Love and loss in collegiate athletics

By Mahmoud Bahrani

Tomorrow’s national qualifying race might very well be the last time I ever run cross country for the University of Chicago. I don’t think it will be my last race—our team is very strong and we have an excellent opportunity to make it out of our region. But even if we do qualify, next week’s national race will be the definitive end of my cross country career.

It always feels weird when we come to a major transition in our lives, whether it id from high school to college or from college to real life. A large part of an individual’s identity is vested in the organization he or she associate themselves with. When you’re introducing yourself to someone, probably one of the first things that comes out of your mouth is that you’re a student at the University of Chicago. When you graduate here, that will no longer be the case.

With sports, however, the transition takes on a whole new meaning. You lose a little piece of yourself when you leave behind a sport. Memorable and joyful experiences, which you had always thought of in the present tense, become memories. I will always run just because of the enjoyment I get out of it, but, next year, running will be something I did while I was in college, instead of something I actively do.

Running for a team always seemed like a good rationalization for the immense amount of time and the hundreds of miles that I put into this sport. When you’re done with college, your athletic career is supposed to be over, beyond doing what is necessary to stay in shape. You’re an adult, and adults, by definition, aren’t supposed to spend time playing. College is really the last opportunity for individuals to engage actively in a sport without the stigma of it being time spent exclusively on personal pleasure. The priorities are rearranged: While now I feel it’s perfectly fine to miss a class for a weekend meet, it will be a lot harder to convince my boss, and more importantly, myself, that I need Friday off to travel to a race. In college, it almost feels like a duty to compete for your school; beyond college, it’s just playing a game.

These experiences are pretty much the same across all sports. Even after next week, my athletic career isn’t over—I still have track and field to look forward to. But, there are soccer players whose amateur athletic careers are just done (and football and volleyball will be done next week), and these experiences are the same for them too. Hell, it might actually be harder for them. Whenever I want, I can lace my shoes and be out the door on a run, and it won’t be too different from a practice I had in college. It’s a lot harder to find 21 other people with whom to play soccer or football on a perfectly manicured field.

Playing for and representing a school is an altogether different feel from when you’re playing around with some friends in the park. Sports take up so much of the identity that we give ourselves that losing that part of our lives is a heartwrenching experience. I know I’m going to continue running after my athletic career here is over, but the thrill of competing with, and for, a team, is not something that is easily replaceable.

Part of it, I think, has to do with the idea of ascension. When you graduate high school, you’re moving on to something greater. Similarly, when you graduate college, there is real life out there to be had. The place you’re going to isn’t necessarily better than the place you were, but you’re still going somewhere different. There is always something else, something to which to transition. With sports, this isn’t the case. When you graduate high school, you still have a collegiate athletic career to look forward. But when you’re graduating college, unless you’re planning on going pro (which very few of us in DIII do), you’re pretty much just stone-cold done. There is nothing higher toward which to strive, no accepted and logical next step.

The end of the road brings with it all sorts of painful memories. The first memories that come to mind are not the pleasant ones; rather, they’re of the times I could have done better, of the races I wish I had back, of the carefree practices that I didn’t savor because I didn’t value the precious time I had left. I still talk and laugh about the pleasant memories, but the happiness they bring is always tinged by a feeling of remorse, because they have to be talked about in the past tense. All of us, including non-athletes, hit this roadblock at some point with regards to some sort of carefree activity.

If nothing else can serve as a bridge between athletes and non-athletes, it’s this: the irrevocable feeling of loss that we experience when we leave behind something we love. It’s not just athletes whose play-careers unceremoniously end after college. It’s everyone who has ever been committed to an exploit that he viewed as seminally important, an activity that was important to him on a personal level that you could never quite explain.

My athletic career here hasn’t gone exactly as planned. There have been numerous bumps and bruises along the way and some bad races, the memory of which will still send a twinge of pain and guilt through me for as long as I live. I’ll be honest and say that I openly hate the fact that it’s ending, because once it ends I can’t cover up those scars with better performances. But, at the very least, this transition will be a chance to experience the very important process of loss.