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Monday, September 20, 2021

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Spider Stories: Commencement

<p>Senior defender Kayla Somers poses for a picture in front of Crenshaw Fieldhouse. <em>Photo courtesy of Erika Latta</em></p>

Senior defender Kayla Somers poses for a picture in front of Crenshaw Fieldhouse. Photo courtesy of Erika Latta

Editor's note: Spider Stories is a sports series that is designed as a platform to give student-athletes a voice through the sharing of first-person stories.

The first time I picked up a field hockey stick, I was five years old. My two older cousins, who were in third grade at the time, had just started playing the sport. Being the annoying little pest that I was, I obviously wanted to do anything those two were doing. My mom signed me up along with my other cousin, who was my age, for a three-day field hockey camp at the local high school in the middle of July. Let’s just say, with me and field hockey, it wasn’t love at first sight. When you’re a little kid and people are yelling at you to continuously run around in extreme heat, you’re not going to have a lot of fun. 

But the thing about where I grew up is that nearly every girl played field hockey. Our high school team is arguably the best in the nation. And I don’t say that as a matter of opinion. If you google the best high school field hockey teams in America, Eastern Regional High School comes up. It’s a program that has developed countless Division 1 field hockey players, had a 153-game winning streak and has won 21 straight state championships. If you were a girl, field hockey was the cool thing to do, the cool sport to play. And I wanted to be one of those girls, the ones whose names everyone in town knew and who raised trophies over their heads in pictures in the paper. 

So, despite my rocky start with the sport, I stuck with it. And the better I got at it, the more I fell in love with it. I loved the shin guard and racerback tan lines I got from being out in the sun all day at a tournament. I loved the feeling of connecting with the hockey ball at just the right spot, knowing that I gave the perfect pass. I loved staying outside in my backyard for hours, shooting at the homemade field hockey net my dad built. I loved it the only way kids know how, innocently and wholeheartedly. It felt good to be a part of something bigger than myself, to have an outlet for my competitive nature, to have something that I felt I was good at. I threw myself into it with everything I had.

But as with everything that comes with growing up, I lost that innocent love for my sport somewhere along the way. The love was still there deep inside of me, but it was different. It was crushed under the anxiety of training for run tests, the stress of keeping winning streaks alive and the pressure of making the highest-ranked club teams. My whole life slowly shifted until it revolved entirely around field hockey. I played it year round and trained constantly, leaving me with very limited time for rest. I missed school to travel to clinics and competitions, and I did my homework on the car rides there and back. I missed birthday parties and dances to travel to recruiting events. Family vacations were just my family making trips out of any place I had a tournament. Despite how controlling the sport had become, I knew I still wanted to play it in college -- to be just like the girls I looked up to when I was little. That desire led me to continue my career at the University of Richmond. 

I am currently a senior. I have about two weeks left of my college experience, and I hung up my cleats a couple of weeks ago. A 16-year chapter of my life abruptly came to a close. After so many years of my body constantly being sore, of turf-burns and shin-guard rashes, of month-long pre-seasons in 100-degree heat, I always pictured the end of my field hockey career as a sigh of relief. I looked forward to it because I knew it brought freedom. Field hockey had consumed my time for so long, and I knew that the end of my career would mean a new chapter of my life. It would mean getting to make decisions as an adult, not a continuation of a decision I made when I was five years old. I pictured it as the start of something new. But I never pictured the heartache that came with it. 

It is very difficult to picture the time before I played field hockey because I started it when I was so young. So, for nearly as long as I can remember, whenever I thought of my sense of identity, the first thing I thought of was a field hockey player. For better or for worse, this sport made me who I am. And, for the first time in my life, I can’t identify myself as that anymore. The freedom I always pictured when my athletic career ended is as exhilarating as I envisioned, but it’s also overwhelming. For so long, I was this one thing. And, after 16 long years, I’m supposed to move on. Just like that. 

The day I said goodbye to field hockey, I went on a run --  a long one. I just needed time to clear my head and to come to terms with this major life shift that I had just gone through. I laced up my sneakers and put on my headphones and just ran, enjoying the fact that I could go on a leisurely run instead of worrying about trying to make a certain time. It was at around mile five that I felt a physical pain in my chest. I tried to ignore it and hoped it would go away, but it didn’t. It felt as if someone had my heart in their hand and was squeezing it. I had never experienced any chest pain before, and I became scared. I walked the rest of the way back to campus and I called my parents, telling them my symptoms. They both expressed their concerns and told me to go to PatientFirst. I did as they instructed, and after an EKG and a chest X-Ray, I was told that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was exceedingly healthy, even. But my heart pain still persisted. I called my parents back to tell them the news that everything was fine, but I was still in pain. They told me that during periods of their lives where they experienced intense periods of stress or grief, both of them had felt the same sensation I was feeling. They told me it was my heart physically aching for the loss of the period of my life as a field hockey player. 

I’ve experienced loss before in very real ways. However, it has never manifested itself in physical pain until now. I never thought I’d be emotional when I finished field hockey. You can ask any one of my teammates. I am the last person they’d expect to be like this. I looked forward to moving on, and thought that I was completely ready for life without my sport. But I have realized, now that I’m done, that I’m in mourning. I’m mourning for the little girl that I was when I picked up a field hockey stick 16 years ago, who just wanted to be like the big kids. I’m mourning for the player that I was and the accomplishments that I achieved, feeling proud that I lived my childhood dream of being one of the girls pictured in the paper with a state trophy raised above her head. I’m mourning for the fact that I know that this truly is the end of the person I was for the past 16 years. There is no more Kayla Somers: field hockey player. There is just Kayla Somers. And that’s exciting and terrifying at the same time. 

A graduation ceremony is called a commencement ceremony because commencement means a beginning or a start. It may be the end of college, but it is the beginning of the rest of our lives, where we will find out who we are going to become. And, while UR’s actual ceremony may be in a few weeks, my real commencement was the day I hung up my cleats. Since then, I’ve been taking the time to welcome the freedom that I craved for so long. But I’ve also been taking the time to remember the five-year-old girl who bravely embarked on a 16-year journey of her life, hoping I can find some of that bravery as I embark on my journeys to come.

Contact lifestyle writer Kayla Somers at kayla.somers@richmond.edu.

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