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Credit: Zach Sheldon

There’s no stopping it. Your final game might end in heartbreak. It might end with injury. It might even be for an Ivy title.

But no matter what, the last interview is going to happen. The last practice is going to end. You’re going to be honored at the last banquet. And then it all comes crashing down.

It happens immediately. One moment you’re a Penn athlete, the next you’re not. But despite the transition happening in a flash, the process of acceptance is never that quick. Different players prepare for the moment in different ways, but it’s impossible to really anticipate just how the end is going to come.

Penn women’s basketball learned that the hard way.

The Shock

Up 21 points with barely nine minutes left against fifth-seeded Texas A&M in the NCAA Tournament, it seemed as though the Quakers were on the verge of the first tournament win in program history. But the Aggies weren’t done, chipping away and ultimately overtaking the Red and Blue, 63-61.

Sydney Stipanovich, Kasey Chambers and Jackie Falconer all thought they were going to have one more game. In an instant, it was gone. The trio was left to pick up the pieces and figure out what came next, and what they were walking away with as Penn athletes.

“The A&M game might have been more of a reality check just because it ended in such a hard way,” Chambers said. “So to end on that as the last game, it sucks because that’s what I’m going to think about when I think about my career.”

Instead of one of the biggest wins in program history, the Quakers were left with a devastating loss and at the flip of a switch, were at the end of the line.

It’s not just on players alone to deal with the end. Although there is not much of a formalized structure within Penn Athletics to help athletes transition out of their careers, each team and coach has their own approach in guiding the 200-plus seniors who take off the Red and Blue for a final time each year.

For women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin, the process begins at the start of senior year, initiating conversations with his soon-to-be graduates and making sure they won’t walk away from Penn with any regrets.

McLaughlin acknowledged, however, that there’s only so much a coach can do to prepare an athlete. On top of it, coaches are not immune to the emotions of the moment. As the Red and Blue made their way to the locker rooms of Pauley Pavilion, McLaughlin had to sort out his own feelings while preparing to address his team and his three seniors.

“This is the last time that group that sits together, that I can address them with the uniforms on, with the sweat, with the emotions — I want to make sure that I try to capture that as much as I can, that they can remember this moment,” he explained. “Unfortunately, that was such an emotional ending of a game that it was hard to capture it... I was stuck, I didn’t know what to say, I apologized to them.”

Oftentimes in that moment, there isn’t much anyone can say anyway. That was the case for Brooks Martino, who saw his wrestling career come to an end at the NCAA Tournament in a match he seemed to have locked up until the final moments.

It was a finale he wasn’t ready for.

“I did prepare myself for the final season, but as for that moment, I didn’t prepare,” Martino said. “It was a tough match. I thought I had it won with ten seconds left. That would’ve been the last match of the night, and that all turned around real quickly — going from thinking about making weight the next day to no longer having to make weight again in your life.”

He walked off the mat after being knocked out of the tournament, and his coaches just let him take it in alone. The transition was jarring, born in many ways out of the manner in which that final match ended.

The emotions many Penn athletes bring up stem not just from the fact that their careers ended — it’s also how they ended.

For Martino and Chambers, even if there wasn’t certainty about exactly when the final game and match would come, they knew the end was on the horizon.

Kaleb Germinaro didn’t have that luxury. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2014, his football career ended before the thought of a finale even crossed his mind. Interestingly, though, in some ways this actually eased his transition process.

“I feel like it was more of a shock than anything,” he explained. “I was in shock for a good amount of time until I realized it was totally over. I was in shock, but also had a nice transition into student coaching, so it was not as immediate for me as my fellow teammates.”

Germinaro spent his remaining two seasons as an assistant with the team, offering a chance for closure that many athletes don’t get to experience. The end was just as abrupt, but the transition was different.

It doesn’t have to end on a sour note. Some teams, especially those without postseason play, can walk out on top.

Mike McCurdy went out as a national champion, leading sprint football to a perfect season in 2016. The title compelled him to end his career on his terms — he’ll be attending Georgetown next year and had been in talks before the championship of joining the squad down there before the title led him to reconsider.

“To finally get it, to get it senior year, and do it in the style that we did really helped with the closure of not being an athlete anymore. ... It seemed like the time to accept that it’s been great, and it’s been a lot of fun, and it’s something that has been a part of me for a very long time, but it’s time to hang up the spikes,” he explained.

No matter how well or poorly they played, sprint football players knew there were going to be seven games on the calendar. No more, no less. There was no question of a title game or NCAA Tournament.

The same is true for Penn football. There will be ten games. A visit from Cornell or the trip to Ithaca is going to close things out no matter what.

“We had seven Super Bowls a year against each of the other Ivy teams,” said Nick Demes, a former offensive lineman and 2016 captain. “And we cherished each and every one of those games and so we had ground it out and yeah it made it easier, but it also made it that much more intense each of those seven games. Because we knew that was it for us.”

It made things easier. It wasn’t just the feeling of going out a champion; there was the added element of knowing exactly when the end would come.

That feeling is not necessarily universal.

BG Lemmon knew when he stepped on the court against Yale’s Pierson Broadwater that it would be the last squash match of his career. Lemmon got a win, and the Quakers beat Yale for the first time since he’d been to Penn, securing a seventh-place finish at the national championship tournament. But still, even knowing and being able to prepare for the fact that the end had arrived, the moment was raw.

“It was just one of those weird — not that I was dying — life flash before your eyes kind of moments,” Lemmon noted.

For many Penn athletes, their sport defines them. They’ve often been playing for 15, 16 years or more.

