There is a small percentage of us that get to compete nationally, train at the Olympic Training Center, and enjoy the spotlight at an early age. I was very fortunate to have this experience, but I retired from rhythmic gymnastics after my freshman year at Georgetown, because I knew I did not want to be a professional athlete and that there was too much risk in taking a year off to train for the Olympic trials. Instead, I focused on becoming a lawyer, and building a national brand– but making this shift was far from easy.
Being a committed athlete is something that impacts your entire life– it means you watch what you eat, you are dedicated to working out daily, you make sure to get adequate rest, and you sacrifice a huge part of your social life with others while training and traveling to competitions. Your sport is a huge part of your identity, and some will always remember you just this way. To this day, many of my former classmates write to me and say that whenever they watch the Olympic gymnasts they think of me. It is amazing that 20 years post-retirement, I still have people asking me if I’m involved at all in my former sport.
Just to be clear– I made a clean break when I retired, but the ability to perform and put up with major pressures are skills that have lasted me a lifetime. My former training still instilled key values in me, such as maintaining a disciplined life where I watch what I eat, make sure to get enough sleep and exercise, and I have never experimented with drugs. It also forced me to manage my time wisely and helped me become incredibly goal-oriented. Performing in public at a young age, made it possible for me to not be afraid to go on tv or radio, give public speeches, or share my thoughts nationally through publications and the social media.
Undoubtedly, my trainers played a huge part in making me who I am today, but I want to make sure people understand that it all comes at a hefty price. I did not have a normal childhood. I was not well-grounded. I was conditioned to working under pressure, to try an exceed expectations, and I became addicted to external validation. I sought overall perfection and was very impatient with others not wired like me. I was intense and way too addicted to adrenaline rushes. It is only after becoming a mother and finding my family that I have finally become more grounded, and the external validation lost its appeal. I’ve found a patience I never knew I was capable of, and I’ve learned a value in taming in the adrenaline-junkie inside me.
Employers love hiring athletes, and in the dating world many are attracted to certain qualities that we possess, but those around us need to remember that there is a huge downside to some of our tendencies. Athletes are trained to accept harsh criticism, to focus on goals, to compete well, and above all to strive for perfection, and they are surrounded with like-minded individuals in their life, but that’s not actually how most people live. Many are not capable of hearing harsh critiques; not everyone likes to compete, and life is always pulling you in a million directions. Furthermore, the reality is no one is perfect, and a lot of people seek the company of those that are more easy-going and willing to collaborate. These skills do not come naturally to athletes.
For me, the accolades and recognition I obtained in my sport filled a huge void that I had in my personal life. Only over time, following some life-altering experiences did I learn how some of my strengths could also be a weakness. Thankfully, I have been able to learn from others with different qualities to be less critical and competitive, and instead adopt a more accepting and cooperative approach in life. And I must admit the greatest teacher of all has been my son, who will hopefully realize one day how grateful I am for becoming more human as a result of him.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.