Well, If I'm No Longer An Athlete...Who Am I?

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As an incoming freshman in high school, who had never played any sports, I wasn’t sure what I was going to declare as my winter or spring sport options. I just knew two things: I was strong and I hated running.  Turns out this made a good recipe for a shot put and discus thrower. Four years later, I was driving up to Massachusetts with my parents, mentally preparing myself to be a NCAA Division I student-athlete at Boston University (BU). While at BU, I spent four years dedicating myself to being a good student, learning two new throws events, hammer and weight throw, and attempting to beat my personal records every time I set foot in the circle.

Before I knew it, it was senior year— spring semester—and  I was wondering what would be left of me after having to leave behind a piece of myself that I’ve nourished over the past eight years. No more throwing practices, lifts, lengthy track meets, or navigating through airport security with heavy metal equipment, some of which resembling cannon balls.  At the time, I thought to myself, “This is going to be great!” Less stress, more time, no more funny looks in the airport (hopefully), and I’ll finally be able to do things that I really want to do. The first thing on my “Non-athlete To Do List” was to study and travel abroad. The second, take more naps. To tackle the first thing on my list, I applied to a master’s program in Medical Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. I was accepted into the program and planned to spend the next year in the Netherlands. 

When I arrived in Amsterdam, August 2014, I was excited, nervous, and tired. It was a new city/country, and although I did some research, I had no clue what to expect. During my first few weeks in Amsterdam, I found myself within the first few minutes of meeting people disclosing the following facts about me: my name is Sarah Dillard, I was born in New Jersey, and I was a former NCAA Division I student athlete at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts. It’s laughable now, but this was really what I did for the first few weeks. Not being an athlete anymore was weird. 


I found myself looking at the clock everyday thinking, what am I going to do now with all of this free time. No one was expecting me to be at the track or weight room warmed up and ready to do work at a certain time. I no longer had to manage having a student job, a big exam, and a big track meet in the same week. I felt lost, I spent time in the gym during those first few weeks in Amsterdam showcasing my ability to hang clean over 90kg (not many people were impressed), or sitting on the balcony of my student flat thinking of track meets where maybe if I did one thing a little bit differently—more sleep, less warm up throws—I would’ve hit that big personal record I was shooting for. I was jealous of other former athletes, like basketball or soccer players, who could play pickup games and continue to improve upon their skills long after their collegiate athletic careers were over. There was no way I was going to show up to the local park and start throwing discus or hammer without expecting the local authorities to commit me. It was draining, my identity felt disrupted, and it left me thinking to myself, “Well, if I’m no longer an athlete…who am I?”

Slowly I came to the realization that, despite dedicating many years to being strong and throwing far, I was never just an athlete. There was always something more to me. Even when I was an athlete, I committed time to academics, research opportunities, community service events, and building my resume. However, there were things I was interested in that I just never made time for while I was in college. I always felt as if my cup was full enough between academics, athletics, and having student jobs.  In Amsterdam, for the first time, I felt as if there was more room to fit whatever I wanted in my cup.


With my newfound free time I continued to work out, but this time it was different—it was for fun, to maintain balance. I started reading more, going to music shows, festivals, and museum exhibits, hosting dinner parties with friends, and traveling to new cities across Europe and Northern Africa. The things I was making the time for in Amsterdam weren’t necessarily new. I didn’t learn new skills or develop new interests, I simply never allowed them to hold any significant value in my life during my time as a student athlete. Although I am forever grateful for the skills we are all familiar with that an athlete possesses (work ethic, dedication, determination etc.), my time after athletics allowed me to come to the realization that my non-athletic interests, all of which I possessed while being an athlete, served equal importance in making me, me.


Sarah currently works as a Senior Research Assistant at Boston Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts.  If you’re interested in learning more about pursuing a master’s degree abroad and/or healthcare research, feel free to connect with Sarah on LinkedIn.