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How I Learned To Accept My Retired-Athlete Body

Photo: Getty Images.
I came home from my first year of university and announced to my step-mum that I was getting fat.

She asked me how school was going. Leaning up against the dining room table, I said, “I think I’m gaining weight on my sides and I can’t make it go away.”

She looked at me as though there was something very obvious I was missing. I stood there, patiently awaiting sympathy.

“That weight isn’t going away,” she said. “It’s not fat. You just have hips now. Those are hips.”

She was right. It wasn’t that I was putting on extra pounds. It was that, at 18, I’d finally hit the last stage of puberty. My hips had grown in. I wasn’t pleased.

I had retired from competitive gymnastics at 14. It was abundantly clear at that point that I was not going to be Gabby Douglas or Kyla Ross. Plus, the 16 hours in a gym every week were keeping me from having any kind of normal high school social life. I couldn’t do chorus or student government, my grades were slipping, and no one invited me to Friday movie nights, because they knew I couldn’t come anyway. I was ready for a life that didn’t revolve entirely around chalk-filled leotards, grips for the bar, and competition hair grease.

By the time I quit, every other girl in my class had made it most of the way through the puberty trenches — and I hadn’t even hit puberty yet. I didn’t have my period, I was as flat as flat could be, and I had no hips. I was proud of what my body could do, but I also basically looked like a 10-year-old girl with a six-pack, even though I was nearing the end of secondary school. That year, an extraordinarily mean girl (who, it should be noted, had made it through puberty without having much luck in her chest area) told me I had a chance at being pretty if I got a little taller and maybe got boobs. While it certainly wasn’t the reason I decided to quit, I was admittedly jealous of the girls who, all around me, were starting to look like women.

I gained 20 pounds in the first two years after leaving the sport. I did, as a matter of fact, get boobs, but much to my teenage chagrin, they came with stretch marks. My six-pack stayed for a while, but gradually sank farther from the surface of my stomach. My muscle lines became less pronounced. My once-bony cheeks got fuller. And it took four years, until after my 18th birthday, to get the last piece of my grown-up, retired-athlete body: my hips.

Part of me had waited a long time to have what I considered to be a “normal” body; one that could make me look my age instead of like a girl still waiting on her 12-year-old molars. But once I got that body, it felt foreign to me — like I wasn’t quite fitting into my skin the way you’re not sure a pair of jeans fits well enough to buy.

While it wasn’t the reason I decided to quit, I was jealous of the girls who, all around me, were starting to look like women.

The changes to my body weren’t just about weight: I had also almost completely shed the wear and tear of my sport. My hands weren’t blistered anymore. There weren’t bruises on my shins from hitting the bar when I mounted it without proper form. The fact that I had bad wrists was no longer a defining part of my existence. The ab strength that I had worked on shaping for years was barely noticeable anymore. Then again, I no longer needed to engage my core to do three sets of 15 pull-ups. In theory, it didn’t matter. In reality, it did.

When your body has been super fit (and fairly consistent) for years, it’s strange to see it go through so many changes so rapidly. I went through puberty and my first-ever taste of weight gain all at once, after most of my peers had already fully developed.

On top of that, watching my body change was like reliving the breakup with my sport over and over again. Because being an athlete — having that label — is inherently physical: You’re constantly working on your body so that you can run faster, sprint harder, jump farther, and endure longer. And when you give up that sport, you lose the identity your body was attached to.

So, you have no choice but to rebuild your physical identity in a way that makes sense for your new life. You have to learn what your relationship to your body — and life in general — can be outside of your sport.

I took up running and even did some recreational gymnastics on the side. But I let myself be drawn to other hobbies, too, because that was one of the main reasons I gave up training 16-plus hours a week. I wanted to have a life that wasn’t based on gymnastics. I made friends at school, brought my grades back up, and started doing plays. And it was good for my mental health, even if it meant that my physical shape wasn’t maintained to the incredibly high standards I used to have by necessity.

Honestly, I think time is what allowed me to accept my new body, because it simply took a while to get comfortable in my new shape. I grew into it gradually. I eventually learned to look in the mirror every day to appreciate that this was my body now, hips and all. The longer I appreciated my body outside of my sport, the more it took on a new meaning — a blessedly smaller meaning. Once my body was no longer tied to winning a gymnastics meet, it didn’t define me.