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Athletes walk away: Why some student-athletes’ careers are cut short way too soon

Student-athletes are often forced to leave their team for a number a reasons ranging from injuries to coaching changes

<p>Maggie Wittpenn (left) and Sydney Mathis (right) have lived fulfilling lives since parting ways with Virginia Athletics.</p>

Maggie Wittpenn (left) and Sydney Mathis (right) have lived fulfilling lives since parting ways with Virginia Athletics.

Virginia Athletics supports over 750 student-athletes across 27 varsity sports. Many of these athletes aspire to play their sport throughout their time in college and compete all four years at the Division-I level. While Virginia fans have seen numerous student-athletes with long, prosperous careers, some have had their careers cut short earlier than expected.

One of the more common reasons student-athletes have to stop playing is injury. Given the physical nature of sports, injuries are commonplace. While some injuries are minor setbacks, others are more enduring.

Maggie Wittpenn, former Virginia rower and rising fourth-year Commerce student, is one of many college athletes who had to give up their sport due to an injury.

Wittpenn’s introduction to rowing was certainly unique. While the New Jersey native played multiple sports competitively in high school, she didn’t expect to be a varsity rower when she first stepped on Grounds in 2017.

“What got me into rowing was I was actually running on the treadmill at the AFC [my first year],” Wittpenn said. “The assistant rowing coach came over to me and said, 'You're really tall, you should come try out. We're doing a novice team this year.' So I just did it.”

After rowing with the novice team — largely made up of students recruited on Grounds — during her first semester, Wittpenn transitioned onto the varsity team in the spring.

“It was really hard coming from not [rowing] in high school,” Wittpenn said. “You're behind world champs and girls that have been doing it since middle school. It was tough, but the camaraderie, the team and the coaches definitely kept me going through it.”

While Wittpenn intended to compete on the varsity team for the rest of her collegiate career, her plans changed her second year at Virginia. She began to develop knee pain during the December of her second year after months of rigorous training and competition. The pain didn’t just impact Wittpenn’s ability to row, but also her general quality of life.

“As we started building on the volume [of work], I just was in really bad pain,” Wittpenn said. “They were really sore. It got to the point where walking to class and walking up the stairs at McIntire or other buildings was a struggle sometimes. I thought it was really affecting my performance, especially on the [rowing machine]. I felt like I didn't really have any strength.” 

As her knee pain progressed, Wittpenn started to cut exercises out of her workouts. She first stopped doing lower body workouts and eventually cut out lifting and running, as well. Although Wittpenn thought these changes might help the pain, her condition didn’t improve significantly.

In fact, after spring break during her second year at the University, Wittpenn hit “a really low point” where she wasn’t seeing noticeable progress with her knees. After an upset meeting with the team’s trainer, Wittpenn was essentially pulled from all workouts and competition in the spring. She was mainly limited to uphill walking, biking and using the elliptical.

Going into the summer, Wittpenn was optimistic that the extended break from practice and classes would be beneficial for her health. However, despite doing a lot of physical therapy and focusing on cardio exercises that wouldn’t hurt her knees, Wittpenn’s pain wasn’t going away. As the fall semester neared, Wittpenn had to have a difficult conversation with her coach about the future of her rowing career.

“I kind of knew that it was the end,” Wittpenn said. “I had to make a really tough decision. It wasn't really worth the pain or soreness it was causing, and I was really concerned about an injury further on or just being in knee pain for the rest of my life. It just wasn't an injury like a broken arm where you can … fix it in a month — it was just a chronic pain.”

After months of trying to find a way to get back into competitive shape, Wittpenn’s two-year rowing career came to an unfortunate end in August 2019. The physical toll of committing 20 hours a week to rowing had finally caught up to Wittpenn. 

“Rowing is super hard physically, especially if your body's not used to it,” Wittpenn said. “I had no idea what I was really getting myself into. I don't think a lot of people know the true extent of what goes into it … Sports like rowing and swimming — cardiovascular sports — are just so reliant on conditioning. You just keep pushing and pushing and conditioning your body more and more.”

Even though Wittpenn admits that rowing was an extremely challenging sport both physically and mentally, the sport also gave her a family on Grounds. From former teammates who are now some of her best friends to supportive coaches such as Kevin Sauer, Wittpenn is grateful for the Virginia rowing community, which has become an important part of her college life. 

