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  • Ellie Winslow

Uncharted Waters: Navigating the Identity Loss of Post-Athlete Life

In early February, when I knew the end of my diving career was nearing, I began writing journal entries. I wanted to remember the feeling of the aluminum board under my toes, the adrenaline rush of a hurdle in a meet, and the electricity of nailing a dive in competition. On February 19th I wrote:

It’s a moment you can’t replicate in any other sport that I can think of. On my last dive of my last ACC’s, I stood on the 7.5 meter platform as I had for three of the dives before. The announcer called my name and I heard all my teammates cheering. It rang out across the natatorium as I only partially saw out of my eyes and mostly lived in my head. I walked to the end of the platform and turned around to set my feet. I could still hear the voices of my teammates cheering for me. I smiled so big as I raised my arms. I could feel all eyes on me for this last time. In a second, I jumped and I felt every millisecond of that dive. From when I threw my arms over my head, to the twist, and seeing the world spin. Then, squaring my arms to see the water coming in perfect position. Finally, hitting the water with what *felt like* a great entry. I am so grateful to have fully lived that moment. It was so beautiful.

A few days later, I received a phone call from my coach. He told me that due to COVID restrictions on the number of competitors at NCAA Zones, I would not be permitted to compete. I was stunned. My first thoughts were: my Duke career is over. My diving career is over. My identity as a student-athlete on this campus is gone.

As I drove to Duke that day, I thought about the feeling of walking on campus without the ability to say I was a student-athlete. My life for the last four years had revolved around the fact that I was a student and an athlete. At that moment, I realized I was just a student. I thought about how I would no longer represent Duke in a diving competition. I would never again put on my Duke suit and travel with my team. When I got to campus and walked to the athlete COVID testing site at the Yoh Football Center, I found myself, once again, lost in my mind. I had never walked on Duke’s campus as anything other than a student-athlete. Nobody had prepared me for what it would be like to not have that. I picked up my testing kit and thought about all the student-athletes walking past me in their team gear. Fifteen minutes ago, I learned that I am no longer a Duke diver. I’m not a Duke athlete anymore.

I wasn’t ready for it to be over, but the end came anyway.

Let me rewind a little. I started diving when I was eight years old, but being an athlete has been a part of my identity all my life. I learned how to swim when I was two, and how to ski when I was five. When I was going into grade school, my parents put me in every sport imaginable: swimming, soccer, golf, lacrosse, baseball, tennis, gymnastics. I began diving at my summer swim club in Upper Arlington, Ohio, where I had been a swimmer for many years.

I remember the night before my first diving practice, my mom insisted that I give the sport a try. I wailed and had absolutely no desire to go, but once I showed up on the first day, I immediately fell in love. I looked forward to every chance I got to walk up the ladder to the diving board. The feeling of bouncing on the end of the board reminded me of all the years I spent teaching myself how to flip on the trampoline in my backyard. When I stepped on the diving board and I found myself all alone, I felt empowered and knew I had the strength in myself to perform a good dive. Unlike the team sports I had played, all the power to do what I wanted was mine.

When the summer season ended, I didn’t want to stop diving. In the fall, my mom signed me up for diving lessons at the club team down the street. U.S. Elite Diving Academy was the name of my first club team on Chambers Road in Columbus. The dryland facility was state-of-the-art, with trampolines, spring floors, and diving boards onto squishy mats. I started practices only two times a week, but this would quickly ramp up in the years to come.

"Only you can do the dive you are about to perform, and no one can do the sport physically or mentally in your place."

In a few years, U.S. Elite became the Ohio State Diving Club and we practiced primarily at the gorgeous Ohio State natatorium. Until high school, I balanced diving with a few other sports before my diving coach made me pick one. He told me that if I wanted a chance to be on the High Performance team, I would have to leave lacrosse behind.

A lot of the sport of diving is mental and comes down to self-confidence. Only you can do the dive you are about to perform, and no one can do the sport physically or mentally in your place. When I was in high school, I saw major improvements in my diving because I began to find confidence in myself. I had a coach that was fully invested in my success, and I began to train more difficult skills. I began to focus more on my own training, as opposed to worrying about how my teammates or competitors were improving. My club team was the highest ranking junior USA Diving team in the country and we travelled the country to various competitions throughout the year. If it weren’t for the fact that the best diving team and facility were within five miles of my home, I don’t think I would have lasted this long in the sport. There are athletes who move across the country to dive, and many move to Columbus to be at Ohio State. By sheer luck, I was already there.

One of the best memories I have from my early diving career was my performance at the State meet in 2016 as a junior where I represented Upper Arlington High School. I had narrowly made the State championship after finishing in the final qualifying spot at Districts. Going into my event the next day, I was ranked sixth. My dad recalls how the swim parents hovered over him and asked questions throughout the meet to see if I could move up from my seeded position.

This meet was one of two in my career where I dove “lights out,” which means that every dive I completed went in the water vertical with pointed toes and no splash. The adrenaline in competition allowed me to peak at the right time. I wound up as State runner-up after scoring a mere five points behind my own club teammate. My high school team later won the State title and the feeling was electric. This meet was a turning point in my career because I began to see my future in diving and the possibility that I could dive in college. I had struggled with confidence in competition for several years, but in this meet, I was able to prove to myself that I could perform my best when it mattered most.

