ZENG: What does it mean to retire?
On the one-year anniversary of her retirement, Olympian Laura Zeng ’25 reflects on what moving forward means as a college student.
Courtesy of Alice Mao
When people think of retirement, they think of someone over the age of 65. Someone who has worked their whole life, with kids out of the house. Someone who has gone through the grind, and come out the other side — not a college student gallivanting across campus.
So when I call myself recently retired, most people think I’m kidding.
But it’s been a year — almost to the day — since I submitted my notice to USA Gymnastics, to the U.S. Olympic Committee and to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, announcing my retirement from the sport of rhythmic gymnastics. A year since I permanently left — which is more than can be said for Tom Brady — and said goodbye to the carpet, for better or worse.
The shift felt purely external, at first: I sent a few emails, thanked the right people, made an official announcement. The motions were bureaucratic, yet swift. I was released, all at once, from the expectations of others.
But what about the expectations I had for myself?
I always knew my lifespan as a gymnast would be short. Like a swimmer who peaks at age 26, or a golfer in his prime at 35, I became a “senior” when I turned 15. In the years that followed, I was constantly reminded that by merely continuing, I was achieving — that my longevity was a feat in and of itself. And while there is nothing wrong with that sentiment, it didn’t make it any less hard to realize growing up meant growing old.
Last year, I attended a summit for retiring athletes in the mountains of Colorado. I met 13 other athletes from different sports, like ski jump, rugby and shot-put. I was the only rhythmic gymnast there, and — for the first time in a long time — the youngest person in the room. Like a motley crew out of the Breakfast Club, we had nothing in common, except for a shared crisis of identity.
Over the course of a weekend, we shared our deepest fears and our worst thoughts, a group of strangers experiencing the same struggle. It was what I imagined an AA meeting to be like, except we weren’t alcoholics — we were athletes who didn’t know what else we were.
Most people don’t realize that retirement involves mourning. The end of a career is the death of it, no matter how glorious that career was. The media celebrates triumph, but the majority of athletes retire because they are forced to, physically or mentally. Even those who retire at a high point with a shiny gold medal have regrets and insecurity about what comes next.
Guided by a sports psychologist, we spent eight hours a day doing self-assessments and personality tests, separating what we thought we should value from what we wanted to value. And what made the weekend so fulfilling — to call in a cliché — was to know we weren’t alone. We were going through unique journeys, but in tandem.
On the last night of the retreat, we started playing a game of volleyball, and I reveled in how average we all were. Most people assume Olympic skill is somehow transferrable, but the opposite is true (at least for me). None of us were Olympic volleyball players, but, more importantly, nobody cared. We were playing just for fun, for ourselves— not for country, or God, or glory. And I realized that sometimes there really is nothing to win in winning, and nothing to lose in losing.
As athletes, we rarely question what we’re doing, because it’s always clear what needs to be done. We want to win, and for that you need discipline — not freedom. Grit — not perspective. Willpower — not choice. Success in sport is different from success in life, because it’s about how much you want something — not what it is you want in the first place.
I spent so much of last year trying to improve myself, without knowing what that meant in a new context. I craved progress for progress’ sake, because I thought I could always be better, and that better would always exist.
But life is teaching me that better doesn’t always exist. That sometimes it’s just different.
The transition from athlete to person is confusing. Unlike sports, there are no set rules in life. There is no playbook or clear paradigm of success, so it’s unclear what goals should look like, or which ones even matter.
On its face, retirement is about making peace with a career in order to move on. But the hardest part is figuring out how exactly to move on — and where to land.
Nobody can answer these questions for me, because there are no right or wrong answers — just the ones that feel the most right to me. It will take time to find intuition, and the parts within myself I can trust. It will take time to figure out who I am — and who I want to be.
But time is exactly what retirement brings. The time to process the past, and make way for new beginnings.
Laura Zeng ’25 will be writing a bi-monthly column on her opinions and life experiences. Send her questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.