Most people define themselves by what they do, rather than who they are at their core. As a division I student-athlete turned professional swimmer, this was definitely an internal battle I faced for many years. From the time I was seven years old until I recently retired, swimming at the highest level was my main focus. My sleeping, eating, and free time decisions all revolved around how it would impact my body in the pool. This mentality took me all around the world, earning world records and an Olympic gold medal. I knew one day my time competing internationally would come to an end, but I kept asking myself how I would handle the identity shift, from being an athlete to the next career that was ahead of me, not even knowing yet what that career would be. I did what I could to mentally prepare for the end, but only the experience of the change and how I would respond to it would show where my identity truly belonged.
The real identity test came in April 2022 when I decided it was time to move on from racing competitively. I am extremely grateful I was able to make this decision on my own time and pace, but it still came faster than I thought it would. Swimming was not just my job, but where I went to spend time with friends and how I structured my goals. Did I only see myself as a swimmer? How would I handle life away from the pool? When I look back, there are a few checkpoints I put in place to help my transition from my time as a professional swimmer.
First, my faith has always been the true center of my life. I grew up in a Christian home, but it was when I went to college that I really grew in my faith. I surrounded myself with other like minded people who also loved Jesus and who loved me for who I was, not for my resume. When I was around other Christians, I was able to be my full self and not be defined by how my practice or meet went. They reminded me every day that I was not valued by my performances or accolades. Having this community build me up all these years was key in my transition from competing.
Second, my family and friends would remind me that I am so much more than my accomplishments. During racing season, I was never pushed to be results driven, just challenged to “have fun and make new friends” by my mom. Even my coach would tell me before my races, “no matter what, we will still go get a sandwich”. It was his reminder that win or lose, life goes on. These sayings from some of the loudest voices in my life helped me to prepare for life after swimming.
Third, I strive to focus on the positives and opportunities of each chapter rather than the loss of the previous. I did my best to process the change and the impact of my decisions, but I wanted to place more of my focus on the future and what I would gain. I knew I had so much life left to live with my family and so much to look forward to from my choice. So far my next chapter has looked like coaching at the University of Notre Dame with a move to Indiana and expecting my first child in January 2023. I still have moments where I miss the adrenaline rush of stepping up to the blocks and traveling for meets, but I know God has so much for me next as a coach and mom. My worth does not come from a medal or incredible practice. I am learning so much every single day and enjoying this new adventure, discovering more about myself in my new roles with new relationships.
My challenge to anyone in the athletics world or otherwise is to put your value not in what you do, but in the discovering of who you are at your core. Know that you are not boxed into just what you do for a living. Surround yourself with people who know you and build you up because they love you for who you are. Find passions and things to look forward to in the future rather than focusing on what is missed from the past. Most of all, nothing you have done or will do is more valuable than who you are!
About the Author: Kelsi Dahlia was a four-time national champion and finished on the podium 10 different times at NCAA’s. At the 2015 National Championship, she set the American Record in the 100 Butterfly, breaking the 13-year old record held by Natalie Coughlin. Dahlia still holds the American Record to this day and she was the first woman to break 50 seconds in the event. She also holds the World Record in the 4×100 meter medley relay (short course) that she initially set at Duel in the Pool in 2015. On the professional circuit, she has won gold at U.S. Nationals five different times (2 in 2017 and 2018, 1 in 2019). She has also won gold at Short Course Worlds 11 different times between the 2016 and 2018 competitions. She continued to break records in her professional career including the American record in the 100 (scm) butterfly (54.84) at the 2018 World Cup in Budapest. She also improved the World Record in 4×100 meter medley relay (3:50.40) at the 2019 FINA World Championships in Korea.
Kelsi is currently an Associate Coach at the University of Notre Dame. In 2017 she married her husband, Tom Dahlia, and the couple is currently expecting their first child in January of 2023.