I still remember the day when I came home after losing to P.C. Thulasi in the Quarterfinals of the Pune National in June 2015. That was my last competitive match in Badminton. When I came home my parents and sister gave me a group hug and my father joked, “So already retired at 27? I am 58 and I still have two years to retire. What are you going to do now?” I smiled at him and realised I did not have an answer to his question.
Netflix has a documentary called, ‘Broke’, that talks about how 60 percent of NBA players are broke within five years of retirement. For 78 percent of NFL players, it takes only three years. Sucked into bad investments, stalked by freeloaders, saddled with medical problems, and naturally prone to showing off, most pro athletes get shocked by harsh economic realities after years of living the high life. Ian Thorpe one of the greatest swimmers in the world confessed to dealing with depression and alcoholism after retirement. Abhinav Bindra in his book “A shot at history” speaks about how after winning his gold medal at the Olympics he felt depressed because he had nothing left to prove. Recently there was a full page feature in The New Yorker on Micheal Jordan with the headline “How Air Jordan became Crying Jordan”.
Dealing with retirement is tough and hard. You are used to a routine. You always have goals that you set for yourself to achieve. You are used to the adrenaline of competition and your will to win against all odds. You are used to the fame, the awards, the felicitations, and the applause. The day you retire you are set to lose all of this. Your life is much silent and you lose the limelight. There are no articles about you in the newspaper and suddenly you find yourself becoming a part of the millions of other people whose success is not merely defined by being featured in the newspaper. You have to change your definition of success from winning a match to something else which you may still not have figured for yourself. That realization for any athlete can be pretty intimidating.
I really can’t compare my achievements to the the great athletes I have mentioned above. They are way more successful and have a much bigger bank balance than mine. I can though compare myself with them for the love and passion I feel for my sport and a certain degree of hard work I put in the sport to succeed for 15 years. I too had to go through my share of post retirement issues and it was interesting to see myself go through it.
The best thing about being born to a traditional middle-class Marathi family is that you are a part of a tradition. A tradition which is based on age, marriage, and kids. There is a particular age to do things and they need to be done as prescribed by your elders. I have a lot of friends who defy this tradition and don’t believe in it. For me though I never had a problem being a part of it. I believe in marriage and family just like my parents do. For me it is a wonderful thing and makes life much fuller and complete.
Unlike my counterparts in the western world who are not big on fixed traditions or marriage for me being part of a tradition turned out to be a joyful distraction from retirement. My marriage took me to a foreign land, United States of America. In the first six months I realized my limitations as a house-maker. I had to learn cooking, washing, cleaning, rationing, budgeting, setting up the house, and decorating it. In a course of six months I set myself goals to get better in each of this department. I think my approach to this challenge was very athlete like. I refused to accept the fact that I couldn’t cook. Playing a sport makes you pretty tough on yourself. It is a blessing. From making chapatis in the shape of a triangle I started making round phulkas by the end of my six months. Believe me the joy of seeing a round phulka on the gas gave me as much joy as seeing my name in the newspaper. By the end of a year I had people come over the weekend for dinners and lunches. When some of them complimented me and asked me for an extra phulka because they loved my vegetable curry I did a small dance inside my head.
The one year post retirement has been a story of a lot of such small victories for me personally. Professionally though I have gone through anxiety and some tough patches. The H-4 visa in America gets tricky from the get go. You can’t work on this visa. Being an independent woman all these years, not earning was killing me. To keep myself busy I wrote a lot and self-researched on a lot of topics that I was interested in. Though I realized very soon that this alone was not enough to satisfy my needs. For quite some time I wanted to get a master’s degree. I started looking for courses in University of Texas in Dallas. Looking for a course in universities in America is a harrowing task. There are more than 100 degrees to choose from. My search led me to a degree in Public Administration. I loved all the courses the degree offered. Courses on Government, policy making, public management, non- profit organizations and so on. In my limited time working in NGOs and social sector I knew this is an area that I would love to officially be a part of. I applied for the summer term of 2016. After a series of tests, an essay, transcripts, grade evaluation and interviews I finally received my admit letter last week. When I visited the UTD campus and attended my first class I immediately knew I was in for a roller-coaster ride and an experience of a life time.
As I write this I am in a peaceful place professionally after a year of uncertainty and searching for a goal to per sue. This year made some very important revelations to me. I realized everything in life is temporary. The success, the failure, joy and sorrow. Change is the only constant. If you can embrace change, never resist it and actually use it to build you and not break you the world can be a pretty amazing place. A year and a half back I was a professional athlete today I am a student at UTD. The transition is not going to be easy. I am in a place where my past really doesn’t count and I have to start from zero. To never live in the past, to put yourself in a spot where you naturally don’t belong but you still try and make a place of your own. Isn’t that what life is all about?