Ep.014 Athlete Story Podcast
When you are forced to retire from sports before you are ready ft former dancer Chrissy Papetti
What happens when you retire from sports ?
In this Athlete Story with former competitive dancer, Chrissy Papetti. we talk about retiring from sports when you are no where near ready for it. In fact, that’s a very common scenario – that either injury or lack of results or finances make that decision for you as an athlete. That leads to a sense of unfinished business that you have to deal with.
Chrissy works as an occupational therapist today. She also offers coaching solutions to former dancers and athletes to help them orient themselves in the retirement process, using tools from her work as an occupational therapist combined with her personal experience.
Tune in to meet Chrissy and hear her athlete and retirement story.
We talk about
– The phases of the transition out of sports
– Unfinished business
– How Chrissy helps former dancers transition on in life after dancing
About our guest
Chrissy Papetti’s dancing career came to a definitive end way before she was ready for it. After 20+ years dancing — placing 4th in the world in the World Tap Championships, earning my BFA in Dance at University of Michigan, participating in countless national competitions, performing at the Big House on the Michigan Dance Team — it all ended with a devastating hip injury.
Hanging on to the hope of a come back for years and fighting with every cell was not enough and Chrissy realized she was forced to retire and move on – not passing that denial phase easily. Because back then she didn’t know what she knows today about major transitions in life.
You can also watch a video version of this interview here.
READ the transcript of full interview by clicking here.
Anja Bolbjerg: What happens when you retire from sports and it wasn’t actually your choice? In this Athlete Story, I’ve invited former competitive dancer, Chrissy Papetti, for a chat about retiring from sports when you’re nowhere near done with it yet.
This is Athlete Story and I’m your host Anja Bolbjerg. If you’re a world-class athlete or simply want to tap into world-class sports wisdom, I suggest you subscribe to my channel right now so that you get notified whenever I upload a new video for you.
Maybe you’ve experienced this because, in fact, that’s a very common scenario that either injury, or lack of results, or lack of finances make that retirement decision for you as an athlete. That can lead to this sense of unfinished business that you have to deal with somehow in life after sports. We’ll dive into that together with Chrissy today.
She works as an occupational therapist, and we’ll get into what that means later. She also offers coaching solutions to former dancers and athletes, using the tools from her work as an occupational therapist combined with her personal experience as a dancer. Let’s meet Chrissy and hear how she experienced retirement from sport when she could just no longer keep pushing through the pain and no longer deny the career-ending consequences of a severe hip injury.
Hi, Chrissy. Welcome to the show Athlete Story.
Chrissy Papetti: Hi.
Anja: I’m so glad you could make it here today. I know you’re a former dancer, and I’m really curious as to what is life like as a dancer. Can you tell us about that?
Chrissy: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for having me on. I’m so excited to be here and tell an athlete story through a dancer perspective. I can just start from where it began a little bit in that dancers typically start from a young age. I’ve been a self-proclaimed dancer since I was two years old. As I did it over and over through the years, I got more serious about it and joined the competitive dance world at a young age.
I was doing all the things; ballet, jazz, hip-hop, tap, everything, and really found my way through tap. I specialized in that and trained under the best people in the northeast area, actually, around the country right now, Mike Minery, Anthony Morigerato. As I trained with them and specialized in it, I actually got the opportunity to compete at the World Tap Championships when I was 16 and represent the USA as the only soloist in the finals.
Anja: I’m sorry, is that tap dancing?
Chrissy: Yes, tap dancing, which people know of, but– It’s really cool because people typically think about the Gene Kelly Broadway, Fred Astaire tap, which is incredible and where it came from, but my background really is no more of that hoofer tap, which is a little bit more musical, and more syncopated, and a little bit more street tap as people would say.
That’s a little bit of my background, but I had that really cool opportunity at a young age. I ended up moving through and majoring in it in school, competing in it until I was injured in college. That was where my dance story, unfortunately, had to end.
Anja: We’re going to get back to that. How do you compete in dancing? Is there judges? I suppose there’s judges.
Chrissy: Yes. It depends what [unintelligible 00:03:42] you’re in, but if you are a competitive dancer at a young age, there are a bunch of regional competitions in your area, and then there’s national competitions over the summer that you qualify for. You compete with a studio. There are group dances that you compete with as a team; you can compete as a duet or a trio. Then there, of course, are solos where you can compete. In the tap category, there’s [inaudible 00:04:07] by your style.
