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Samantha SchultzApril 29, 2024 at 4:20 PM8 min read

I Thought it Was Just Me — The Lonely and Often Isolating Road as an Olympic Athlete

I Thought it Was Just Me — The Lonely and Often Isolating Road as an Olympic Athlete

IMG_3172(1)Source: Samantha Schultz 

I feel like I had just gotten to sleep when the buzzer of the alarm went off at 6 am. I did my best to not hit snooze and rolled over to get out of bed. I could feel the soreness and aches in my body. The first steps out of bed to the bathroom were stiff and I had a limp as the sharp plantar fasciitis pains in my foot had to loosen up. I wanted so badly to go back to bed, but was also excited about the day of training ahead. Each day was a new challenge and always a variety, especially training for pentathlon. As a pentathlete, the cross training often is your training with a sport that has a combination of fencing, swimming, equestrian, running and shooting. Each day would consist of anywhere from three to five training sessions, usually two in the morning and then one or two in the afternoon. It is a full-time job maintaining your training plan, staying on top of recovery, injury prevention, and not to mention relationships with husband, family, friends, as well as what little social life I had.


IMG_3160Source: Samantha Schultz 


Even in the moments when friends wanted to get together, I was often too tired that I just wanted to stay home. I also didn’t care to be around different foods or people drinking, which is usually at most social engagements.



I felt out of place or put on a pedestal as an Olympic hopeful athlete. If I didn’t have a type of food or drink at a gathering I was asked, “Oh can you not have that as an Olympic athlete, is it against your ‘diet’?” and if I had a drink or a food that wasn’t deemed “healthy,” I was greeted with shock and statements like, “Can you have that?” or, “Are you allowed to have that?" as if I was supposed to be immune to enjoying myself or not fitting into the designated prototype of an Olympic athlete.



I did appreciate that others saw what I did as admirable because of all the dedication and hard work, but the pedestal that they put me on often left me feeling I didn’t fit in. This led me to limiting social engagements as I wasn’t sure how to act at times and felt worried about how I was perceived. If I was in a new social setting, I often wouldn’t tell others what I did, just to avoid all the questions about my sport, my training, if I had a special ‘diet’, or other comments. I did enjoy talking about my sport and sharing the journey at times, but I'm not going to lie, there were always some questions that just left me feeling uncomfortable. I was a person just like them, but it didn’t feel that way, and the fatigue from training left me feeling like I should have stayed home.


I knew that I was different, but in some ways, I was ok with that. I had a different drive and an ability to push through, especially with multiple training sessions a day. I enjoyed the grind of the days having a swim session in the morning followed by fencing lessons and bouting, strength in the afternoon, followed by running and shooting practice. That was a pretty typical day. At times I enjoyed the solitude of training by myself or being alone with my own thoughts during a run or a swim, but after a while that led to a lot of isolation and feeling like that was the only place where I belonged, alone.


Pentathlon isn’t a team sport, but you do need training partners for sports like fencing, and it helps to have teammates for running, swimming, shooting and strength. A small percentage of people in the United States know about pentathlon and there isn’t many training facilities or collegiate programs that support this level of multisport training. This leads to smaller teams and, although the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center was the home base for the National team, it wasn’t where everyone trained. Leading up to the Tokyo Olympics the team was very small, in Colorado Springs.



I was often left doing my workouts alone or my teammates had a different training plan than me. This got draining from day to day. I did my best to remember my why and stay focused despite my fatigue and drive diminishing with each workout. 




Source: Samantha Schultz 


I was the alternate to the Rio Olympic team. Coming that close in 2016 was enough of a fire to drive me forward during the hard times. The lone workouts and trying to push myself left me feeling empty and isolated even with family, friends, and even my husband supporting me. It helped having my spouse, but I was the one doing the work, day in and day out with training, pushing my body to the limits.



I didn’t feel I could speak out about the isolation and loneliness I was feeling despite being around people.



I have heard from other athletes, that train with any size team, that they can often feel isolated or lonely as well. When the practices are done and we go home, we are left with ourselves and our thoughts. The aches, pains, and fatigue making us second guess if what we are doing is right or if it will all be worth it in the end. "Trust the process," is what I often told myself. Not every day will be perfect, but as an athlete striving to be at the top, that push for perfection can come into play. If workouts that day go poorly, the mood could be anger, anxiety, sadness, defeat; and if they go well, the energy and emotion can be calm, excited, happy, motivated. This can be challenging for family and friends to navigate not knowing what to expect or how to react. It also becomes hard to have these ups and downs as an athlete and navigate them. I felt it was easier to just push forward and not think about them, which wasn’t the best way. I let myself deal with them in the next practice taking the emotion and letting it drive me in my training.


IMG_3829(1)Source: Samantha Schultz 


The political and financial side of training that comes along with sports can lead to high levels of pressure on ourselves to perform. Not only do we want something so badly, but we feel the desire to perform for our country and all those that support us. That weight can get heavy, and through my time as an athlete it was better to just keep it down and compartmentalize the emotions of my anxiety, fears, and concerns. That made it easier, but only left me feeling more isolated as I thought I had to deal with these things alone.



I felt I was weak if I spoke up or talked about what was really going on in my head or in my body. When I finally started talking to a therapist about these things, it was the first time I finally started to feel a little bit of that weight come off. I was hesitant at first, but I started to find a place where I didn’t feel so alone and could be honest without judgement or fear. Speaking with other athletes and being more open now, I realized that I wasn’t alone. I didn’t have to keep myself in this world of isolation, feeling that I was so different from everyone else or doing what I had to do to become an Olympian. I put the pressure on myself and didn’t embrace the journey, the thrill and excitement I got from training and competing around the world. 


The little girl in me that loved sports and loved to run around and play, but I forgot about her when I wanted so badly to perform and accomplish my goals. I got caught up in wanting to perform instead of embracing who I was without the external pressures that I put in my head and didn’t quite exist to the level I felt internally. I was afraid of failing, letting myself and others down. Isolating myself was a way to protect and make sure that I kept myself safe in a world full of uncertainty. I thought that I had to deal with everything alone, but I didn’t. Vulnerability and openness can be scary, but I feel that the more I have embraced it, the more it has helped me grow as an athlete and a person. When I started to find more ways to connect with others again on a deeper level, I found myself living more confidently and feeling that I had other parts of me outside of being an Olympic athlete. I want to say I strive for balance in life, but I don’t think that is really ever attainable because in each season of life there will be changes and challenges that we constantly have to navigate through. Sport has taught me to work hard, push through, but it also taught me that I can do hard things and that they don’t have to be done alone.


Isolating as it may feel, you are not alone. 


IMG_1056 (1)Source: Samantha Schultz 



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Samantha Schultz

Samantha Schultz is an accomplished American modern pentathlete and a dedicated sergeant in the U.S. Army National Guard. A seven-time U.S. National Champion and a gold and silver medalist at the 2019 Pan American Games, Samantha competed in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, representing both Team USA and the U.S. Army through the World Class Athlete Program. She joined the Army in 2017 and currently serves in the Colorado National Guard while working as a personal trainer and fitness instructor in Colorado Springs. With a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration, her expertise spans Pilates, yoga, fitness coaching, and motivational speaking. Samantha is passionate about promoting sustainable lifestyle changes to enhance physical and mental health, offering both in-person and online training sessions.



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