what happens when college sports doesn’t work out?

Natasha Vlahovic, Emory University '13

 
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I picked up volleyball…

sometime in middle school. Before I got started, people would ask me in ballet class why I could jump so high. In the words of Elle Woods I was like “What? Like it’s hard?” My older sister had started playing volleyball and it looked fun, so naturally I copied her and decided to trade in my pointe shoes and tutus for a pair of sneakers and knee pads.

From then on I was hooked, playing year-round on my high school team, travel teams, and throughout the summers in open gyms. I took it all in, loved every moment and became an accomplished player throughout my highschool years: all-county recognitions, awards, newspaper articles, etc. Unfortunately I tore my ACL my junior year playing basketball (I still have a sweet jumper). I quickly rehabbed in order to get recruited. I ended up committing to Emory, which had just won the DIII National Championship and I was so excited. However as my doctor warned me would happen - I inevitably had another injury, a slight tear in my meniscus. Deciding my knee was something I needed to fix before the next stage of my athletic career,  I had surgery 8 months before stepping on to campus.

But what happens when college sports doesn’t work out?

My first college season was hard physically and emotionally coming back after surgery and not playing for 8 months. Getting through the other side of a difficult injury caused me to reevaluate my priorities. I found myself constantly assessing the risks and rewards of staying vs leaving. I was confident that the thousands of hours that I spent doing this was worth it, but wasn’t convinced on the next few thousand hours yielding the same return.

So I quit. It empowered me to let go of something that was no longer serving me like it used to.

A lot of people's reactions to my announcement made me feel like quitting was a failure. But I eventually learned and accepted that it wasn't. Volleyball was what I enjoyed, but it wasn't who I was.

While I was excited to shape myself into a young adult where sports was no longer center stage, I didn't have a plan after I left volleyball. I just knew that 1) I wanted to learn as much as I could and 2) I wanted a good job after school to keep learning as much as I could. Whether it was coming back from a tough injury or learning how to recover from tough losses, athletics taught me how to adapt gracefully so I used this approach to navigate this next chapter.

With time on my hands, I ended up working for Emory’s school newspaper - cold calling local businesses and selling ads (yes physical print ads, yikes) which helped keep me busy and gain some work experience. I soon applied and was accepted a semester early into Emory’s undergraduate 2-year business program. I decided I needed an internship in the real world, and without much guidance ended up applying to a bunch of different internship postings. I got a call from Morgan Stanley Smith Barney’s wealth management arm and ended up working there the summer after sophomore year and throughout the subsequent fall semester. I worked hard, but more importantly was savvy in allocating my most precious resource (time) extremely effectively to maximize my personal gains. As an athlete, working both hard and smart was something I learned early. You can’t exhaust yourself on the first sprint after practice when you know you have 20+ to go.

Volleyball was what I enjoyed, but it wasn’t who I was.

I wanted a new adventure and so study abroad came up naturally as an avenue to explore. I picked going to Singapore since a) I couldn’t point it out on a map at the time b) I knew no one there and c) going there seemed like a good place for an adventure. I jumped on a plane on Christmas day to spend the next several months living and studying there. That first week was lonely, but I was exhilarated by being thrown completely out of my comfort zone. I made friends from all over the world, as the exchange students were mainly from Europe. So between living in Asia and hanging out with both Asian and European friends (I found some new American friends too!), it was a cultural immersion incomparable to anything I will likely every experience again. Living in a new country and travelling to many others in the area helped me see and appreciate the world in a different light. I also got a really good tan. My ability of being able to respond to change effectively resurfaced, which helped me fully reap the benefits of this experience.

 Climbing an active volcano in Indonesia

Climbing an active volcano in Indonesia

 Exploring ancient temples in Cambodia

Exploring ancient temples in Cambodia

I came back to start my internship with CNN’s corporate finance department. The summer quickly passed and then at that point it was the beginning of senior year. I decided that I wanted to get back into traditional financial services - so interview prep and interviews themselves became my new sport. I prepared harder and more thoroughly than anyone I knew, approaching it all with the same tenacity and rigor that I once channelled into my athletic practice. I began interviewing to the point where I had so many interviews I would have to skip class to either prepare for them or go to them. With a lot of opportunity came a lot of rejection, so staying resilient kept me on my path. I eventually secured a full-time job as an analyst within J.P. Morgan’s Private Bank, and used the rest of the time until I started working to celebrate the benefits of my hard work. This consisted of hanging out by the pool and then going to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro - which I justified to my parents as ‘broadening my personal horizons.’ Better said by broader pop-culture I was really just ‘treating myself’.

I came to another inflection point within my first job where I knew I wanted to do something outside of banking, and wanted to work in an industry that was more aligned to my values. My older sister was in the Bay Area working for a large tech company, so it sparked my interest that maybe I could work in tech. So naturally I copied her (you can see a trend here) and started looking for jobs on the business side within tech. Between not really having direct, relevant work experience and being a former banker (I can only imagine how many techies shuddered at the thought of a banker working alongside them), it was really difficult at first. I knew that if someone valued my different work experience, was open to giving me a chance to prove myself, and believed in my potential given my story - then that would be the type of environment that I would want to work in.

After 8 months, dozens of applications, and 3 offers - I finally accepted an offer at Google as a financial analyst. I feel grateful to be able to come to work here everyday. I did have a bit of luck on my side getting here - but I also know how talented I am, how hard I work, and how I seize the opportunities that cross my path will full force. I applied the same framework and approach I had to playing volleyball to navigating the landscape after sports was over. Whether it was from learning when to walk away, to being able to respond to change quickly, to knowing how to allocate time and energy, or just straight up perseverance - all the ups and downs of being an athlete contributed in such positive ways to my life. I hope you realize that the lessons you're learning as a college athlete can serve you positively in your next phase the same way they did for me. Life exists after you hang up your shoes and your sweaty knee pads, and to be honest, it’s pretty sweet.

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Natasha currently works in the San Francisco Bay Area at Google as a Financial Analyst. Connect with her via LinkedIn.