Issue #11 · Finding My "Next Thing"

Girl Scouts. Yearbook Club. Tennis Camp. All things I probably would have loved to get involved in as a kid, but simply didn’t have the time for.

Finding My “Next Thing”

Girl Scouts. Field Hockey. Yearbook Club. Tennis Camp. All things I probably would have loved to get involved in as a kid, but simply didn’t have the time for.

That’s because I dedicated my life to gymnastics, a sport notorious for being the only “thing” you can have on your plate. Absolutely zero of my teammates played a second sport, most barely had time for a single extracurricular club at school, and none of us had any semblance of being a normal teenager.

I attended one of the most prestigious private club gyms in the northeast — Gold Medal Gymnastics Center, led by guru Tammy Marshall. Practices were intense, but if you could survive several years of drill sergeant-like coaching, it was a college scholarship factory. We spent 25 hours in the gym after school every week, and during summer vacation our practice schedule increased to 8am-12pm, 4-7pm. Double sessions, seven hours a day, five days a week. I cried in the car* a lot.

What I wouldn’t give to throw on my grips and do a few Tkatchevs on that pit bar.

While the grueling training sessions and social-life-murdering schedule made many of my former teammates eventually fall out of love with the sport, I never seemed to. It was my thing. I was good at it, and I craved winning more medals. I lived and breathed gymnastics, and even prioritized it over school at times. It was my sole identity, and eventually led me to college where I competed at the NCAA level for Towson University.

Fast forward to March 19, 2011 — my last ever competition, 15 years after my first. We won’t talk about how that final meet went, but I do remember the moment my feet hit the mat on my last ever routine. Just like that, it was over — poof. That’s all folks! I was reluctant to even take my grips off after I walked back to the team bench, because it all just seemed so final. Beyond college, there is no professional gymnastics league to aspire to, and worse, it’s not even a sport you can casually continue throughout the rest of your life (without like, dying). I didn’t realize it then, but the seeds of a significant void had just been planted.

I wonder if my mom knew when she made the collage on the left that it would lead to the photo on the right.

It’s common for college athletes to feel a bit lost upon graduation, and I was certainly one of them. I thought that a career in the sports industry might be the solution — I took a summer job with the Baltimore Orioles, and my first ever full-time job was in the athletics department at The College of William & Mary. However, I quickly learned that I’d rather be a spectator at Saturday night football games, not an employee.

Over the next few years, the void intensified. I played adult rec sports here and there, but that was more for the social aspect (becoming captain of my beer league kickball team didn’t really seem like something worth striving for). Eventually I found my way back into the gym, but this kind of gym had treadmills instead of balance beams, and the incentive was shedding a few pounds, not trophies. To be honest, I never seemed to find my “next thing” in my 20’s at all.

I talked a bit about finding purpose in my Modern-Day Mission Trip post a few months ago, though that was primarily from a traveler’s point-of-view. But I’ve slowly begun to recognize that this idea — seeking out hobbies as an adult — is actually pretty crucial for most people, nomadic or not.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon Plan Your Next, a weekly newsletter by Nate Kadlac that encourages folks to take action on their “next thing” — be it writing, design, photography, a side hustle, whatever. While Nate often shares stories that inspire new creative endeavors (which I’m also totally on board with — what you’re reading at this very moment is mine), I’ve realized that it’s equally as important for me to “Plan My Next” thing that gets me out from under the sedentary hypnosis of my laptop/iPad/phone screen.

Running has always been an easy answer, but it’s definitely my last resort — something I only do out of necessity, when lack of exercise starts to tug on my mental health. I find running to be quite lonely, difficult to drum up motivation for and taxing on my already beat-up-former-gymnast feet and ankles. To be frank with you, I hate it**, but for years I’ve struggled to find a suitable replacement.

That’s why when I unexpectedly fell into the beach volleyball community in Puerto Escondido this past winter, I knew I was on to something. Throw in a courtside DJ, consistently spectacular sunsets and forty new friends? I was hooked. For three months I played nearly every single day, as the courts were conveniently located two minutes away from my house.

Missing this incredible community so much!

Most of my volleyball friends probably don’t realize just how meaningful this past winter was to me. Besides having fun among new friends, it also helped me get back in shape, acted as a stand-in for Spanish class, reignited my competitive fire, and most importantly, was the first time since I was six years old that I discovered a sport that I love.

But here’s the thing: I’m still a total beginner. After three months, I certainly improved, but let's not kid ourselves, I still have a long way to go before I’m winning any doubles tournaments. There are some reaaally good players that show up to play every day, and sometimes it’s downright intimidating to even step onto the court (shout out to Juls for being my Day 1 strength-in-numbers gal back in December).

That being said, I’m still really hopeful that I may have found my “next thing” — beach volleyball is something that I can see myself being involved in for years to come, as it checks a ton of important boxes — fun, fitness, competition and community. And fortunately, I’ve always been a sucker for a good challenge, so I’m in this one for the long haul, even if that means a ton of practice awaits. I just hope that this time I don’t have to do double sessions.

* * *

*A special thank you to my parents (and to Mike and Nancy Riportella) for running the Great River ↔️ Greenlawn daily shuttle. Driving an hour roundtrip — and then doing it again 4 hours later? While I’d like to think I’d also do anything for any hypothetical future children, it’s much more likely that they’ll participate in a sport that takes place on school premises.

**My disdain towards running aside, does anyone want to run the San Diego Half Marathon with me on April 14, 2024? Serious question. It’s become a bucket list thing for me to run the real race since the pandemic caused my 2020 effort to be a bit lonely.

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Here’s a list of every issue if you want to keep reading!

  • Issue #16: Embracing the Blank Canvas [Sep 2023]

  • Issue #15: In Pursuit of an Endless Summer [Aug 2023]

  • Issue #14: Follow Me to Weird Places [Jul 2023]

  • Issue #13: Self-Inflicted Social Overload [Jul 2023]

  • Issue #12: Schlepping It 🎒 [Jun 2023]

  • Issue #11: Finding My “Next Thing” [Jun 2023]

  • Issue #10: Book the Damn Flight and Just Go [May 2023]

  • Issue #9: Choosing Your Own Life Adventure [May 2023]

  • Issue #8: Eat, Sleep, Write, Repeat [May 2023]

  • Issue #7: My First Month of Indie Making: An Honest Review [Feb 2023]

  • Issue #6: Ten Years of Making Money on the Internet [Jan 2023]

  • Issue #5: The Modern-Day Mission Trip [Dec 2022]

  • Issue #4: Ready, FIRE!, Aim [Nov 2022]

  • Issue #3: A New City Every Month: An Experiment in Change [Aug 2022]

  • Issue #2: Defining My North Star as a Nomad [Dec 2021]

  • Issue #1: One Year on the Road: Looking Back [Oct 2021]