There are a bunch of national competitions held around the country, but there are a few that stand out amongst the rest that have a very high level of quality of dancers. I ended up competing and being trained at a studio in New Jersey that took it really seriously. We would compete every year at the American Dance Awards. Then when you go to the college level, there’s a college competition called UDA. The big college dance teams meet and compete in pam, jazz, or hip-hop. That’s how it works out.
Anja: All right. Is there a typical way up for dancers? Do they usually become dance instructors or how does that work? I know you had a career ending injury so maybe that wasn’t a choice for you, but is there a typical path for a dancer out of sports?
Chrissy: It’s funny. There really isn’t a typical path. I think people end up not wanting to lose it and so they become teachers and maybe studio owners and raise and train the next generation of dancers, which is awesome. You can also become a professional dancer in a few different capacities. You can be in professional companies around the country. You can be in a national or a ballet conservatory where you train a little bit more in that space, but you can also be a professional backup dancer for some big names like Lady Gaga or Beyonce, which is super cool.
You can be in music videos. You can be in ads like Nike or certain commercials. You can really pave your way in different spaces, but I would say it’s more the commercial route, which is the bigger celebrities and commercials. You can go the more company route where you perform every year on the country with a specific company.
Anja: You had to end your career because of an injury to the hip, right?
Chrissy: Yes. I tore my labrum in my hip the beginning of my junior year of college. Like I alluded to earlier, I was a dance major and also a part of the Michigan dance team at the University of Michigan. I was dancing pretty much 24/7, so it’s no surprise that I ended up facing an injury.
What was interesting is my injury was misdiagnosed for two years. They were saying, “It’s a groin pull. It’s a hip flexor strain.” I was getting it treated as that, but the pain never really subsided and nobody could really figure out what it was. As all good dancers do, I just pushed through it and danced on a torn labrum for two years.
Chrissy: Yes. Not exactly the most comfortable. That was really tricky because I had to make some really hard decisions during that time of letting up a little bit on the intensity that I was dancing, choosing not to compete at nationals with my dance team senior year, choosing to sit out of certain dances as a major. It took a really big mental and physical toll on me during that time.
Anja: Yes, I imagine. All this time you think that the pain is going to go away one day and that you can get back to where it was before and you keep going like that for two years.
Chrissy: Exactly. That was the craziest part, was you’re hoping, you’re going to PT, physical therapy, you’re hoping it’s going to get better. It really didn’t and I never truly rested so it just kept persisting. Once I had time to actually rest and the pain still wasn’t getting better, I got it properly diagnosed as a right hip labral tear. When I actually went to the proper doctor, he was like, “It’s torn off the bone and it’s black and blue.” I’d really just beat it up. The best route really was surgery.
In the midst of my master’s program, which I can talk a little bit about later, I ended up getting hip surgery, of course, right? In the back of my mind, I was like, “Yes, I’m not dancing right now, I’m going down a different path, but once I get this surgery, the pain will go away and I can do what I want to do. I can move my body again the way I want to, I can maybe dance again.” I had all these hopes.
Once I got my surgery and took a full year to really recover in rehab, my pain was still there. It was a little different, but it was very much still there and it was really discouraging. When I went back to the doctor, they were like, “Your surgery looks fine. Maybe you just need some more time.” A whole other year and my pain persisted.
I came to a head of realizing that I can’t continue to live my life waiting for the pain to leave. It was just always like my life is on pause until the pain goes away, and it just didn’t work. I had to really figure out how to live despite the pain and conquer that from letting the pain control my life. That was the really big turning point for me and my story.
Anja: How did you manage to finish your major is that wasn’t dancing?
Chrissy: I actually was able to finish it out. Like I said, I pushed through it. Even though I had to sit out of certain pieces, that was really on my terms. I still finished with classes I needed to take. I still did my senior concert which is where I choreographed a dance with a bunch of dancers and I also performed a solo. I still finished it out. It was just pushing through the whole way there. It was tough.
Anja: Now the big question, do you work with this today?
Chrissy: Good question. I always say that I love that I did it because it really set me apart when I was moving into the next phase of my life which was to get my master’s in occupational therapy. Having that background in dance and also anatomy physiology, I combined the creativity and movement understanding that I got through my major and apply that to how I operated as an occupational therapist and how I work with people today on their movement fundamentals.
I still tap into that major. It’s so interesting when you major in dance in college because you’re either going to use it to become a professional dancer, keep going, or maybe you teach, or you just find a new path. That’s what I did is I used it in, but I’m not professionally dancing to this day.
Anja: Tell us about occupational therapy. How does that work?