My dream of going to Duke started very early in my life. I idolized a diver from my hometown, named Abby Johnston, who began diving at the same summer swim club in Upper Arlington, Ohio. She trained at U.S. Elite as well, and eventually signed her Letter of Intent to Duke. While training at Duke, she earned her spot on the 2012 Olympic team and later found herself on the Olympic podium with a silver medal around her neck. Abby started diving at the same pool under the same coach just 10 years before me ─ I wanted to be just like her.

I never would have thought the dream of attending Duke would become a reality until I began talking to Nunzio, my current coach. He saw potential in me and allowed me the opportunity to visit campus.

"I had found my place amongst the best and brightest as a student and athlete on campus. "

I joined the Duke Swimming & Diving team as a freshman in August 2017, absolutely petrified, but ready to work. I was a sponge, hoping to soak up all the knowledge, strength, and experiences I could every day. In just my first few weeks on campus, I found my identity in being a student-athlete at Duke. I embraced the early mornings, walking through the dimly lit campus to the weight room. I wore my athlete backpack with pride and felt gratified when classmates asked what sport I played. Freshman year, I got to bond with my team and meet other athletes through the ACTION mentorship program -- a monthly program set up to integrate first-year student-athletes into the lifestyle of being a Duke student-athlete. I had found my place amongst the best and brightest as a student and athlete on campus.

Like many student-athletes, when I arrived on campus, I walked into a world of new opportunities and challenges. It took some time, but I got used to the early mornings in the pool and on the spin bikes. I mastered the 14-minute nap between bus rides from East to West campus for class, and got used to walking the quarter mile to my dorm at least four times a day. Some of the moments I cherished most were the nights that I would slowly walk back to my dorm after spending hours in the library, and listen to the crickets chirp and feel the cool Durham air on my skin. Through all the chaos, I found peace on campus. It felt like home.

Every day I was on campus throughout my four years, I would make a conscious effort to look at the architecture and remind myself that I deserved to be there and that I had worked hard to be there. While I felt at home, I walked around campus with imposter syndrome. I didn’t feel like I belonged here as much as the students that got in without playing sports. Sitting in class, it felt like everyone around me had created a non-profit or was Valedictorian of their high school. I worried that I didn’t fit into those standards. Throughout the recruiting process before I came to Duke, I knew I wasn’t the first choice for the singular spot on the Duke diving roster. When my acceptance letter finally came, I couldn’t believe that one spot was mine. The fear and anxiety about not being smart enough, not being talented enough were ingrained in me, and it took a toll on my diving performance for three years.

At the start of my third year at Duke, I struggled with body dysmorphia and often compared my talent and appearance to others. As a diver, the way I am scored in competition is based on the overall aesthetic of the dive. But rooted in those scores are judgements about how the diver looks physically before and while she performs the dive. For months, even amongst my own teammates, I worried about the way I looked. As I stood on the cold, wet tile at practice, I could feel my swimsuit pressed tightly to my skin, noticing everywhere the fabric touched. I would stand with my arms around my midsection and constantly worry about how my body looked compared to my teammates. I could hardly think about my dives because I was so fixated on my appearance.

"The title of being an athlete at Duke brings more pressure than people know, and not only from an athletic performance standpoint."

At ACC Championships in my first three years, I crippled under the pressure of feeling like I needed to be the most toned and thin person there. I would always see old teammates from my days at Ohio State and worried about how they expected me to look as a Duke athlete. The title of being an athlete at Duke brings more pressure than people know, and not only from an athletic performance standpoint. When I saw my old teammates or competitors from when I was younger, I believed that they were expecting me to be stronger and have the perfect body because there are expectations about how athletes performing at the highest level should look. When I stood on the board in those competitions, and even just in the warm up, all of my confidence drained out of me. My heart would race when I was doing simple dives from the end of the board -- ones we do hundreds of times at practice. In competition, I would sometimes lose feeling in my legs as I reached the end of the board out of fear that the whole world was expecting me to be better than I was. On the outside, it looked like so many other Duke athletes were effortlessly perfect, and I strained myself in order to feel like I was too. I let all of these doubts circle in my mind and they clouded my vision of the person I wanted to be and the competitor I knew I could be.

To cope with these issues of confidence, I began talking to Alex Thompson, who was a new Behavioral Psychologist in Duke Athletics. She began to lift me out of the darkness of comparisons and judgement against myself. She allowed me to see that I was worthy of being a Duke student-athlete and I was meant to be here. We talked through scenarios and she allowed me to release my conscience from all the anxiety that kept me from achieving my potential.

As I worked through these internal challenges, I began to apply myself more toward improving my various communities at Duke. I joined the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) my sophomore year, eager to play a role in NCAA legislation decisions and have a seat at the table for conversations that mattered to Duke student-athletes. During my junior year, I had the opportunity to attend an in-person ACC SAAC conference in Greensboro where I learned what initiatives other SAAC organizations in the ACC were accomplishing. It was then that I realized that Duke SAAC was not doing enough for the Duke community. There were ways we could better connect to one another, support each other’s identities, and train as equals instead of competing internally. My senior year, I became Duke SAAC Vice President and worked alongside another fiercely passionate SAAC member to try to create an organization that was strong and unified.

