NCAA: When the Playing Days End

When the Playing Days End was a feature story in the Spring 2018 edition of the NCAA Champion Magazine. Featured in a sidebar on University of Michigan swimmer Ashley Cohagen ’13. Additionally, U-M swimmer and current Athletes Connected project coordinator Emily Klueh is quoted in the story. Below is an excerpt.

By Rachel Stark

ASHLEY COHAGEN (as told to Rachel Stark)

“After college, I was working as a phlebotomist trying to get some experience before nursing school. During that time, it was kind of easy to continue working out. I was still living in Ann Arbor, so I was able to do drop-in practice with the masters swim team. I had enough time to take care of myself. But once I started nursing school — I did a 13-month accelerated bachelor’s program — there was no time for anything.

I was studying all the time. I was not eating well because I was trying to do quick meals. I was not sleeping as much because I was studying. In college, swimming and going to school was stressful, but when you’re a student-athlete, they try and work in a lot of that self-care. You’re trying to make yourself as good physically and mentally so you can compete, so you’re trying to focus on all that stuff. But I think once I didn’t have athletics, it was like, well, I can let my body go to the wayside because I need to study right now.

I started having panic attacks. I came to my mom after the first one. She asked me, ‘Have you been taking care of yourself? Have you been getting enough sleep? Have you been working out?’ And I thought, ‘Nope, I haven’t been doing any of those things.’ I got into the doctor, and he said, ‘I’m OK with prescribing you medication, but I want to make sure you’re getting into therapy and you’re talking to someone about this.’ So I started seeing a therapist where I was going to nursing school. The more I talked with her, it made sense. I was always kind of a baseline anxious person, even with swimming. But because I wasn’t taking care of myself, I think it snowballed.

I think this is an important message to share because I think it’s something that’s not talked about a lot. You move away from your university, and you don’t have that support system. And the more people I talk to, I realize there are a lot of people who had similar struggles, and they keep that in because they think they’re alone in it and it’s stigmatized. Make yourself a priority.

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Experts agree student-athletes benefit when they think — and step — outside of the athletics bubble before they say goodbye to their sport. The less their identity revolves solely around being a student-athlete, the less of a shock it will be when that identity expires.

“We talk a lot about your sport is something you do; it doesn’t define who you are as a person,” says Emily Klueh, an athletics mental health counselor at the University of Michigan and coordinator for Athletes Connected, a program to support student-athlete mental health. Klueh stresses balance: “Whatever people have as hobbies, explore those a bit because those are going to be really helpful when or if that identity struggle comes into play.”

Diversifying their experiences and interests beyond athletics doesn’t mean downplaying the role of sports. Klueh was shaped by her own athletics involvement — she won the national title in the 1,650-yard freestyle at the 2008 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships (then as Emily Brunemann) and went on to swim professionally for 10 years before returning to her alma mater for graduate school and then a job. The grit, leadership and confidence that propelled her to success as a swimmer drives her as a counselor, and she draws on her own experiences in the pool to give back to the student-athletes of today.

“There’s so much that happens through sports that I think is unique to athletes,” Klueh says. “There are things that are still a part of who an athlete is, and those will never be taken away.

“I will always be a former athlete,” she adds. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. … I think it’s just redefining what that means in your life.”

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