The final game ends and it isn’t just about picking up the pieces. It means redefining who they are.

The Aftermath

While there’s widespread agreement that there is no formula for how to cope with retirement, there is consensus on one thing — it’s a long process. There are different outlets for different athletes; some are personal, some profession.

Germinaro turned to photography, really picking up the art for the first time after his diagnosis.

“I figured photography is one of those hobbies where you can’t be amazing at right away, and you’re never going to be done learning about it,” he said. “And that’s kind of how sports are too, you’re always getting a little better or fine tuning this and fine tuning that.”

Many go seek out something to fill the void in the same way as Germinaro; it’s about replicating the challenge and adrenaline of athletics. Penn athletes are used to committing hours of their lives to their sport; retirement opens their schedules in ways they’ve never experienced at college.

In fact, multiple athletes pointed to the same activity as a source of comfort following their final games.

“I found my outlet through softball,” Lemmon explained. “Something like that, it’s weird to have that every single day, that little thrill, that adrenaline rush, that thrill of competing in a sport and winning or losing and you have that rush taken away and it’s almost like a drug. And you keep weaned off it and it’s like you’re detoxing and it’s the worst thing ever.”

Martino, too, offered up that one of the blessings of the end of his career has been him feeling healthier than he has a long time — with shoulder injuries subsiding to the point where he could throw a baseball (and softball) without pain for the first time in years.

But even if athletes are able to fill the gaps in their schedule, that does not diminish the larger, emotional impacts of retirement. Many athletes simply aren’t prepared for it.

“I felt like I was prepared, but it’s not at all what I expected it to be,” Lemmon conceded. “I didn’t expect there to be this much of a void, and that emptiness and loneliness. You think it’s so easy to get yourself to work out, to stay healthy, and you think it’s not going to be that much different but it is.”

There is no structure in place to help athletes navigate the process. Most of them don’t want one. Instead they turn to the people whose experiences offer the most help: their classmates.

“We’re all going through the same things together, so we support each other,” Martino added. “We kind of unspeakingly know what each other is going through — we don’t really talk about it or feel like we need to — but the other seniors, we’re at the same point.”

Next Steps

Although much of an athlete’s identity is wrapped up in their sport, the end of a career does not mean the loss of the underlying personality that provided the drive and intensity that underscored their time wearing the Red and Blue. Perhaps that’s why many athletes don’t walk away entirely from their sport when their time at Penn is done.

For Chambers, that means finding a new role. Starting in September, the former point guard will take on a new position at a new school, serving as a graduate assistant at George Washington while pursuing a master’s degree in education.

“I want to be able to help others have the experience that I had at Penn and I want to be able to give that to other people because it was so much fun,” she said. “I mean, the ride that I had here, it couldn’t get any better.”

For some, Penn might not be the end of the line. Football’s Alek Torgersen recently signed a contract with the Atlanta Falcons. Several baseball players are positioning themselves for the MLB draft.

But there’s a downside to that. Particularly for the baseball players, the drive to stay around the sport can come at a cost. Many spend every summer at Penn playing in collegiate leagues in an attempt to showcase their talent for pro clubs. That means forgoing internships, running the risk of being caught without a backup plan if their pro dreams fall through.

“I think, honestly, they try not to think about [job prospects if a pro career falls through],” said Tim Graul, a senior outfielder and the 2016 Ivy League Player of the Year. “They don’t think about it as much as they should. [St. Anthony Hall] made me think about it way more than somebody like [senior pitcher Jake Cousins] would just because all my friends are getting jobs. That kind of forces you to think about that side of things. But a lot of baseball kids just ignore it.”

Graul, for his part, was lucky. He didn’t have his breakout year until 2016. He wasn’t expecting to be in a position where a professional career was really an option and locked down an internship before hitting his stride in Ivy play.

That sequence of events has allowed Graul to avoid the negative effects of an uncertain future. As the season winds down, the unpredictable nature of the draft means guys might have played their last game without even knowing it.

“Multiple times I’ve seen it in the past where kids will go into the season and then all of the sudden the end of the year sneaks up on them and they realize they don’t have much going on for plans after and it’ll start to kind of stress them out,” Graul added. “And it affects the way the play because the stress of everything starts to pile up as the season comes to a close.”

Even if a professional career isn’t in the cards, there remain elements of sports that can be seen in athletes’ postgrad lives. There’s widespread agreement throughout Penn Athletics that a correlation exists between athletes and the types of careers they end up in.

“You see athletes come back to competitive-type jobs where they’re driven,” McLaughlin explained. “They’re on a team-oriented job where they’re working together. Where there is a result at the end. I think many athletes go back to a job like that because that’s what they know, that’s what they’re good at, that’s how they got here.”

One year out from her own retirement, 2016 graduate and former field hockey captain Elizabeth Hitti embodies McLaughlin’s point — having foregone a career in engineering because she wanted the intensity of consulting.

“I wanted to travel. It would keep me busy,” she said. “I didn’t want to be home thinking about things all the time. I wanted to be moving, moving, moving. My mom calls it ‘running away,’ I call it ‘exploring.’”

There’s no finite trajectory an athlete’s career is going to take. It will end at different times, in different ways, and everyone is going to handle it differently. Many, like Hitti, find ways to prolong their careers, or recreate the feeling sports offered.

But no matter what they do, no matter how they prepare or how they handle life once retirement comes, nothing will change the inevitability of the end. Perhaps the only real solution is a simple one. Graul doesn’t know when his last game will be. And he’s all right with that.

“I’m somebody who appreciates things and I don’t take it for granted, but for the most part, I take it one day at a time and try to enjoy that game and not think too much.”