Who Am I If not me? - Former U.S. National Team & Head Coach at Duke, Megan Cooke-Carcagno
I sat at a long table, the one typically used for team meetings and video sessions, with my elbows propping up my chin, as if my head was too heavy for my neck to support. Imagine that, this big strong athlete who’s too weak to hold her own head. To this day, I don’t remember which words the coach used, but I remember the sting of them, the realization of being cut, of being told I was done.
I felt completely unmoored. It was as if the rope that had held my anchor for so long had been sliced.
I remember the room being uncomfortably warm and wishing I had brought my water bottle into the meeting with me. I remember the way the words pierced me. I remember asking how soon I would need to remove my boat which had sat on a rack labeled with my name.
I had been pursuing a seat on the Olympic rowing team for 5 years and in July, a few weeks before the team was set to depart for Beijing, my journey abruptly ended. I was sent home. I wasn’t exactly sure where home was, but I knew it wasn’t there, at this long table in this overheated room.
It was just another day in the world of sports. I was cut, and that meant no more racing, no more training, no more…of me. Who would I be if I wasn’t “an athlete training for the Olympics” or “an athlete on the National Team.”? My identity was defined by what I did, determined yet simple: eat, sleep, train, repeat.I suddenly had no idea who I was.
There is a natural progression from athletics into coaching, where your day still revolves around competitions and seasons. I took that leap and my focus shifted towards a simple yet encompassing goal: make others better. My style was to coach from my gut. What does that boat feel like? What would I need to hear if I was that athlete? What does she need the most from me right now? How do I want them to feel right now? My daily occupation was to raise the tide of everything around me. It can be fulfilling and exciting, but it means giving when you’re used to getting, and that adjustment took time and determination. Nevertheless, I felt a renewed sense of satisfaction and my identity was all mine.
Naturally, my need to satisfy my personal athletic itch never ceased and I continued to train and race while coaching. My identity transformed yet again: I was a coach, I was (still) an athlete. Being a coach made me a better athlete and being an athlete made me a better coach. I could sit in both worlds and borrow empathy, logic and affinity. It was simple and rewarding.
As women, many of us will also go through another huge transition: motherhood. While it is easily my favorite and most cherished identity, it comes at heavy cost. How does a mother stay home to raise a baby while still raising a team? How does an athlete continue to find confidence and self acceptance while healing from pregnancy and breastfeeding? Would I give up my career? This new identity, one that is foreign and complicated, seemed very much at odds with the straightforward nature of eat, sleep, train, repeat.
As a mother, my male mentors were eager to advise me to “Take time off the season to be with the baby.” and, “You’ll never get this time back with your little one, cherish it.” Cherish it I did but I missed the thrill of being with the team and the progress I saw from myself in the weight room. I felt exhausted and bored at the same time. I missed me.
We ask women, when they are at their most vulnerable physiological state, to abandon the athletic little girl who’s been driving them since their first memories. We ask women to give up this part of their identity as if it was a simple phase in our lives. We ask women to give up the job, the team, the aspect of their life that gives them confidence, self assurance and powerful legs. We ask women to do what we never ask men to do: stop wanting to be ourselves.
As mothers, we ask these same questions. Do we want to abandon our careers? What if we want it back? Do we want to depart the path we’ve known for so long? And when we don’t let go of our former selves, we bathe ourselves in guilt for wanting the simple moments when we were cheered by the crowd or watched our athletes rise up and over perform.
As mothers, as coaches, and as athletes, we are not singular, simple nor straightforward. We are hard to define and our identities are always shifting and expanding into new territories.
We are forever at odds with our decisions. They pull at each other in ways that can leave us confused, stretched and unsatisfied. The demands of helping my children create their own identities can feel like a slow leak in the reservoir of my life’s passion. The fulfillment I get from helping my athletes is eroded if I miss my run or can’t make it to my son’s track meet. The PR’s I had to rebuild again, and again, and again after each pregnancy and birth felt more exhausting than the years I spent on the national team.
But every identity I carry makes me better in every opportunity I encounter. I am more patient. I am more forgiving. I am more eager. I am more alive.
I want my kids to see me as an athlete and a coach. To love this person who works hard and gives herself to others. I want my athletes to see me as a mother and a coach, to know that this impossible statistic is possible, achievable, and so deliciously satisfying. I want my life to be about chasing victories, attempting the impossible, and never giving up. I want to destroy the patriarchal terms of “stay at home mom” or a “working mom,” as if identity could be established by a simple location. I want to be myself and to have my decisions respected.
I will be clear, being a mom is my newest identity but easily my favorite. Perhaps that’s because it’s the hardest and most important to society, and the athlete in me loves a challenge. There are no coaches or training programs, yet plenty of solid mentors all around. It pulls at me to re-shape myself, to forgive my lack in personal performance, to be patient with my needs, and has provided a new perspective as a coach. Just like the unattainable perfect rowing stroke, it’s always begging me for more. Being a parent is now part of who I am, of what makes me, me.
At Coaching the Whole Athlete, we recognize the impact that comes from seeing our athletes as multifaceted people with many overlapping and shifting identities. As coaches, we flourish when we celebrate the person behind so many identities and outlets, never reducing our players to a single dimension. But we also need to turn that inwards and recognize and celebrate our own identities and transformations. It is in that action that we truly become leaders, able to offer so much more of ourselves to our players.
It’s hard for me to predict my next path and what new identity will emerge. I’m comfortable and confident enough to trust myself to make the right decision. I can’t offer any advice other than to trust your own heart and aim to fall forward rather than back. Life will continue to shape who I am and challenge me to become what I want. The world is big and there’s room for each of us to create the space we covet. I’m doing hard things every day, and I know I’m doing them well. That’s all I’d ask any athlete or child of mine to do.
Sometimes it’s ok for the coach to coach herself.
More about Megan
Megan Cooke Carcagno is the head coach of Duke Women’s Rowing. She has twice earned the honors of ACC Coach of the Year and her team has been ranked in the top 20 for nearly 8 years straight. Before coming to Duke, Megan was the Associate Head Coach at University of Wisconsin. As an athlete, Megan rowed on the United States National Team for 6 years. She set a World Record in the Women’s 8+ with her teammates, capturing Gold, at the 2006 World Championships. Megan loves racing half and full marathons, playing with her children, traveling the world and finding each city’s best sushi spot. Megan lives with her husband, Simon, and their three young boys.