My experiences as a female student-athlete—and the unrealistic expectations that came with it—led me to find passions for public policy and gender equality. As a female student-athlete in a sport that people only watch during the Olympics every four years, I care deeply about representation and equal pay. I care about women having a seat at the table when important decisions are made, and recognizing the strong women around me. For my senior Public Policy Honors Thesis, I wrote about the gender pay discrepancy in three professional sports and discussed how policy could play a role in diminishing the compensation divide. After the fourteen-month researching and writing process, I came to find the importance of a narrative for female athletes, and the active role that storytelling plays in encouraging attention to women’s sports and women in general. These beliefs led me to help found UNCUT Duke, where we could be a part of the narrative archive that highlights all athletes.

Without the mental obstacles I faced during my first few years at Duke, I would not be the woman I am proud to be today. I talked with Alex throughout the pandemic to continue working on myself and the relationships I care about in my life. I pushed myself to believe that the expectations placed on me did not revolve around the way I looked. I realized the strength within me and the dedication I have to improve my community, which allowed me to unlock my potential in my senior year.

Ahead of our uncertain COVID season last August, my teammates entrusted me with the role of team captain. It was an honor to lead and represent my team, and this role allowed me to see how far I had come. From once being a shy freshman, to leading our team, I found new confidence in myself that I had not yet experienced at Duke. My teammates saw confidence and poise in me, which was a reminder that who I was and who I am are worthy of being at Duke and worthy of leading a Division I program.

Though I was able to find my purpose in my public policy studies, and was thrilled to seek leadership opportunities outside of the pool, my final goal at Duke was to be the best diver I could be. I valued being more than an athlete throughout my whole Duke experience, but dreamed of having my peak performance when it mattered most.

"I didn’t allow the fear of standing on the diving board alone and the pressure of wearing Duke on my chest overtake my talent and hard work."

My last meet at Duke was on February 6th against UNC Wilmington. It being my Senior Meet, I was able to hear my name announced and run through a tunnel of my teammates to celebrate my four years. In this competition, I was diving in my two strongest events (3m springboard and platform) in order to hopefully achieve qualifying scores to NCAA Zones. This was a competition I had prepared for mentally and physically for four years, and I was determined to not let my nerves take over.

In my first (and favorite) event, the 3m springboard, I put together the second “lights out” meet of my diving career. I didn’t allow the fear of standing on the diving board alone and the pressure of wearing Duke on my chest overtake my talent and hard work. I dove with a clear head and made the corrections that my coach expected of me. All of my dives went in the water vertical and I ended up winning the first dual meet event of my career. In the platform event as well, I completed my list of five dives better than I ever had in a competition, and achieved the NCAA Zone qualifying score I needed.

Throughout my last home meet at Duke, I felt different waves of emotions. As I ran through the tunnel and hugged my coach, I felt loved and celebrated by my community. In the moments immediately after I finished my last dive, I felt relief wash over me as I had accomplished the goals I dreamed of achieving my freshman year. I had overcome the mental hurdles that I had struggled with for years. And as I walked away from the natatorium when the event was over, I thought about how many hours I had spent in that pool. All of the memories of trying new dives and cheering for teammates came flooding back. When the best part of my career came right at the end, it made saying goodbye to the sport that much harder.

"Being an athlete will remain a part of my identity long after my career at Duke."

Duke has allowed me to find confidence, conviction, and strength within myself. Leaving here, I know what I stand for and who I stand with in the world around me. I know what it means to be loyal to a team, and stand beside them through the good and the bad. I know what it means to lead a team through a year with painful uncertainty and only glimmers of hope. I know what it feels like to wear Duke on my chest, and feel more pride than I know I ever could for another university.

As I leave Durham in May, the future is uncharted territory. There will be no more starry nights on the quad, no more early mornings in the weight-room, no more electrifying wins against UNC. I have found my identity in the gothic architecture, competitive atmosphere, and school camaraderie. Though there have been extremely difficult points over the four years, those challenging moments are easily overshadowed by the incredible people I have met and amazing experiences I have had. For my whole life, all I have ever known is sports and school, so the next chapter will certainly be different.

Being an athlete will remain a part of my identity long after my career at Duke. I will always find ways to be competitive, diligent, and progress-oriented in my post-student-athlete life. I will continue to live for the electricity and chills that come from watching a team unite together and win. I will continue to advocate for women in sports and equal pay. Athletes and sports commentators talk about how not everyone in their whole career gets their moment to shine and fully peak in their sport. I was so lucky to have that. I had my moment and it breaks my heart that my moment in this sport is over, but what a feeling that I will continue to have as I watch and encourage athletes for the rest of my life...

Thank you, Duke, for being everything I ever dreamed of and more.

-Ellie Winslow

Photo Credits: Duke Athletics and Ellie Winslow


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