If There’s One Thing a Sidelined Athlete Needs to Hear, It’s This…

We often underestimate our capacity to reinvent ourselves.

That’s it. It’s that simple. We are not the people we were 1 year ago, 2 years ago, 10 years ago…heck, even 2 days ago! And yet, a major life change can knock us off of our feet and make us feel like everything is over.

But what if it wasn’t? What if reinventing ourselves is something we already know how to do? What if realizing that simple fact would change everything?

I have been a dancer since I could walk. No, really, I was rockin’ the diaper-and-leotard look in my ballet-tap classes with my curly bob, having the time of my life at age 2. Fast forward through years – decades, really – of competitive dancing, both nationally and internationally, and I found myself choosing to major in Dance in college. I mean, a dancer was WHO I was after all, right?

In the prime of my collegiate dance career – earning my BFA in Dance, performing in The Big House, competing at UDA Nationals – a debilitating right hip labral tear threatened to sideline me from dancing. But never fear, I did what any “good” athlete does and I pushed through it… for 2 entire years.

I spent those 2 years wrestling with my mental and physical health, as I ignored the pain and waited endlessly for it to go away, faced misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis, and tried to grip control on anything I could. But I was “fine,” I was going to be “fine,” right? It had to be “fine.”

Upon graduation, my injury was diagnosed properly and hip arthroscopic surgery was recommended. Honestly, if I was was told I needed a hip replacement (at 22 years old, mind you), I would’ve done it. I would have done just about anything to get rid of the pain and get my life back.

My entire recovery process was full of highs and lows, holding out hope for an answer, a cure, a direction, a method, a process – anything that would let me return to the life I thought I was meant to have. I was waiting to live until I met the expectation I set for what kind of life was worth living.

No one can say it better than Janine Shepherd:

“It wasn’t until I let go of who I thought I was, that I had the freedom to create something completely new for my life… It wasn’t until I let go of the life I thought I was supposed to have, that I was able to embrace the possibilities that waited for me.”

During those 7 years of recovery, earning my M.S. in Occupational Therapy kept me afloat. Not only was earning a Master’s goal-directed, demanding, and time-consuming (what every athlete and performer thrives on, of course) but OT was the gateway for me to finally learn about who “Chrissy” was beyond the dancer.

When you commit becoming accomplished and adept at one thing your entire life, it is so easy to fear that without that one thing, you will be irrelevant, insignificant, forgotten, and heaven-forbid “ordinary.”

But Abby Wambach, retired professional soccer play and 2-time Olympic gold medalist, said it best on MarieTV when she shared a meaningful message her wife, Glennan Doyle, said to her: “You thought that soccer made you special. But soccer didn’t make you special, what you brought to the game made soccer special.”

Transitioning out of high level competition or performance is never easy, especially when you’ve dedicated the majority of your life to it. It stings just a little bit more when the transition is not on your terms, but we, sidelined athletes, are more than our athlete title (a label we clung to in order to make sense of who we were during that time of our life).

We have our whole lives ahead, spending more time out of the role as an athlete than we did in it. And there’s a whole other side to us – our “hidden identity” – that is just waiting to be tapped into. I can tell you that these past couple years of self-discovery have brought me some of the happiest and most aligned moments I’ve felt in my life to date. Without the title of “dancer” anywhere in sight.

In the words of Brené Brown, “When we have the courage to walk into our own story and own it, we get to write the ending.”

So, are you with me? Let’s write our own ending.

P.S. — When I learned to let go of controlling my pain and my path forward, that’s when my pain dropped by 90%. It’s almost completely gone and even when it’s there, it doesn’t dictate who I am or how I live my life. Finally “owning” my present and my ending.

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About the Author

Chrissy Papetti

Chrissy Papetti is a former competitive dancer, appearing at the 2008 World Tap Championships to represent the USA, earning her BFA in Dance the University of Michigan, and performing on the Michigan Dance Team at the D1 level of collegiate athletics. Following her dance career-ending injury of a hip labral tear, Chrissy went on to earn her Master’s in Occupational Therapy, specializing in Lifestyle Design and Lifestyle Medicine. Throughout her prolonged injury recovery, she found a fascination with the brain/mind, the body, and health/wellness, soaking in everything she could get her hands on related to medicine, psychology/coaching, and self-discovery. Today, Chrissy is fusing her personal and professional experiences to support athletes, performers, and high-achieving individuals who were sidelined from the life they thought they were meant to live so that they can find a fulfilling way forward with nothing holding them back.