USA Rugby 7's and 15's player Kelsi Stockert and now Athlete Career Transition's Chief Storyteller opens up honestly about her struggles and transition through retirement.
Retirement. One of the few things elite athletes avoid at all costs. Usually, we face challenges straight on without hesitation. We put in the work that needs to be done to prepare for it, but retirement, that’s just one of those things that we never really want to acknowledge or face; because what is life after sport? This Olympic dream is our everything; what we’ve worked our whole lives for. This is it. This is who we are.
As a young adult who loves sport, it feels like you have to make a decision after high school/college. Work toward a professional career that will give you stability, financial security and experience. Or give up everything to chase an Olympic dream. A rare percentage choose the latter- its's scary, there’s so much uncertainty, and it takes a LOT of hard work. But the few who do are the ones who go off and win gold medals when all odds were against them. They compete and make a name for themselves in their sport. They are told they are so inspiring and are heroes to many, but what happens after they retire? Sure, some may go on and coach, but not everyone is meant for that. What next?
I decided to chase my Olympic dreams when all odds were against me. After graduating high school in 2011, I had my beautiful daughter, Lily. Weeks later, I played in a rugby tournament – some told me I couldn’t which only served to make me more determined. Playing rugby was my way of still being Kelsi, though having Lily made things quite a bit different. If I was going to spend time away from her, I knew I had to make it worth it. She motivated me to work hard and train to compete. I began commuting 800 miles a week and training with Seattle Rugby Club. I had an extremely successful first season with Seattle ending the season as National Champions and MVP of the tournament. I'd been scouted for a USA Rugby camp and was selected for my first international tour against England, Canada and New Zealand. From there it was a waterfall of opportunity. I was travelling down to the OTC monthly to help prepare the Olympic team. Following the games, I was contracted full time and moved family to San Diego to train and compete on the HSBC World Series.
It was a dream come true. Until a week in and I was told my contract will be $600 less than originally promised, forcing me to get part time employment at Starbucks. While I am forever grateful for my opportunities, it was physically and emotionally draining to train full time, work part time and be a mother all at once. Being an elite athlete, we tend to have extremely high and sometimes unrealistic expectations of ourselves- we want to be the best. I tried so desperately hard to be the best at it all. It worked for a while, but it soon took its toll on me. My mental health hit an all-time low. Depression and anxiety took over and I began to lose myself.
I decided to walk away from the 7’s team. Training full time with little support as a mother and having to work part time to make ends meet was not worth it anymore, but retirement was not an option. I was shifting my focus to 15’s. I thought it would be a healthy way to still train and compete as an elite athlete while giving myself a break from the day in and day out of competing. At my first USA 15’s camp back, I instantly knew I wasn’t ready for this environment. I had to step away and focus fully on my mental health. Still, not quite ready to retire. I still had the desire to compete. Luckily, my coach fully supported me in doing so.
The next two years were some of the darkest years of my life. Every day I woke up feeling so much unlike myself. Instead of that hard-working joyful Kelsi, I had become angry, questioning my purpose in this world and frankly, hopeless. I’d often look at the team and wonder what if I was still there. I was battling this subject of retirement. I knew it was time, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. Being an athlete is who I am. I still had these extremely high expectations of myself yet was feeling extremely unsatisfied with life. I felt I had so much more to offer. I was meant to inspire, help others and make a change in sport. I truly believed rugby was the only way I could do so.
It took almost 2 years to get out of that depressive fog. Through hours of self-reflection, trying to regain some sense of identity and redefining my definition of happiness and success. I learned to allow myself the time to focus on myself, and not just my sport. Yet, I couldn’t shake how undervalued I felt at work. Working at Starbucks was a double-edged sword. I enjoyed the human connections and coffee, but it was defeating going from a world stage to being yelled at by customers because they wanted an iced coffee. In a professional sense, I almost felt envious of others my age with stable careers. I would almost question why I chose the path I chose.
Though, ultimately this is who I am- a world class rugby player. It is engrained in my soul. It’s how I live, and the word ‘retired’ doesn’t take away from that. Accepting retirement was a slow and gradual process. As the months would go by, I’d find more acceptance in the fact that my goals had shifted. Rather than being the best athlete in the world, I wanted to help the best athletes in the world. So, one day, I decided to retire. With tears pouring down my face, I pressed send and emailed in my retirement. I was met with love and support. To feel seen, appreciated and celebrated for my rugby career was both humbling and healing.
Through this retirement process, I was forced to face the question “now what?”. I’d sit and daydream of the perfect role. One where I can help athlete, bring a more human side to the world of sport, and make a change. To work where I am valued, where the past 10 years of hard work is seen more than “Team USA? That’s so cool!”.
Throughout my rugby career I worked hard to brand myself, to tell my story. I found myself thriving in the marketing sense; learning to captivate an audience and speak my truth while inspiring and motivating others was truly enjoyable. So, I’m a retired USA athlete that is extremely determined to face any challenge, a human that is willing to be vulnerable in hopes of helping others with a knack for telling a good story. How do I find a career with that?
Just days before my retirement was announced, I woke up to an email from Andy Moore stating that while this is out of the blue, he’d like to talk with me about a job opportunity. I googled his name and saw that he's a retired Welsh Rugby player. The rugby community is truly a special one, so I decided, why not? I’m miserable at Starbucks, he’s a rugby player, and if it's something that’s not meant for me, I still get the opportunity to talk with a Wales rugby captain. So, I did. And I am SO glad I did.
After our first meeting I knew that no matter what the role was, I wanted to work at ACT. Their mission is to help elite athletes find careers after retiring from sport where they are valued for their work attributes with little professional work experience. Because our work experience IS our sporting careers. Listening to Andy’s story and how he and Steve founded ACT was moving and inspiring. I was so relieved to find a company like this had been founded - a company that cares for athletes post sport.
My second call was with the team. They asked me to tell my story. In my head I was wondering “Do I really tell these three men I am interviewing with that I left the USA 7’s team due to depression and anxiety?”. Well, this is my story, this is who I am and I decided to speak my truth. I was met with support and seen as a human, not just an athlete struggling with mental health. I learned about the role and simply couldn’t believe it. I’d be telling athletes’ stories, connecting with them, being part of their team through retirement, and growing my marketing skills and knowledge. MY DREAM ROLE. Every step through the process, I felt valued and that my past 10 years wasn’t just for amazing experiences, that all my hard work is continuing to pay off. I accepted the role, set up an office at home, and proudly joined Athlete Career Transition.
This dream job, this feeling of being seen as a valued working professional, this opportunity to do something I am truly passionate about has felt like the final missing puzzle piece in beating this depression and finding a way back to myself. I can use my own personal experiences through my rugby career and retirement to help other athletes. I get the chance to work with companies that value these athletes and what they bring to the table. I get the opportunity to help tell the stories of inspiring and successful athletes and celebrate their transition through retirement. Today, I can help make a change in sport.