Reflections of a retired athlete

Alanna Richardson pens an open letter to current varsity athletes

Richardson is still figuring out her next steps.
Credit: 
Robin Kasem

Alanna “Lannie” Richardson is a goalkeeper for the Queen’s women’s soccer team in her final year of eligibility. Richardson is currently in the last year of her Kinesiology degree.

Throughout the 2019 season, Richardson held a 0.718 save percentage, making 28 saves across her 13 games in net. Richardson was dominant between the bars and allowed only 11 goals, while her fellow Gaels racked up a total of 34.

Despite these outstanding numbers, the Gaels fell hard in their quarter-final match—they lost 3-0 to the University of Toronto, forcing their undefeated season to an unexpected end.

In an open letter, written shortly after her season ended on Oct. 27, Richardson reflects on being faced with sudden retirement, her experience as a varsity athlete, and her future beyond sport.  

***

It was supposed to be the perfect final season. Despite being able to graduate in four years, I decided to come back for a fifth year at Queen’s to play another season with the Queen’s women’s soccer team as a goalkeeper. 

Last season, we lost both games in the Final Four, which represented two chances to clinch a national berth. It was a disappointing finish after such a promising shot to make it to the coveted U SPORTS Championship—a varsity athlete’s dream.

For the first time since joining the team in my second year, the 2019 season would see only two goalkeepers on the roster, instead of the usual four. I would now be fighting to potentially play, although I was still not the starter.

Every week I had hoped I might be given my shot, but to be honest, I was really just happy to be along for the ride. So, when the unthinkable happened, and my co-keeper suffered a severe concussion after just the first week of regular season, my world was shifted upside down. 

I was now the regular starting keeper without a single backup to relieve me. It was a lot of pressure, but my team assured me that this was my moment, and I was ready. 

Defying the odds, we ended our regular season undefeated with a 12-0-2 record, a feat that hasn’t been achieved for the women’s soccer program since 2005.

We tied with Ottawa for first place in the East, leaving official placements to be decided by goal differential where they prevailed by just a few tallies.

Nevertheless, we were flying high with big expectations heading into the playoffs. I don’t think a single one of us thought a U SPORTS appearance wasn’t possible.

On Oct. 27 of this year, my university soccer career came to a shocking end. We had lost 3-0 to the University of Toronto, a game everybody expected us to win.

When the final whistle blew, I cried—the really ugly, heaving, and uncontrollable kind of cry. This was supposed to be a perfect final season. Instead, our first loss of the season saw us exit the playoffs without even making a Final Four appearance.

To say the team was disappointed is an understatement. The three of us who were graduating had not prepared to be playing our last varsity game ever.

If we had just placed above Ottawa after regular season, if the weather was different that day, or if we played Toronto again, everything might have been different. My mind couldn’t stop thinking: what if?

It’s been just over a week since the game, and it’s still so hard to talk about. Right now, the aspect of all of it that hurts the most is seeing the hope and drive of the returning players. “We’ll be better next year” or “This is motivation for next time” fills their social media.

For me, there is no next time. It’s finished. I’m no longer a varsity athlete at Queen’s. This realization feels as if a part of my identity has been stripped. For the first time since I was three years old, I don’t know when or where I will next play organized soccer.

However hard it may be, through long conversations on the phone with my parents and other influential people in my life, I’ve come to appreciate a few things. 

This is where I want you, a current varsity athlete, to really pay attention. My advice may sound clichéd, but I promise that it comes from my most vulnerable and genuine thoughts:

Training 

To begin, I want you to know how important it is to make the most out of every 7 a.m. lift or 7 p.m. practice. Every rep and every drill should be done with integrity and drive because it has such an important purpose. The purpose is that you are there to get better for yourself and for your team.

Right now, you’re with people who feed your drive and motivation for success, something your competitive side craves. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you have the ability to make a difference for your team.

Keep your head down and grind out that last rep in training. Maybe even go for one more.

Privilege

I want you to recognize that you’re currently playing at an elite level of sport, while also getting an education at a prestigious university. You are one of a select few in Canada that holds the unique status of student-athlete.

It’s important for me to note that this life is an extreme privilege. Sure, you make sacrifices. You may not get to go home for Thanksgiving, or celebrate Homecoming with the rest of the university, but the athlete lifestyle cannot be compared to anything else. You get to travel, experience new sights, and meet new people, all while playing the sport you love. 

You’re also privileged with free tutoring, discounted athletic therapy rates, exceptional strength and conditioning coaches, and world-class facilities to train and play on. 

Take advantage of these privileges; they are all in place to help you be successful in every aspect of your life, not just in athletics.

The Team

Next, I want you to think about the last time your team was all together. For me, that was after our final game. I was already crying from the result of the match, but the hugs in the change room hit differently.

I thought about how special these girls were, despite me only knowing some of them for less than three months. They’re my family, and I’d do anything for them.

Those movies you watch together when your bus breaks down, what you learn about them while waiting for the food at a team dinner, the games you play on team bonding nights, and your pre-game dance routine: none of these moments can be replaced. 

Players graduate, injuries happen, and you lose a playoff game you were expected to win. You never know when it’s going to be the last time you’ll all be together in the same room. Soak in every moment.

The Next Chapter

My final piece of advice has to do with the next chapter of your life. Maybe you’re just donning the Q for the first time this year, or maybe you’ve only got one more year to go. Either way, there will come a time when this crazy wild ride that you embarked on is all done.

When this time comes, don’t wait forever to realize just how incredible your journey has been. I may not have won an OUA Championship or a National banner, but when I look back at my experience here, it’s not the hardware that I’ll remember—it’s all the lessons I learned.

These lessons include what it means to be a leader and how to be the support system for when your team needs it the most. They extend to the importance of taking advantage of your platform to make a difference in the community outside of your game, and that hard work and perseverance will pay off in ways that talent can’t.

Everything we learned together at this school not only helped us get through the tough times, but also ensures our success in any adventure we decide to pursue next. 

So be proud of your career. Know that every time you step onto the court, ice, or pitch, you’re preparing your future self by making yourself better today.

Although I don’t know where my next path will take me, I hang up my jersey with pride and accomplishment, knowing that no matter what, I will always be a Gael and I will always have a place to call home. 

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