Leah Vause is a Canadian pole vaulter. In the last two years, she has lived a bit of a nomad life - bouncing around between London, Cardiff, Saskatoon, and Phoenix with her fiancé, British pole vaulter, Steve Lewis. Originally planning on continuing her promising career in London (she had competed quite successfully in Canada), Leah is currently ‘taking a break’ from competition. As her career potentially winds down, and as her fiancé's begins to gain steam (Lewis was 5th at the 2012 London Olympic Games), Leah - like many before her - has a choice to make; one that many athletes in her situation have had trouble with:
I am 25 years old. I’m a pole vaulter. In the middle of my so called prime. I am on a break from the sport and I am currently training for a charity half marathon. Apparently, this has nothing to do with pole vault. I haven’t been able to say I am retired - nor am I completely intrigued about going back. I’m writing this to articulate to myself and to those who will listen (or care?) about why-how I’m caught in-between two worlds.
Am I choosing to swallow my failure as a pole-vaulter or move on to other avenues in my life and accept reality?
Over the years in this sport, I’ve heard people say being an athlete has its limitations. Of the many pros and cons, the most common are ‘your body won’t hold out’. ‘you make no money’ and ‘you sacrifice so many things, like having a family, a job, and security’.
From my perspective, these limitations make sense. Reflecting on my career, I can gratefully say I have made World Junior Championships at age 18, I’ve made multiple National teams and have placed in the top 4 in Canada for 4 consecutive years. I have also racked up 10 medals from 5 CanadaWest and CIS Championships while at the University of Saskatchewan. I say this with pride but, at the same time, with a sense of dissatisfaction.
How these limitations affect my decisions and possibly others in the same situation;
1. ‘My body won’t last’. This isn’t something I am struggling with as I have no sufficient injuries at present. Many athletes I know have battled, and I mean BATTLED through injuries and operations to come back to the sport. Kudos to them! However, at what point does commitment become stupidity? How far does one have to search to reach a certain ‘satisfaction’ point? In my view, I think the people who persevere through the brutal times are often the ones who can’t mentally accept defeat. Leaving on a bad note is always menacing. I know retired pole-vaulters who speak of the glory days like it was yesterday. Sometimes I find myself just thinking ‘who cares buddy - give it up’. These lifers will never make the transition mentally. And, really - who’s to decide that they should? As long as they aren’t hurting anybody with their folktales - let them be.
Also, people forced to leave the sport with injury have an easier decision. Maybe harder to swallow, but not as tough to decide if they were really finished. For all the other athletes who are struggling to give it up because they are plagued with injury - are they reaching for some sort of “golden ticket?” I hope not. Sometimes its okay to accept the hand that’s been dealt.
2. ‘I make no money from this sport’. This one is true - at least in amateur sport. I can speak from most ‘almost there’ athletes when I say…there is no money in track. You have to be good to get paid - very good. And realistically, being good means making big heights - which I really didn’t. The small town Sask people - to whom I love dearly - may say I was an incredible athlete, accomplishing far more than the average person. To them, I am a role model for the sport - and I owe them for the sincere compliment. In the real world of track and field, I am the little fish in the extremely large pond. (cringe cliché - sorry). If I’ve learned anything about the last ten years in track, its that - you do NOT go into it for money. Track is a chosen passion and if you happen to excel to an elite level and get paid - congrats! You are part of a very slim margin. I unfortunately was not one of those people. However, I can also say I have accepted that track was not meant to be my career.
3. I have given up so much! Having this nine-month break has given me the opportunity to realize what I want from non-track life. Half of me doesn’t want to give up pole vault because I like to be known as an ‘athlete’. Being an athlete defines me and makes me feel important. I have purpose and structure to my day and I have a goal and people to stay accountable to. I fear all of these things will slip away and people will forget me. To be brutally honest, I want the glory without doing all the work.
It isn’t surprising that athletes find themselves to be associated with what I like to call the ‘me monster’. Being an athlete means you must adopt a certain narcissistic, selfish lifestyle. To be successful, you have to comply with all the off-the-track subtleties that a lot of people neglect. It’s a full-time job.
I’m not ready to give my life to something I haven’t seen results in. I’m an impatient realist. There is this sense of delusion with people that I can’t understand. Call me cynical, but I feel reality has just not sunk in with some of the track and field population. I’ve read numerous blogs of some aspiring 20-something year olds unfolding their ‘Dreams of Making the Olympic Team’. I am not, in any way, condemning their dreams; I’m just pointing out that some dreams need a reality check. You have to weigh up your progress and see where the dream ends and the reality begins. Some people are not cut out for it. I am not cut out to make an Olympic team because I am not giving it a true shot. I accept this.
I want to pursue my teaching career, get married and one day be a mother. I feel -personally - that I cannot train full time and make pole vault my passion without thinking that I’m sacrificing those things.
Having said that, I can say that I would like to go back to sport and be involved in it in a lesser sense. Train occasionally; keep in shape - stay in contact with the amazing people I’ve met along the way. But I’m not going to the Olympics. And that’s totally okay with me - because it wasn’t to be. I’m just not good enough.
So I guess I’ve answered my own question. Which world am I in? Swallowing failure? No - I don’t think I’ve failed. I’ve just got in touch with reality, and in that - there is closure.