Over ten years ago, I decided that I would be at the 2016 Olympics.
At the time, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make it there as an athlete. But I also knew that 2016 would be my first chance to partake in the games in some way.
And now, the Olympics have arrived. But instead of following my dream, I’m watching the games from my couch.
As I push 30, I’ve had to decide if the Olympics-sized dream that I had in high school is still mine.
Falling in Love with the Games
For the first two decades of my life, I defined myself as an athlete. If I wasn’t in school, I was in the pool practicing. By the time I reached high school, I was pulling two-a-days for a good part of the year, with water polo practices starting as early as 5 am. (Swim season wasn’t much better at 5:30.)
The long weekends traveling around Southern California for tournaments combined with frequent weekly afternoon swim meets created bonds with my teammates, many of whom are still my best friends. We capped off high school with a tournament in Hawaii. Losing in water polo at the CIF semi-final (our closest thing to a State Championship) and the season coming to an end is still one of the my biggest heartbreaks to this day.
And even before then, I’d already fallen head over heels for the Olympics. I remember watching gymnasts twirl in Atlanta in 1996. And I have a vivid memory of fighting with my parents to stay up well past my bedtime to watch figure skating in 1998. I was 12.
In high school, I decided that, no matter what, I’d get to the Olympics in 2016.
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Why the Olympics?
The Olympics were a way to indulge my growing wanderlust and curiosity of the world. It wasn’t just getting to the games for me. It was traveling to who knows where and meeting people from across the globe that piqued my interest. This globalness has always been a big part of why I’ve loved the games.
In college, playing water polo became my identity on campus, the source of my friends, and the thing that got me through that major transition in life. Cracking jokes during long van rides driving around the state and the nights spent out with the team are some of my best memories from those four years.
Watching the games this past week, I’ve been reminded of the high I got while competing, the passion that went along with it, and the burst of energy I’d get not just while racing, but also while cheering on my teammates. I have yet to experience anything else comparable to that rush.
If a high school or college athlete tells you they don’t daydream about being in the Olympics, I think they’re lying, even if they know there isn’t a chance. You can’t help but dream about being on that team, competing with the best, and being recognized on an international level for all the work you’ve put in. I know I couldn’t help it.
Falling in Love with Adventures
In the fall of 2007, while studying abroad in Rome, I made one of the toughest decisions of my life: I gave up being an athlete to pursue the other interests and passions I’d discovered.
I don’t know if I would have made this choice if I’d stayed on campus that semester. But while studying abroad (my first long-term and international travel experience), I found and fell in love with a version of myself that was much more than an athlete.
In Rome, I had to find ways to fill my time that wasn’t practice, competing, or hanging out with my teammates. It’s weird to say that this was a first for me.
Luckily, it wasn’t too hard to do in Rome. Whether it was aimlessly wandering the streets after class to find a tiny beautiful church I’d never heard of, eating suppli (deep fried rice balls filled with mozzarella, aka the best thing ever), taking weekend trips around the country with new friends, or just sitting in a cafe on Piazza Navona watching the locals and tourists pass by, there was always something new to explore.
I read so many books in Rome, as I survived off public transit. I wrote to friends and family about my adventures, and even more in a journal I kept. These were seeds of a passion to write and tell stories. I missed my family, my friends, and my college. At one point, I got so homesick that I felt like a little kid at overnight camp, crying alone on the roof of my apartment building, wanting to go home to my mom.
I was forced to learn how to do things on my own, in a way I never had before. Everything from eating a meal to going on a day trip, or even taking a weekend by myself, was foreign and exciting. I loved exploring this new place, meeting new people, tasting everything I possibly could, and igniting the newfound spark of my love for wine.
I did realize one thing in this time: I didn’t miss being in the pool.
Sure, I missed my teammates in the way you do when you’re an athlete, but I didn’t miss actually playing water polo. The activities I missed were my student involvements as an RA and in student government.
Plus, my wanderlust had grown. After that first international trip, I dreamed about so many places and the opportunity to not just visit, but to dig into the culture, landscape, and environment.
Cut to seven years later, 2012. I was building a career in politics. I was spending my time traveling with friends and family. I had begun writing. My lists of places to go, books to read, and things to accomplish had grown beyond what I could ever have dreamed 10 years earlier.
In hindsight, that year will likely be my closest personal connection to the Olympics. My high school teammate, Tyler Clary, won a gold medal in the 200 meter backstroke by beating Ryan Lochte. And the US Women’s Water Polo Team was made up of many women I had competed against at some point in high school or college. In many ways, these were “my” games.
If I’d done the math better, I might have picked 2012 as my year. But I had made the promise of 2016 to myself as a kid, and that oath irrevocably shaped my dreams.
The Olympics aren’t exactly something that you plan for at the last minute. So last year, I had to make a choice.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned since leaving college (where I tried to defy this to no avail) is: You can do everything, but you cannot do everything at once.
Whether it’s money, time, or energy, the reality of life is that we have to prioritize our choices.
For me, this meant that I could either go to Bali (which had risen to the top of my travel bucket list) or I could go to the Olympics this year. I still loved the Olympics, and going to the 2016 games had been a dream of mine for most of my life. But was it still my dream?
Letting Go of Promises That No Longer Fit Who I Am
The answer was no.
Instead of looking into tickets to the games, I booked a flight to Bali and spent two weeks exploring the island and myself. It was today’s dream, and I don’t know how the trip could have been any better.
I ate amazing food, explored a beautiful culture, accomplished another lifelong dream of getting scuba certified, and found my first solo trip a success. Those things and more are what make up my dreams now.
As the 2016 games progress, there is a part of me that feels like I should be disappointed in myself. This was so important to me, and I didn’t accomplish it.
The overachiever in me wants to tell myself I failed. Instead, I’m telling her to be quiet.
I’ve changed over these years, especially in the four since the Beijing games. And it’s okay that my dreams have changed with me.
Letting go of dreams is as hard as following through on them. Letting go of this particular dream is one more way that I have developed into the complex person I am today, and not just the athlete that I once defined myself as. I am a wanderlusting writer, full-time professional, friend, sister, daughter, adoptive aunt, sports lover, wino, foodie, reader, nerd, pilates practitioner, fandom member, and so much more.
It’s important to dream, to look forward, and set goals.
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But at the same time, it’s just as important to let go of them, rearrange them, and let ourselves change and grow.
This Olympic games, I’m looking back at where I was four years ago — even eight years ago — and, while that self would likely be a little disappointed that I watched the Opening Ceremony from my couch (and not Brazil), I think she’d also be impressed by who I’ve become and what I’ve done with my life.