Chrissy: Sure. The best way I like to describe occupational therapy is that it’s a profession founded on the concept that how we occupy our time directly influences the state of our health and well being. That’s a really broad definition. OT is really broad in what we’re able to do and the domain that we cover in our profession. Basically, the things that we take for granted, like dressing ourselves, brushing our teeth, taking a shower, those are all things that occupy our day that influence our health and well being. We can take care of ourselves. We feel good that we are independent in those things.
If you have a stroke or you have a heart attack and it impacts your health, and you’re no longer able to be independent in those everyday activities, your health and quality of life are going to significantly decrease. Occupational therapists come in to analyze the performance of these tasks. What are not able to do in the task itself? How does their environment support them to be able to do that task? What are the circumstances of their health that are impacting that?
We’re problem solvers. We break down the situation, help rebuild it. People are more independent and well in their everyday life. I give a very medical example, but it can also span to mental health and working with people just on their general health and wellness too.
Anja: We had on the show a guy called Matthew Wissler. He was an extreme skier and also all kinds of adventure sports. He had a really bad accident where he actually died, he drowned. Then he was revived on the beach. He wakes up two days later in this facility where he’s paralyzed from the neck and down. He tells how he used art and that whole side of occupying his mind to help him heal. He’s actually doing really well today doing arts. He then regained a lot of movement.
He does it very visually by doing his art with weights on so that his art pieces are visual; something that you can see the fatigue and the hard work that it is. That’s a form of occupational therapy.
Chrissy: I’m sure in his journey of recovery he ended up working with occupational therapists because physical therapists and OTS work hand in hand to help people post spinal cord injuries which he had, I’m assuming, with his being paralyzed. We go from the fundamentals of what do we need them to be basically do. I’m sure he needed to first learn how to sit up at the edge of the bed, the most basic of things, even roll from side to side in his bed, to be able to move. Then progress all the way to what gives your life meaning. What is something that’s going to make you feel like you’re living your best quality of life?
Once he was able to do those fundamental everyday activities with more independence, then it’s tapping into the art, tapping into the different ways that you can use your body to express yourself in new and interesting ways. I love that you shared that story. That’s so empowering. It’s so rewarding to be in this field because you really see incredible stories like that of people who bounced back and start their lives over in a new way.
Anja: He also actually gives thanks to his athletic mindset for believing that he could have an impact and change things through practice and through persistence. Have you used anything from your athletic background into to finding this new way of life and dealing with that pain that you have for so many years and finding your new path in life?
Chrissy: Absolutely. Athletes and dancers are uniquely positioned from a young age, really cultivating this certain type of mindset and work ethic. Like I said, in some ways, it really helped and supported me and in other ways, it created some challenges along the way. Like I said, I pushed through the pain and I kept going. That’s a very athlete mindset to not want to give up and to push your boundaries and push your limits and what you’re able to do.
In my recovery, it was critical that I had that background because I never truly let myself give up. It’s that persistence that I feel like really makes the difference in an athlete pushing through challenges and setbacks and barriers and somebody who maybe didn’t have that exact experience.
Personally, for me, I found that when I was able to, throughout my recovery as I was going through my master’s, the fact that I could get my master’s and still have that goal oriented part of my life while I was still rehabbing the physical aspects of my injury, that made such a difference. As athletes and dancers, we have that goal oriented mind. We want to be working towards something, improving something, learning, just bettering myself and growing.
The fact that I was able to do that in another capacity I feel like really kept me afloat during my recovery process because it’s challenging and demanding when your body isn’t recovering the way that you want it to or you’re not able to use it as you always have. I feel like that really kept me afloat during those times. I completely attribute that to my dancer and athlete mindset.
Anja: I ended my skiing career the first time around due to one injury too many. I had, for many years after, this feeling of unfinished business that I so wasn’t ready to let go the skiing at that point. I know that more people will leave sports at a time where they don’t decide to than actually people who’d say, “Okay. It’s done. I’m good. Time for something else.” I think there’s a lot of people leaving sports with this unfinished business feeling. How have you dealt with that? Did you did you feel it the same way?
Chrissy: You totally struck a chord with me because I talk all the time about how when I had a dance career ending injury, it wasn’t on my terms, to your point. I felt like I was not in control; it was happening to me. That’s so hard to grapple with it. That’s a great way of putting it. It really was unfinished business. I didn’t get to choose to end this career. I don’t really want to let it go. That’s a side of me that I don’t want to really let go yet.
Although my body was telling me another thing, I think that completely attributes to where I am today and what I’m doing now with my time and in my career, which is being a life redesign coach for former athletes and dancers, specifically, those who felt like they were pushed out of their role as an athlete or dancer, whether I was injury or timing or circumstances, who felt like it really wasn’t on their terms. I feel like that comes with a whole other psychological component than being able to, “I’m going to retire now.” It’s still a completely different transition, but it’s not ending on you terms.
