When you pick up a sport, you never think about the day you’ll have to let it go. Now is the time of year when senior varsity athletes are preparing to say goodbye – if they haven’t already – as varsity seasons come to an end.
Being a student-athlete at the university level means sacrificing fun in order to keep grades up (the minimum varies for every school), staying away from drugs – performance enhancing or otherwise – and taking care of your body and always trying to improve.
In the CIS, if you play in a regular season or playoff game, that counts as one year of your eligibility. You need to take a minimum of three classes in a semester, and get a maximum of five years of eligibility – about the time it takes to finish a bachelor degree. However, if you suffer a season-ending injury early in the year, you can appeal to earn back a year of eligibility.
If your grades fall too low, you become academically ineligible and can’t play until the following semester, if you meet the academic requirement.
Senior varsity athletes become that more crucial to their team because they’ve been around. They know what has to be done, so they lead by example.
For those finishing their varsity careers, there are a few options.
One is to continue their competitive careers by playing professionally. However, if you’re a CIS athlete, with the exception of football, the odds to play pro in North America are very slim.
Heading into the 2015 CFL season, there was a record 199 former CIS players – 23 from Atlantic University Sport (AUS) schools – on CFL rosters. Compare that to the draft histories of the NFL, NHL, NBA and WNBA.
Eight former CIS athletes were drafted in the NFL (none from AUS schools), 34 were drafted in the NHL (10 from AUS schools) – the last coming in 1995, when the CIS was still called the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (CIAU) – 10 were drafted in the NBA (3 coming from AUS schools) and none were drafted in the WNBA.
Even if you were to make it overseas or in a minor league, you’d still need your degree or at least a second job to get by.
Those without professional leagues have to try to compete internationally on national teams at events like the Olympics.
For example, Kiera Aitken and David Sharpe are former swimmers from Dalhousie University who competed in the Olympics. Aitken competed in 2004, Sharpe in 2012.
Another option, is to move on.
For some, the love for their game is too strong and they’ll continue to play, coach others or just stay connected to the game in some way.
For others, the early mornings, the thousands of hours of training, the toll everything took on their body – physically, mentally and emotionally – added up to them being ready to stop.
Here are five athletes’ takes on the transition.
“You know (the end of the career is) coming, at some point, and you have to start the real world,” said Wendell Vye, Dalhousie University men’s hockey goaltender.
Vye became a goalie in his first year of atom hockey. He went on to be drafted by the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), was traded to Moncton – his hometown – and played there until he was 19, then bounced around to P.E.I., Manitoba and Kingston, Ont., until he was offered a chance to play at Dalhousie.
After five years as a Tiger, Vye had offers to play professionally, but turned them down.
“The dream of making the NHL is kind of far gone,” he said. “Those couple of years that I could still be playing, those could be a couple of years that I put towards a career, and develop and move up in a certain organization.”
Vye has interned with Enterprise Rent-A-Car the past two years, and the company has offered him a position in Toronto. An upside to the position is Enterprise runs an annual company-wide hockey tournament, which will allow Vye to stay in the game.
“You practise a couple of times a year with your group, they call it – so, we’d be the Toronto group – and then at the end of the year, all the groups around Canada get together and have a big tournament.”
At this point, he doesn’t think the feeling of his varsity career ending has hit him, but believes it will come in September when he hears about his teammates preparing for another season.
“Every year, at the end of the school year, you always know next year’s coming,” Vye said. “This year, at the end of the year, next year isn’t going to come.”
Vye believes it will be easier on him knowing that he has a job lined up and he can start focusing on his life outside of school and the rink.
Kyle Watson, a men’s swimmer at Dalhousie, has four weeks left in his final year to train for the 2016 Olympic trials in April.
Watson started swimming in the Grade 3. He has competed nationally, including the 2012 Olympic trials and last spring’s Pan Am Games trials, and has competed against swimmers like Ryan Cochrane, a Canadian silver medalist at the 2012 Olympics.
