I’m on the fifth floor at Payne-Whitney, half-walking, half-running, half-assing it at 4.5 speed on the treadmill. I have my earbuds in, but I have to change the song every 30 seconds. I look down, and find that three mere minutes have passed. I am bored, I am annoyed and I want to leave. 

I am also, frustratingly, a two-time Olympian in the sport of rhythmic gymnastics. 

As an elite athlete, I used to train for six to eight hours a day, six days a week. Discipline was not a choice but a requirement, because it was all too easy otherwise to lose your momentum. It was all too easy to lose — in the blink of an eye — your skills, your habits and your body. Centuries ago, writer John Heywood said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour.” And if you miss even a single hour, you are taking a risk. 

So how is it possible to go from working out all the time to barely being able to get it together for a day? 

Most retired gymnasts, dancers and athletes tell me that it takes them about two years. 

Two years of never setting foot in a gym, of exercising once in a blue moon, of working out sporadically with occasional bouts of extreme fervor, of having a rocky relationship with their body. Two years until they start feeling normal again, and realize that what “normal” means when you’re no longer an elite athlete is finding whatever feels good to you. 

Is it normal to train as much as you sleep? To push your body as much as you simply exist within it, constantly shaping and sculpting and molding it in fear of what would happen if you just let it be? 

In the world of rhythmic gymnastics, and in the larger culture of elite sport in general, this is normal. More than just normal, it is necessary: if you want to be the best, you can never rely on your feelings alone to set your standards. 

When I was in high school, I skipped school without a second thought. I missed four or eight or twelve weeks of class a year to train and compete abroad, because I knew that I could always email my teachers for updates or ask my classmates for help. At the end of the day, I could always catch up. 

But unless I had a fever or some contagious illness confining me to bed, I never skipped practice. 

After major competitions, we had at most one to two weeks off. During holidays, we had at most two to three days off. Whenever we flew abroad, we had at most a couple of hours to rest before heading back to the gym, because time spent traveling is time spent not training. 

As an athlete, being considered “out of shape” at a major competition felt personal. In rhythmic, “out of shape” implied that a gymnast had gained weight, in addition to a lack of overall competitive readiness. Regardless of the sport though, an athlete who is “out of shape” is universally understood to be an athlete who is unprepared. 

To be unprepared is not just having a bad day, because every athlete has those. To be unprepared means that if an athlete doesn’t perform well, it’s their own fault. It implies that any performance issues that arise could have been avoided, and are self-inflicted rather than accidental. 

There are many things an athlete cannot control, but quality of effort is not one of them. To neglect proper preparation is to disrespect yourself, because you are disrespecting your own potential. Once talent and luck and nerves and politics and everything else is accounted for, the only thing left to define an athlete is their work ethic. 

But if a person is only ever working out and on their bodies, then it follows that work ethic could become interchangeable with general ethical fortitude. How your body looks and how well it performs become the sole determinants of who you are and how “good” you are as a person. Growing up in the world of sports, it became all too easy for me to conflate moral character with physical fitness. 

So when I officially stopped training, going to the gym didn’t feel like going to the gym anymore. It felt like penance — and not the cathartic kind. 

Working out became a painful reminder of how much of my former self I had lost, and it summoned feelings of guilt, frustration and disappointment. I wanted to maintain some semblance of my former discipline and go to the gym regularly. But the urge to not go at all often won out, accompanied by the overwhelming sentiment that I was past the point of any return.


Rationally, I understood that my workout schedule as an elite athlete was extreme. That it was unreasonable to keep up with the same exact regimen post-retirement; that it made sense to take a complete break from exercise; that it was healthy for my body to change, and more than okay to be letting myself “go.” Rationally, I understood this all. 

But physically and emotionally, I did not. I was confused. And I still am. My body grew up with 16 years of constant attention and refinement, such that the transition to anything less feels wrong. 

The sometimes encouraging, sometimes self-flagellating inner voice that pushed me to become a better athlete doesn’t translate well in the real world. It judges me for having priorities I used to consider distractions, and resents me for not being able to do it all. Trying new things, forming relationships, finding a job: they require pieces of me I used to exclusively reserve for the gym.

Without the stakes of an Olympics, the clout of a profession and any surrounding structures in place, my relationship to exercise became more and more toxic. It was just a means to lose weight and prove to myself and the world that I still had worth. Yet these explanations neither felt good, nor were true. 

If I’ve learned anything in this process, it’s that the qualities which seemed like red flags before are the green ones now: being patient, embracing my body as it is and having low expectations actually help me in the long term.

It’s around the two-year retirement mark, so the sage generations of ex-athletes who came before me were right. A less-anxious, more-lenient desire to work out for the sake of getting strong and feeling healthy is reappearing. 

Payne Whitney still doesn’t feel like home, but that’s okay. There’s no rush, and also no need: it’s just a gym, and that’s what it finally feels like. 

LAURA ZENG ’25 writes the bi-monthly column, “Ask an Olympian,” on her opinions and life experiences. Contact her at laura.zeng@yale.edu

Laura Zeng is a staff reporter covering arts and culture. Her column, “Ask an Olympian,” runs bi-monthly. Hailing from the suburbs of Chicago, she is interested in Architecture and the Humanities.