That was a huge piece of my fuel to my fire of why I am doing the work that I’m doing today. I’m working with these dancers and athletes because it’s just a whole other layer of challenge when you move into that next space to overcome so that you are able to find what your purpose is again, what your identity is. As athletes, you are wrapped up in your sport, that is your identity, that is who you are. You don’t really explore yourself much outside of that while you’re in it.
Who are you once you’re pushed out of it? What’s your purpose now that you’re not working towards these goals and your sport or your art? What does your lifestyle look like now? You’re not attending practices, you’re not attending these training sessions anymore on some of the essence terms or being guided by a coach, so how do you now reformulate what your life looks like now that you’re not in that anymore? Those were the areas that bubbled up or me, but definitely, I can relate 100% that feeling of unfinished business.
Anja: This whole situation of, what do other people expect of me? How am I going to fit in? Who am I without my tap dancing shoes or whatever? I know that’s a big issue for many people, and I know it’s being almost more dramatized by actually the people who love us the most and who care the most for us because they’re like, “What is going to happen to her now that she’s going to stop skiing? How is she going to go into the real world?
My point, when I try to advice athletes on this is, don’t buy into that because it’s not like your world wasn’t real. If you’re a student, you have a teacher, you have a schedule, you have a structure, you have a test. You have the same as an athlete. None of it is this world that you are out working, but it’s not unreal, it’s just a different phase. I think that helps to know that it’s not like you’re not starting from scratch.
Chrissy: I know, and I think it’s so true. It is its own type of career in that it requires so much out of you physically. It’s not your typical nine to five, but at the same time, does it prepare you for pretty much anything. I feel like sometimes athletes and dancers underestimate just how prepared they are to take on pretty much anything they want to. They’re like, “Well, I don’t have this formal degree,” or I don’t have this maybe extensive education behind them or something.
Especially nowadays with the Internet what it is, you can really make a future for yourself that you find fulfilling in that it is completely legitimate and brings you in an income. It’s really amazing how well athletes and dancers are prepared to take on the next chapter. I agree that sometimes either they or the people around them can underestimate just how ready they are or that.
Anja: What’s your first step when a dancer comes to you and says, “I feel a little lost, I know it’s time to stop dancing,” or, “I got kicked out because of an injury,” or whatever happened? Where do you start?
Chrissy: The number one place to start with these types of experiences is self awareness which sounds a little bit random. If you don’t understand what it is you’re going through and why you’re going through it, how are you able to move forward, effectively, and end up in a place where you feel confident in moving forward? Sometimes athletes feel like they need to punch on and they’re not really ready too yet. They may end up facing a lot of resistance and they don’t really understand why.
There are actual transition phases that have been researched and studied that show that people are at different readinesses for change, at different stages to grieve their identity, and different stages to just transition from one phase to another. I feel like that’s the most important place to start. If you know where you’re at in that transition, where you are in your readiness to change, and where you are in grieving your previous identity, then you can actually leverage where you’re at to move forward properly.
You can actually normalize your experience and be like, “I’m supposed to be going through a phase of denial right now and feeling like I don’t want to accept the fact that I have to move on.” That’s okay. I felt like I was so weak for not accepting where I was at when it was happening. I went through a lot of denial. I was holding on to anybody and anything that would tell me that I could still do it and I wasn’t hurting my body.
Any physical therapist that was like, “Why do you keep exercising? You’re not hurting it, but you may not heal.” I was like, “Well, if I’m not hurting it–? I was gripping onto anything. It was so eye opening to be like, “I was supposed to go through a phase of toying with that denial and not really accepting where I was at.” I know, and that’s where I start with every dancer student that I work with in the beginning.
Anja: I find this whole concept of the phases to be really helpful. Even in an injury, there’s this phase and this phase and then you expect to come out on the other side. For any major life change, it just helps to have this, “This is going to be one phase. I know I’m going to get out of it.” Then you don’t see things as this is everlasting though it’s going to be.
Chrissy: Exactly. That also empowers dancers or athletes right from the start because it’s like, “This is where you’re at. It’s going to take time because this is the best way to move through this phase. Know that this one’s waiting for you when you’re ready to step into it.” It’s not like I’m forever going to be hanging out in this limbo of not knowing where to go and not knowing what to do. It’s empowering to just know.