You miss the big things and the things that matter, but you don't really miss the little things,” Wittpenn said. “Do I miss my alarm going off at 5:45 in the morning? No. Do I miss stressing about an erg test? No. But, I really miss just being with all the girls, competing and rallying together. Being a Virginia athlete was, honestly, an amazing experience.”

Similar to Wittpenn, another former student-athlete — rising fourth-year Commerce student Sydney Mathis — also had to leave Virginia Athletics due to unforeseen circumstances. However, while Wittpenn rowed at the University for two years before succumbing to injury, Mathis only swam for a few months on Virginia’s varsity swimming team before a coaching change forced her out.

Mathis, who has been swimming competitively since she was eight years old, was accepted into the University, independent of her athletic ability. Given the University's strong academics and high-performing swim team, as well as her father’s connection to the school as an alumnus, Mathis was attracted to Virginia more than other colleges and, ultimately, chose to attend.

Being a life-long swimmer, Mathis asked Sam Busch, former swimming and diving assistant coach, if she could walk on to Virginia’s team. In April 2017, before Mathis graduated from high school, she was invited to walk on. However, it didn’t take long for Mathis’ college swimming career to be thrown off track.

“Right after I was invited to walk on to the team, the entire coaching staff left U.Va., and they brought in an entire new staff,” Mathis said. “The new coach decided to cut his [two] walk-ons because he felt that our services just weren't useful to the team.”

Mathis recognizes that, when coaching changes occur, walk-ons are often the first to go, compared to student-athletes on scholarship.

“For the most part, if you walk on to the team, it generally means that you got into U.Va. independent of the swim team, so the coaches see it as like you're not losing anything or they're not taking anything away from you, other than your swimming experience,” Mathis said.

In total, Mathis’ time in the Cavaliers’ swimming program was limited to the first three or so months of her first year on Grounds — from August to late October or early November. While she wasn’t on the team very long, those few months were certainly hard work.

“It wasn't a long period of time that I actually got to be on the team but the team was in-season,” Mathis said. “We were training a lot and it was one of the hardest parts of the program because everybody's getting back in shape, and they were the hardest workouts.”

According to Mathis, when she spoke with the new swimming and diving coach Todd DeSorbo, he cited both academic and athletic ability as reasons for her being cut from the program. However, Mathis doesn’t believe those reasons turned out to be exactly true.

She believes that first getting into the University and later into the McIntire School of Commerce shows that she can balance school and athletics. From a swimming standpoint, DeSorbo gave her the opportunity to earn her spot back on the team by working out and proving herself on her own.

“That entire first year, I got up everyday at four in the morning, and I went and trained myself,” Mathis said. “I trained up to 20 to 25 hours a week on my own and also trained with [Virginia] club swimming. I went to club swim nationals and won.”

Specifically, Mathis won the 50-yard freestyle and placed second in the 100-yard freestyle. She was also a part of two winning relay teams — in the 400-yard and 200-yard freestyle relays.

Even though Mathis’ results were impressive, she wasn’t invited to return to the swimming program. While Mathis was disappointed at first, she realizes now that being cut from the team provided her the opportunity to pursue other interests.

“Now, I've kind of grown into my own person, independent of swimming,” Mathis said. “I used to do it for so long and often because I've been swimming since I was eight. When I lost that, I really missed that, and I guess you yearn to be back in the pool and back on the team. But I think I've grown and I'm on a different path now.”

Without the commitment of having to practice nearly every day of the week for hours at a time, Mathis had more time to dedicate to other things. In fact, one of the first things Mathis did was sign up to volunteer through Madison House, where she became actively involved in activities like tutoring and helping out at the homeless shelter. 

During this time, Mathis also became involved in the food justice movement in Charlottesville, and she even interned with two different organizations working on this issue. Mathis doesn’t believe she would’ve been able to do many of those things if she remained on the swimming team.

“I do think that I wouldn't have realized my full potential as a person if I were on the team, and I wouldn't have realized my actual interests beyond swimming,” Mathis said. “I would have missed that opportunity to grow myself as a person in the real world outside of swimming.”

While neither of their college careers turned out exactly the way they expected, Wittpenn and Mathis clearly see the positive side of each of their unique situations. Wittpenn recognizes the supportive family she’s gained from rowing. Mathis understands that the personal growth she’s experienced in college may have not been possible if she was still a student-athlete.

When their time as Virginia student-athletes were cut short, Wittpenn and Mathis could have both focused on the negatives. Instead, like many other former Division I athletes across the country, the pair have made the most of their lives and accomplished some amazing things since their relationships with Virginia Athletics were severed.

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