi-insane individuals that enjoy pushing themselves to their absolute limits, then taking another step. It is doing something that makes you uncomfortable so that you better yourself inside and out. It is something that is experienced when you simply get up and move forward.