By Sabrina Must
Despite an accumulative 3.8 GPA, winning the Most Athletic Award in high school trumped all scholastic achievements.
It was all worth it: Hours playing soccer and baseball in the elementary school boys leagues; hours driving from one practice to the next, flying from one tournament to the next; hours learning how to juggle as night fell, refusing to stop until I beat the previous night’s count; hours on the ice, freezing; hours working out before class during off-season.
As silly as winning a football-shaped hat was, dubbed “Most Athletic” seemed like a monumental life achievement.
As a kid, I was my mom’s tag-along, waking up at 7 a.m. on Saturdays to swim laps and powerwalk.
My mom, a swimmer, taught me the value and pleasure of fitness and athletics. While I excelled in school, sports defined me.
“Sabrina is a crazy talented athlete,” people would say. I felt like a celebrity.
Set to play soccer at Lehigh University, a D1 program, I reconsidered when I blew out my knee. Returning to play D1 after reconstruction seemed like a bad idea. So, a month before graduation, I scrambled and contacted the Johns Hopkins University coach and admissions. They made an exception and I was officially enrolled for the fall.
In June 2004, I had surgery and spent the next two months rehabbing methodically and tirelessly: swimming to yoga to strength training. That summer was all about my knee.
Though redshirted, I was actively involved. I attended preseason, watching practice before hitting the pool and gym. Steadfast in my recovery, my focus was impenetrable. So much so that my standard 8 p.m. bedtime earned me the privilege of dressing as a grandma for freshmen initiation night.
My teammates became some of my dearest friends. Close with high school teammates, I knew the power of team comradery—an unbreakable bond.
Typical schedule: 7 a.m. physical therapy appointment during which the therapist would forcefully bend my knee to tear scar tissue; class for hours; lunch on the go; class again; yoga downtown; pool workout; dinner; library to study; bedtime, ready to repeat the next day. Occasionally, I’d socialize, but most often this was it. Smiling and laughing, but deep down sad, eager to get back to my previous physical prowess.
For six months post surgery, I cried myself to sleep, angry I wasn’t healing quickly. Frustrated, impatient, forlorn. I’d dream about running, waking up kicking my legs under the blanket. But in wakefulness I was constantly reminded I physically couldn’t.
I was desperate to play as I used to.
Finally, 10 months after surgery, I laced up my boots. My limp was still strong, but my attitude was positive. I was excited to run. Yes, run. Moving quickly and freely was enlivening. Though I hobbled and my poor-fitting brace bruised my inner legs, I was playing.
Despite all the work and preparation, my game was different. I played with slight hesitancy, a fear I’d never known. I wasn’t quick and fearless anymore.
That summer, I joined my soccer teammates in Europe for 10 days, traveling from Germany to Italy, playing local teams along the way. I obviously loved Europe, but the trip itself was unenjoyable. Confined to a bus with 20 teammates and their families was not ideal. My friends suddenly turned into mean girls; they hated me. They weren’t forthright with their disdain. In typical mean girl fashion, they delivered the silent treatment, staring me down, leaving me out. I was hurt and confused.
Months later, I finally spoke with one and asked, frankly, “Did I do something wrong? Was I mean?” She admitted, “You didn’t really do anything. It was annoying that you’re vegetarian. That when we’d have free time you’d go off on your own to explore. That you’d get naked in the locker room and be comfortable doing so.”
The combination of losing my soccer-playing edge and how girlfriends were treating me pushed me into a dark depression my sophomore fall semester. I’d painstakingly attend practice and games, watching the clock like a timekeeper, praying it’d end so I could escape and be free.
Countless nights I’d invite my neighbor to talk me to sleep in the dark with David Gray on blast. I felt alone, misunderstood. I tiptoed around these women, terrified I’d piss someone off for just being me. As our season neared its end, sick from stress, eating poorly, and sleeping terribly though often, playing another week in the NCAA tournament felt like a living hell. Yet, the idea of quitting seemed like a worse fate. I’m an athlete, I reminded myself. Quitting was not an option.
Finally, desperation won and I hesitantly walked into my coach’s office, shoulders hunched, looking downward. He terrified me. I rarely spoke to him. If he was benching you, he avoided you.
Rationally I repeated, “He’s just a person. Breathe.” For five minutes I mumbled about struggling and feeling unhappy all season. He listened, nodded his head, legs crossed, right hand on his chin, left hand on his desk. “I could suck it up and go to the tournament, but I know I’ll bring team morale down,” I said. I thanked him for listening and said, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t. I’m done.” Sweat dripped from my armpits, nervous hormones pummeling through my body. He replied with more understanding than I anticipated, probably relieved I was quitting.
I stood and walked out. Instantly, as if I had been trekking up a steep mountain with a 500-pound pack on my back, the weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I never understood that common phrase until this moment. I felt free.
Soccer-quitting Sabrina. I was free.
The backlash from my teammates was worse than the treatment they gave me during the season. Many completely cut me off. They felt betrayed. Apparently, they valued my presence, on the sidelines, in uniform, while ignoring me.
I thought about that ‘Most Athletic Award.’ I thought about no longer being an “athlete.” But quickly I started accepting that not playing for Hopkins didn’t make me less of an athlete. Instead, within weeks, I couldn’t fathom why I suffered through an entire season like that. I had missed out on doing so many active things for pleasure and health. Things that didn’t inspire a depressive spiral but instead uplifted me. That, to me, is a true athlete, enjoying the grace and power of my body.
I guess you could say, I got off the fence…
When Sabrina Must is not writing in local coffeeshops, you can find her teaching boot camp, swimming in the springs, at yoga, and biking around town with her pug Monkey who runs alongside or rides shotgun in the basket. Visit Sabrina at SabrinaMust.com.
If this story spoke to you in any way, or if you have ever quit something that no longer served you, even if you were great at it, we would love to hear from you below. Sabrina will also be reading.