Hatic with her teammates at the University of Miami. (Courtesy of Christine Anderson)

Hatic with her teammates at the University of Miami. (Courtesy of Christine Anderson)

During the third week of February this year, I felt the usual stomach-churning nervousness I was so accustomed to during the Atlantic Coast Conference Championships. But this is the first year I wasn’t competing.  That delightful feeling — oddly unsettling and exhilarating at the same time — no longer tells me it’s time to race. It now reminds me of the 17 years I spent committed to swimming.

For the college athlete, it usually ends at graduation. Your whole life has changed. You have to find new ways to stay organized and in shape, and you have to find some way to fill the void.

It’s hard to work so long to do your best at something only to retire and find yourself at the bottom of everything else. That sudden realization after my last race that I was no longer a full-time athlete scared the bejesus out of me.

My whole life, I was visibly identifiable as a swimmer: the build, the goggle tan lines, the gear blazoned with my school name. Now, I’m another student. I walk to class and no one knows I was a swimmer.

After years of so much structure and scheduling, I chose to replace 20-plus hours a week swimming with graduate school and a handful of jobs. My friends come from school, not the pool. For the first time in my life, exercise is not the first, or even the second, priority. It’s something thrown into my day as often as I can manage, and sometimes it’s not thrown in at all.

It’s now a competition when I walk to catch a bus, or to get home: you better believe those people on the sidewalk are not going to beat me to the curb. Is it worth the sweat I work up? Probably not. The satisfaction? Definitely.

I don’t miss waking up at 5 a.m. every day, having wet hair in a cold classroom, or being a scratch-and-sniff “chlorine scent.” But I do miss having an excuse to go to bed at 9 p.m., a reason to feel I’ve accomplished something before most people wake up in the morning, and that moment after a race when my time registers and I can sink back into the water and breathe, knowing I will hop out of the pool to a swarm of hugging teammates.

Dana Hatic was a member of the University of Miami swimming and diving team. She is currently studying journalism as a graduate student at Boston University. In the fall of 2012, Hatic was an intern with Only A Game.