The Pain of Being an Elite Athlete and a Woman.
By Elizabeth Cui
I like to think of myself as a fairly optimistic and strong-willed person, but I have days of sadness, stress, and pain, just like everyone else. Behind the positive quotes, affirmations, and meditations lies a girl just trying to do her best. I write this with welled-up eyes and a deep tightness in my chest because as I train for my second Olympic Games during a worldwide pandemic, I feel like I'm about to break.
A lot of the time, I don't voice my struggles because I think they're insignificant compared to the struggles of others, and I'm just that type of person to put others before myself. It's because I deeply care for those I love, and when they are in pain, so am I. But I'm coming to the realization that maybe I do this to put aside the pain that I feel, to hide under sheets of sadness and desperation, as long as it is not my own. Or maybe it's the athlete mentality ingrained in me since age 5 that I have to just put my head down and get on with it. That to build mental agility and durability, we must avoid, mask, and cover our wavering thoughts, pick our heads up and smile at the judges.
My life has prepared me well for the athlete's life.
It started at age 5—flashes and glimpses of hands that never asked permission. For my body was not my own, I suppose. It belonged to the twisted, dark male silhouettes who entered and left my life, snatching my innocence and prying out my vocal cords with their sharp teeth. My dad too drunk, and my mum too battered to notice their little girl crying out for help.
At age 9— My world is changed, and so did my body. The silhouettes still came in and out, reaching for more and demanding silence, but I found something that drowned out the fear and shame I felt; springboard diving. I was in complete control of my own body. I could jump, spin, twist, and it was all my choice. I loved the feeling of the adrenaline pulsing through my veins and the euphoria I felt as I entered the water. I felt powerful for the first time in my life, and under the water, I felt safe. It was quiet.
At age 15— More twisted silhouettes entered my life. I thought I'd be used to it by now, but every time, I felt more broken down than before and more alone than I thought was possible. They'd come in with brute force, like a starved wild animal. Ripping me down, tearing my soul apart, and feasting on what little innocence I had left. I drank bourbon, like my dad, and hated it just as much as I hated the smell on his breath. The black liquid transformed my dad into a hateful, angry man, and I thought maybe it could change me, too. Into a different person, into a girl who did not know of corruption. A girl who could forget the uncomfortable feeling of moist hands tugging and forcing their way onto her soft, innocent skin.
At age 17— I was getting good at diving, and it made me feel worthy. Competing on the world stage excited me, and I felt more alive than ever before. I was able to drown out the self-criticism and degradation that was forced into my mind. There was no better feeling than completing a good dive and hearing my teammates cheer my name. However, those moments never lasted long, and not every dive could be great. I turned to smoking and drinking more frequently. The thick smoke burned as it entered my lungs, but I liked it. With every release, I let go a little bit more. It was a meditation, quieting the influx of unwanted opinions and self-expectation.
At age 18— I was off to the United States of America! This was my chance to get away from the twisted childhood and adolescence I had endured. A way to get away from the faces the reminded me of the pain I held inside me. This was my fresh start.
...and it was. It was a breath of fresh air getting as far away as I could. Until it wasn't anymore, and my newfound autonomy drove self-destructive behavior. It was like a constant tapping on my shoulder pointing at the wrong decision, and I always listened.
At the height of my loneliness and desperation, I witnessed a miracle. I received the phone call that I had qualified for the Olympic Games. In one of my lowest times, it was as if God reached down from the clouds, picked me up with two fingers, placed me on my feet, and told me, "there's more for you." I was in utter disbelief.
At age 19— Despite my success in the pool, I still felt alone, but the embers of rage within me started to diminish just a little bit. I decided to seek help. I started the process of opening up my heart. After years of pain, it wasn't easy, each hurt leaving a scar that calloused harder. All that was left was a broken heart surrounded by a thick layer of self-protection. I saw a therapist whose voice made me feel safe and heard. I started yoga practices that helped quiet the traffic in my mind. I was still making hurtful decisions, but at least I was trying.
At age 21— I met some incredible people. I mean really cool people who had a tremendous impact on my life. I had now been going to yoga and therapy sessions for about two years and started meditation practices. I wrote in my journal more frequently and expressed gratitude regularly. I had my bad days, as everyone does, but I was no longer the same hurt victim that I once was. I sought to see people for who they truly were and did my best to approach everyone with love. My eyes were opened to the good in life. My calloused heart was finally starting to unlock, and I was beginning to feel free.
At age 23— I am going through a lot right now. The world is trying to survive a pandemic. I am trying to train for the Olympic Games, and I haven't competed in over a year. My dad has been in and out of prison. I am far away from my family and don't know when I'll be able to return home. I am coaching the dive team while working three jobs and completing my master's degree. I feel exhausted and alone a lot of the time. Cooking, dog cuddles, podcasts, and meditation help me feel better. I know that things aren't perfect, and I don't feel good, but I know this will pass. I've learned that the lows of life give us perspective and bring us closer to our most authentic selves. In the hard times, we are challenged to sit with ourselves and build the courage necessary to feel our emotions.
Some days it's enough just to get through the day and hold onto any smile that may come across my lips. I am no longer the same girl I was a few years ago. I am a woman, and I am proud of everything I am with all the good and the bad. I am not ashamed of any part of my life because it has made me who I am today. We are more than the sum-total of our accomplishments. We are all vast expanses of light that are vital to the firework spectacle that is life.