Jessica Zelinka

"What Now?" Reflections on a New Year

I’m sitting at my parents’ kitchen table in front of four calendars I’ve been working on during my Christmas visit. They’re a colour-coded, crossed out, multi-directional arrow mess. Each one a failed attempt to plan out 2017 in some way that makes sense. I sigh and take a sip of the coffee I just pressed and lean back to look around the kitchen. 

I remember being a kid at this table, not a worry in the world watching my mom in her element cooking up a storm. I remember being home after Beijing, my first Olympic Games, gathered in this kitchen for a “welcome back” celebration and already having bubbling feelings of excitement with the thought of my next chance to compete at the Games in 4 years time. After the 2012 Olympics in London, my daughter and I found ourselves back here in this house for a few months as we waited for my husband to get our lives set up in Connecticut for his new job position. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the sudden end to a long build up to what was suppose to be my last Olympic Games and the reality that life still goes on, even when you don't reach your goals. And now, I'm here, only not as planned. I was suppose to be still excited about my last hurrah from the Rio Olympics and being able to walk away with grace and a complete sense of contentment. But I didn't make it, and now, suddenly, I'm trying to figure out “real” life and the emotions of many transitions I am currently facing.

Looking down again at the circles and double-extra-highlighted circles, stars and crossed out stars. Once again I try to figure out how to find the time to squeeze in enough working hours for three part-time jobs and, most important of all, the shared custody schedule of my daughter. Just when I thought I'd finally figured it all out, I realized I forgot to leave any time for exercise.  "My, oh my," I think, "how priorities have shifted in these past few months."

Before I start yet another plan, my mom slips into the kitchen and hands me a section of the London Free Press and then slips back out without saying a word. It’s open to an article titled “Exhausting Race Fuels Olympian's Retirement.”

It’s about how, my friend and competitor Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who won bronze in Rio, is retiring. I had assumed she was retiring since her husband and training partner Ashton Eaton (Olympic champion and world record holder in the decathlon) had already announced his retirement. 

I read that after her last race in Rio the only feeling she had was how thankful she was that it was finally over. I wasn’t surprised. I know how badly Brianne wanted to win the gold going into Rio; I know how consuming and utterly exhausting it can be to pursue sport at that level, constantly needing to show up, day in and out, wanting to give your best. Retirement, at first, is relief from all that. It’s only after a few months that you start wishing for the simplicity and order of the athlete’s schedule. 

Then I start to feel something unexpected and stop reading. Since trying to hang up my track shoes I’ve learned that it’s important to deal with emotions right away, otherwise they fester. So I sit, and I feel. 

I feel compassion, relief, regret, resentment, and gratitude, but also shortness in my breath and tightness in my chest. It only lasts a minute or so, but even after months off, thinking about heptathlon still has the power to trigger something in me. 

I finish the article and chuckle. Brianne’s husband, Ashton, stole the show…again. It was a bit of an inside joke with Brianne about how often she would be referred to as "Ashton's wife" in track circles, despite being incredible in her own right. But this time, in a quote taken from his retirement statement, Ashton had really nailed it. 

"To Brianne, I’ve never seen such a high level of strength sustained for so long. I love you. What now?"
I read it again. 

Wow, I smiled. “What now?” That's pure gold right there. How crazy it must have been for them to have shared this journey together; how exciting it must be to embark on their next of many new journeys together. 

Still smiling, I spread out another calendar, untouched by my jumbled attempts to plan life, to make a schedule like the one I had known for two decades as an athlete. I turn to January and the picture is of a fat happy looking weasel sitting in the snow. Perfect. 

I take another sip. “What now?” I think. “What’s next for me?” And for the first time I’m not nervous or anxious looking at that blank slate. If only for a moment, I’m excited. 




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