Saying goodbye to something you love is never easy.
For a number of former Penn student-athletes, however, the most difficult move of their lives often ends up being the most necessary. And while starting their next chapters after leaving Penn varsity teams provides former Quakers with major fulfillments in their own right, the sports world’s unique thrills of competition, triumphs and camaraderie often prove difficult to replace.
Nearly all Penn athletes enter the university with the intent of sticking around for all four years, and there’s no single universal reason why some student-athletes choose to give up their sports, but a few culprits tend to be most common. For many, the love of the game simply fades at the collegiate level, whether due to the presence of better competition, burnout coming from a drastically ramped up workload or the struggles of meshing with an entirely new group of coaches and teammates.
For others, it’s not so much the sport itself, but rather the pressures that build up around it at Penn. When attempting to handle team practices and games in addition to academic studies, work-study jobs, other extracurricular activities and an at least existent social life, students often come to the conclusion that a change has to be made to restructure that mental burden.
“Penn has never had a Nursing swimmer make it through all four years, and I was set on being the first one, so I was very motivated freshman year, even though I was just a walk-on,” Nursing junior and former women’s swimmer Marissa Moskalow said. “But then academics have always been my priority, and during freshman year, the pressure of keeping up with my schoolwork and making sure I was meeting my work-study hours, that all kind of got to me and swimming got pushed to the back. … I really stretched myself too thin, and I think something had to go, and it had to be swimming, for better or for worse.”
One commonality that nearly all retired student-athletes share is that none of them are spending their newly acquired free time staring at their bedroom walls feeling sorry for themselves. At a school notorious for having its students fill every vacant second with some form of activity, former athletes are no exceptions, as they consistently find ways to use their formerly occupied 20+ hours per week to pursue new passions — though what these passions consist of varies greatly between Penn’s population.
Since leaving the swim program, Moskalow has increased her work-study hours within the Nursing school’s office, in addition to serving as a teaching assistant for a lab course, babysitting for nearby families, working as a research assistant at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and becoming involved with the local “Big Brothers, Big Sisters” community service group.
For former men’s track and field javelin thrower and College junior Connor Borkert , that new passion became competitive powerlifting, where he already ranks No. 10 nationally in the 183-pound weight class in the men’s Raw Junior category (ages 19-23) in combined deadlift, squat and bench press.
College junior Angelo Matos, who walked on to Penn football as a freshman before helping sprint football to a championship as a sophomore, has at least temporarily given up his gridiron passion to give him time to work as the Vice President of Public Relations for Engineers Without Borders at Penn, a group dedicated to travelling the world and bringing necessary hygienic technologies to poorer countries.
“Quitting [sprint football] for me was the most bittersweet thing that I’ve had to do, and at first, I was just trying to ignore the fact that I had to quit by not talking to anybody about it, but I had to face it,” said Matos, who also said he hopes to return to the program as a senior. “But [Engineers Without Borders] is super fulfilling, in the sense that being able to slow down, I’m gonna look back at school and say that I did these service projects, that I was able to help these people. When I’m playing football, I’m pursuing my passions and what I love, but I’m not giving back at all.”
Making the transition emotionally easier for many former athletes is the inherent family culture of collegiate sports teams, allowing retirees to remain close with their old teammates even after hanging up their jerseys. Many former student-athletes still live with the people they used to suit up alongside, and they also often make the trips down to the east side of campus to support their old teams, proving that the brotherhood between teammates never fully fades even as the roster names change.
“Most of my social events definitely still come through the track team for sure. I still live with people that are solely on the track team, and I’m still involved pretty heavily with the Penn track and field family,” Borkert, who left the team after his sophomore year, said. “Oh yeah, I’ll definitely go support them at the home and local meets, and I know come spring time, when I come to the meets, I’ll just be like, ‘Damn, I wish I could be out there with them.’”
But while the friendships might still exist, nothing can fully replicate the collegiate athletic experience, no matter how hard any former athletes might try.
Borkert, for one, did manage to maintain a competitive aspect in his life by picking up powerlifting, but most others aren’t so lucky. Having grown up for years accustomed to the structure of scheduled team workouts, the elation of succeeding at an elite level, and the bonds that come from doing it all alongside a beloved group of teammates, many former athletes come to a conclusion that while new hobbies in life can prove challenging and fulfilling, there are certain emotional voids that just can’t be filled.
“Doing team cheers, being in the locker room just blasting music, dancing and singing before meets — that’s just something that I really, really miss, having that team aspect. And I definitely miss the competition; I loved having that competitive outlet, and I don’t have that anymore,” Moskalow said. “Last year, I ran a half-marathon just to give myself like a goal of something to do, and that was great when I finished it, but nothing will compare to the feeling of touching the wall and getting your best time.”
Ultimately, for better or worse, life goes on for all of Penn’s former student-athletes. And as they all embark on their new passions, it’s clear that while they almost unanimously find new areas in which to excel, those sentiments of “what if” may never fully fade.
“I’m still on the [sprint football] Hudl playlist — I guess I should ask to get off of that — but I go back and I watch the highlights of the games and definitely I wish I was out there,” Matos said. “But I don’t look back, man, and I’m happy that I have the time to grasp what I think real success is … now it seems like I’m in a position to be able to turn it around and be able to play one last season, so I’m in a really good place to be.”