People can tell you, “You’ll get there, just give it time. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.” It just is in one ear and out the other because you’re just like, “How do you possibly understand what I’m going through right now?” As a former dancer and competitive athlete, I went through those myself. I can confidently say that it’s a process. I can help you with where you are right now to move forward along that process as you should and as you will as a human being. This is how our behavior typically works so that you feel ultimately feel like you can move forward, and rebuild a life that you are filled by and that drives you, and that incorporates some of those components of your athlete life, but now into the new phase that you’re in.
Anja: This would go well with the occupational therapist I suppose, that you don’t have to wait till everything is in line and know exactly what you’re going to do. You’ve got to go out there and take that one step and do that one thing, and try this one. On that journey, you’re going to find a way. It’s like in sports, you didn’t have everything lined up for you when you started. It takes a little bit of trial and error.
Chrissy: Exactly. I love that you said that because that’s exactly how I treat it. I actually compare the levels of transition to levels of sport, level one being a beginner and level five being an elite athlete because it is exactly the same. When you were a beginner in your sport, you were going through certain things of your own then. You didn’t have all the tools, you didn’t have all the skills yet, but you put one foot in front of the other to learn.
It was slow progress and maybe you weren’t even sure if it was right for you yet, but you had to work through that. I love comparing it to that because it’s a really tangible thing for athletes and dancers to hold onto when they’re like, “I’m not in this horrible like I’m in level one, I’m at the bottom.” It’s like, “No, you’re just at the beginning of this next journey and you’re going to progress through it just the way you did from day one of your sport to being an elite athlete.” I love that analogy for it.
Anja: When you work with athletes and dancers, do you use any of the occupational therapy methods or is that something you do apart?
Chrissy: Yes. I’m coming at it as a title of a coach because I’m taking different methodologies and fusing them together to make an ultimate service but I’m credentialed as an OT. That’s my background. I do use my evaluation process through the eyes of an OT because we really look at the whole person, literally, every facet of their environment, who they are, their skill-sets, their occupations, what they do every day that occupies their time.
I really love the component as an OT of how we break down those pieces of a person to really then figure out where’s the dysfunction, what’s preventing you from feeling like you can do the things that you want to do right now. I use that evaluation process. It completely guides the way in my eye and how I look at where people are at and how to progress to where they want to be in their goals, ultimately, in life and their lifestyle.
Specifically, that lifestyle component is what essentially separates me from my work with former athletes and dancers to maybe somebody else. As OTs, we have specific background in looking at all the components of what makeup a lifestyle and how that influences somebody’s health and well-being. I think that’s such a big part of an athlete that they may not necessarily consider when they move to that next phase is, “My lifestyle is my fitness, my eating routines, my financial disposition, my spirituality, my social relationships.” All of that changes when you move out of that phase of your life.
Even if you maintain some of it to a degree in your own way, it changes. You’re not seeing the same people in your training sessions anymore. Those were your social relationships. You’re not working with that coach anymore. That flips your world upside down. I feel like looking at it through the eyes of a lifestyle can be really helpful for people to rebuild those fundamental blocks that help you feel like you’re living a life on your terms again.
Anja: Well, thank you for sharing all of this. If there should be someone out in your area around New Jersey and they want to meet up with you and have a talk with you about all this, how can they reach out to you?
Chrissy: You can find me at www.chrissypapetti.com. You can also find me, my handle on Instagram is @chrissypapetti, pretty straightforward. If you wanted to email me for whatever reason, it’s also on my website but you can call me or plugin email@example.com. I love connecting with other former athletes and dancers in the space whether it is that they are now helping other athletes as well, similar to what I’m doing, or whether they find themselves in the thick of that transition and not really sure what to do next.
What I do in my role as a coach is really help people find their next direction in life, as simple as that. I totally encourage anybody who either resonates with my story or wants to talk about it further or just needs an outlet to express what they’re going through, please feel free to reach out to me. I also just want to say, I know I talked a lot about the transition phases earlier, I’m coming up with a quiz next week. I don’t know when this is airing, but it’ll be out by March 4th, which it’ll just be chrissypapetti.com/quiz.
It’ll actually pinpoint exactly what level of your transition that you’re falling into and then how to leverage that level to move forward like I was saying, and kickstart your journey to really figuring out what you want to do and what you want your life to look like in this next chapter. I’m super excited about that. I’m hoping it provides a lot of value to former athletes and dancers out there who are wondering where they’re at now and where to go next. Thank you.
Anja: Excellent, Chrissy. I’m so glad to have you be part of the Athlete Story community and I hope to catch up soon.
Chrissy: Thank you so much. It was such a privilege being on here and I appreciate you giving me a platform to talk about my story. Thank you.
Anja: Thank you. Bye.
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