With the Helmet Off

It’s often crossed my mind that I should write about my experience as a college athlete. Or, rather, my experience managing that identity when it all came to an end. The reality is that I have procrastinated time and time again sitting down to write something I knew would be painful and probably never good enough to do justice to my actual experience. But now here I am, and I will do my best to voice this in the most raw way possible.

Mine is not a story of a career tragically ended by injury, or of a champion grappling with what comes next once she has achieved what she set out to do. Mine is the story of an athlete who failed to meet her potential despite all efforts, and learning to live with the consequences. 

When I was 13 years old, my mom came home with a Nike shirt that read “Sport is my boyfriend.” I don’t know why exactly this sticks with me, I never really wore it, but in an odd way it foreshadowed the relationship that was to come. Athletics was my first love, and certainly the most tumultuous.

I didn’t begin playing organized hockey until I was 10 years old, an exceptionally late start for any kid hoping to play at the next level. But my parents got me involved in sports early—soccer, lacrosse—and I had been skating on the neighborhood rink since I could walk. Most importantly, I was a girl with a tomboy attitude: competitive, tough, aggressive, and blessed with quick feet. Much later, my mom would ask me if I truly loved hockey for the game itself. “Maybe,” I remember replying, “but what I really love is the speed.”

What was objectively a late start morphed into a full-blown love affair. Travel teams and development camps. Stick and puck sessions. Film with my coaches. 5 AM wakeups in the summer to skate, lift, and take 500 shots a day—all before noon. Much later, recruiting and eventually a commitment to Yale. 

It seems like a whirlwind, and it was. But make no mistake that I earned every inch. I had no business playing in college with my late start, no business playing Division I. But I worked harder over those high school years than I knew I had the capacity to, and that combined with a little bit of luck and the right people in my corner won me a spot on a team I could have only dreamed of playing on just a few years earlier.

Getting my foot in the door at Yale was just the beginning. The uphill battle to get recruited after a late start won me the opportunity to fight another battle on a team where I knew I was coming in as solidly last string. But I welcomed the challenge, and although my freshman year had its fair share of tears, a few lucky breaks resulted in my finishing the year integral in the lineup. My late start as a child meant that I still lacked game sense –I would never be a savvy player—but my ability to train and push myself to a breaking point meant that I was perfect as a “grinder,” someone reliable, gritty, and able to get the energy up and turn momentum when needed. 

Sophomore year continued in a similar pattern. Frustrations, to be sure, but enough incremental improvement to feel as if I was making a difference. As if I was important. That my presence mattered. That summer before junior year I worked harder than ever. I worked out three times a day, skated harder, ran more miles, lifted more, stickhandled more, played in a men’s league, watched film. I did everything humanly possible to be better. Hockey was my top priority. It had my full attention. 

Not shocking, I suppose, to hear that when junior year began and things were not going my way, I crumbled. Not outwardly. I showed up every day and put on a good face, poured myself into practices and workouts, sought coaches for extra sessions on the board and on the ice. But I wasn’t playing, and I couldn’t get a solid answer as to why. Honestly, a lot of it probably came down to game sense. I wasn’t the prettiest player, I would never be a top goal scorer, and unfortunately my style of play didn’t fit into the vision that the coaching staff had that year. While I did (and still do) disagree with that decision, this story is not about that. I mention it only to lead into my next point, which was that as I found myself in a situation where no amount of training and hard work could get me where I wanted to go, I started turning inward. At the time, I didn’t realize just how much my identity was tied to the validation of being able to perform. 

On the days I didn’t play, I ran. Miles and miles after games. At the hotel, or around the rink if we were home. I stopped eating dinner. I didn’t deserve a big meal if I hadn’t worked it off. I started journaling more. I went out on a limb and tried out for the lacrosse team when my hockey season ended. I knew they were rebuilding that program with a new coaching staff, and while I realized I would be behind there too as I hadn’t played competitively since high school, I hoped that that staff would need a “grinder” in the way that my hockey coaches didn’t. I made the team, and my teammates and coaches were great to me. But I again found myself lacking a role on the field. That Spring I pushed so hard that the back-to-back seasons, stress, and what was at that point a burgeoning eating disorder started to catch up with me. I ended up hospitalized with a staph infection that was dangerously close to invading my joints. 

That final summer of college I poured myself into as many distractions as possible. I took an internship at an investment bank where I worked 7 AM-12AM and on weekends. I controlled my food more than ever. I ran more miles than I had before. I partied, a lot. I rebelled against what had once been a very straight and narrow lifestyle. All the while, I sobbed almost daily on the phone to my parents about athletics and what I should do for my final year. I knew the demands of two sports with overlapping seasons on top if schoolwork was too much, and I had to choose. Hockey was my love, but I didn’t know if I could handle the pain of what felt like being deemed inadequate on a daily basis anymore. On a day in mid-August, just before the end of my internship, I took the Metro North from New York City back to New Haven to quit in person. 

Senior year, I played fall ball with the lacrosse team. The environment perhaps a bit less toxic since I didn’t put as much pressure on success; I knew I was coming in with a handicap of missing the first two years. But I was burnt out beyond repair, and quickly realized that it felt hollow. I was grasping for a replacement that I couldn’t get. I quit. 

2017 was the most difficult year I have had in a short life. I had made the decision to fully detach myself from what had been the source of my identity and self-validation since I was a child. I no longer had a team I was rooted in, or a game to pour my frustrations into. I no longer had an equation for success. Hard work could no longer get me where I thought I needed to go. Really, the problem was much deeper. With the kind of insight you can only get from hindsight, I can see the patterns I once missed. I was lost, badly anorexic, and had become quite withdrawn — although the level of social façade I maintained suggested otherwise. 

Sports gave me everything while it was good. It taught me how to be part of a team, how to sacrifice for something you care about. It taught me confidence and strength. It taught me tenacity and grit. It gave me my favorite memories, and some of my most lasting friendships. But perhaps the best lesson it taught me was from the hole that it left. It forced me to look at myself with the helmet off. 

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About the Author

Gretchen Tarrant

Gretchen Tarrant is a former Division 1 Ice Hockey and Lacrosse player. The oldest of four from Colchester, Vermont, she currently lives in New York City where she works for Jet.com. An aspiring writer and entrepreneur, she loves reading, doing anything outdoors, exploring the city with friends, and getting home to see her parents, three younger siblings, and dog Rosie whenever possible. Gretchen graduated from Yale University 2017 with a BA in Political Science.