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After going out on top with a touchdown in his final career game, former football offensive lineman Nick Demes is one of many Penn senior student-athletes forced to adjust to life without the games they've loved for so long.

Credit: Alex Fisher

The NCAA mandates that Division I athletes can only practice for 20 hours per week. Being a student-athlete at Penn, however, is so much more than just another large weekly time commitment: it’s an identity.

During the 2016-17 academic year, 98 seniors have already competed for the last time while wearing the Red and Blue. 76 more will join them come May. While spring athletes will never experience Penn without athletics, the transition to life without sports for many fall and winter athletes can be as disorienting as it is welcome.

“It’s really a huge void,” said fifth-year senior wrestling captain Brooks Martino. “You might think there’s only a two-hour void every day that you’d have to fill without practice, but it’s really a lot more time than that. You don’t have to think about it anymore, there’s no travel time, there’s a lot of factors.”

In the absence of workouts before dawn, circadian rhythms change, schedules are sent into limbo and student-athletes’ day-to-day habits start resembling those of their “non-athletic regular person” peers.

According to football captain and former offensive lineman Nick Demes, life beyond Franklin Field has been one of much greater freedom and much fewer calories. The senior is listed on the roster at 280 pounds, about fifty pounds over his natural weight.

“All throughout college, and high school even, I had to just eat disgustingly in order to get up to around 290 pounds,” he said. “I’d make these milkshakes with protein powder, ice cream and donut holes and whole milk.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that in the absence of a competitive outlet at Franklin Field – or the need to pummel defensive tackles - Demes and his fellow senior linemen, Nick Whitton and Dan Poulos, have embarked on a weight loss challenge.

“We’re a couple months into that and we’ve all dropped a ridiculous amount of weight just from being able to eat like a normal person and not have to eat like 5,000-6,000 calories a day,” Demes said with a laugh.

Although he does miss his signature milkshakes, the biggest aspect of football now absent from his life is the personal interactions with his teammates.

“I miss the stuff outside of the X’s and O’s and just being around the team,” he said. He still sees many of his teammates in the Weiss Varsity Weight Room at open hours, but the sense of shared purpose is gone. Despite this, Demes doesn’t look back on his collegiate career, or his final game against Cornell, when he scored his first career touchdown on a trick play as Penn clinched its second straight Ivy title, with regrets.

“I was definitely emotional after the game, but I was so happy that we went out on top,” he said. “It was bittersweet, but definitely more sweet than bitter.”

Unlike Demes, field hockey captain Claire Kneizys saw her career end in heartbreaking fashion. Her last game in November was on the road against archrival Princeton, the three-time defending conference champions. Instead of hanging with the Tigers and going out with a win, she watched her team fall apart on the field.

“The Princeton game went as badly as any game could possibly go. We got killed,” she said of the 6-1 loss. “It was really hard taking it in. You want your last game to be the best and it was one of the worst – not even just in the season but in four years, one of the worst games I’ve ever had.”

On the bus ride back to Philadelphia, Kneizys remembered feeling “defeated” and thinking, “I gave four years and now it’s just totally over, so where do I go from here?”

It took Kneizys four months to settle into a routine for working out and make peace with how her playing career ended. These days the only thing that makes her sentimental is mother nature.

“I have this theory that there is perfect game weather when it’s a little chilly but not too cold – mid-fifties,” she explained. “Whenever it’s that weather, I get really upset because I think I should be playing a game, I should be on the field.”

Cassidy Golden, a diver and captain of the women’s swim and dive team, had an entirely different path to retirement. In Ivy League swimming, teams are allotted championship rosters of 18 athletes. While swimmers can race up to six events, divers may only compete on one-meter and three-meter springboard, and thus each diver fills just one-third of a roster spot. Traditionally Penn has taken 17 swimmers and three divers to the conference championship meet. However, in early February the coaching staff collectively decided that the Quakers could score more points at Ivies by taking 18 swimmers instead.

“My season kind of vanished in front of my eyes,” she recalled. “I had my last meet [against Westchester] and after my last meet the coaches made the decision that they weren’t going to take divers.”

Although Golden’s season was effectively truncated four weeks early, she has used her new found free time in retirement to reinvent her contributions to the team.

“I think it’s so fun being a captain now because my job is to keep the team close and make sure everyone has fun outside of the pool,” she said. “It’s arguably more fun than during the year when you have to deal with much more serious things.”

While Golden’s final meet lacked fanfare, Martino finished his career with a bang at NCAA Championships in St. Louis on March 16.

“Some people going into their last season might be nervous or stressed out that ‘I gotta do this, it’s my last opportunity,’ but this was the most fun season I’ve ever had. Coincidentally it was also my most successful,” he said. “I wrestled hard at NCAAs, felt like it was the best I’ve ever wrestled in my life. Can’t ask for more than that.”

Although Martino has been retired for not even two weeks, he’s already focusing on how he can translate what he calls a “constant drive for success” into other areas of his life and setting goals beyond the mat. He’s picked up more hours at the lab where he does research and started preparing for medical school applications, a means that will help him achieve his lifetime goal of becoming an astronaut.

“It’s real easy to become complacent,” he said. “So you have to keep that drive.”

Martino’s reflection speaks to a defining aspect of the transition from student-athlete to student: the drive for success instilled in Penn’s athletic community does not evaporate after the last down is played or the last finish line is crossed. And while the nuances of that student-athlete identity may change, the experience of being a student-athlete at Penn lasts forever.