Watson says being in his last year feels good because swimming is a love-hate relationship.
“I love my team, love meets, love travelling and swimming fast too, but training can get pretty tough and hard,” he said.
“I live off-campus, in Cole Harbour, so I’ve had to get up at five o’clock, four times a week, for the past five years – at least with school – so I’m almost ready to take the step forward to retire and walk away.”
He says that he doesn’t want to have any regrets at the end of his career, which gives extra motivation while training.
“I’m definitely going to miss it. It’s definitely bittersweet, for sure.
“I’m pretty scared too, because the real world can be pretty scary, but I’m just going to try to really enjoy these last few weeks.”
Thomas Watson’s varsity career hasn’t been over for a week yet, but it’s starting to sink in.
“Honestly, it’s not even a matter of missing it, as it feels like I’m losing a part of me,” he said. “Like a piece of my identity is gone.”
Thomas played five years with the University of King’s College men’s basketball team. Over that time, he led the Atlantic Collegiate Athletic Association in scoring twice and, in the 2014-15 season, he broke the school’s all-time scoring record, cementing him as one of the school’s all-time greats.
After the best regular season the men’s program has had in a decade, the team was upset by Mount Saint Vincent University in the semi finals. Thomas cried in the locker room after – what turned out to be – his last game.
“I wouldn’t go as far as saying I’m depressed, but I definitely feel like I need to find something to fill the void,” he said. “Probably just school,” he added with a chuckle.
“Over time, once I’m more used to it, I’m sure I will feel more comfortable.”
Next year, Thomas will be starting his bachelor of education at Mount Saint Vincent University. He says he’ll probably join a men’s basketball league next year as well.
It has been just over a year since Kyla MacRae’s last basketball game with the University of King’s College, ending a four-year varsity career.
“When I played my last game, it was super emotional, I think mainly because everyone else made a big deal of it,” she said. “It didn’t really sink into me that I was completely finished playing competitively until September rolled around, and all of the girls were gearing up to get back into the swing of things.”
However, the most difficult part, according to MacRae, was when she watched this season’s first game online.
“That’s when I really became emotional about it all and I wished that I was there, still playing with everyone.”
MacRae misses two things: her teammates and the feeling before a big game.
“I will miss that feeling because it’s only a feeling that you get when you’re completely committed and invested in something,” she said. “You’re playing, not only for yourself, but for your teammates.
“I will miss being around everyone, mainly, because they were – and are – my family for four years. I’ve spent countless hours with those people. They’re honestly people I will never forget for the rest of my life.”
MacRae is staying connected to the game she loves, however. She’s helping to coach a bantam girls basketball team and she plays in the Simon Chiasson high school alumni tournament (the Simon).
However, MacRae admits that she hasn’t filled the void left by playing basketball.
“At this point in my life, I don’t have something to fill the huge hole that was basketball, which was my life for a long time.”
Keishia Mills, a former women’s swimmer at Dalhousie, used up her eligibility last year, but has still been training with the team to compete at the Olympic trials, like teammate Kyle Watson.
“(Making the Olympic team) definitely, realistically, is not in the cards for me, but it’s just another experience I want to do.”
Mills’ first national qualifying meet was the 2012 Olympic trials. She enjoyed the experience so much, she wanted to go again.
Mills says despite not being a varsity athlete, she’s treated the same as before. The main differences are that she doesn’t compete in the varsity meets and her training is more for herself than the team.
“Even though swimming is an individual sport, it’s really team-oriented,” she said.
“Going to CIS championships and stuff, with the team, is really exciting. Knowing that I got to do all those experiences with them and be part of a team, it was really gratifying, being part of something bigger. But this year, I’m more doing this for myself and it is more of an individual thing.”
Mills says the support from her teammates over the past year, despite not officially being on the swimming team, has helped her emotionally, regarding the end of her varsity career.