Walking away from something you love is never easy. Here’s why.

Putting on the jersey was the easy part. Sliding my arms into its tight sleeves, pulling my head through the embroidered collar, tugging at the corners so the small, red Nike symbol sat right above my sports bra line— that was the best part of my week, the thing I began looking forward to from the moment I stepped off the court on Saturday night. As the the meshy blue fabric slid over my skin, I wasn’t me anymore. I could do things I couldn’t normally do—run faster, reach lower, hit harder. I was untouchable.

Taking the jersey off, though— that was the hard part. Sitting in my practice shirt in the locker room, suddenly all that was gone. It was a brutal fall from cloud nine back into reality. My body hurt. I remembered that I didn’t have a job. Without my jersey, I wasn’t number five anymore— I was just my ordinary self.

That jersey was my second skin when I wanted to be someone else— someone better. For a while, I felt as if volleyball was the only thing I was good at: my grades have gone up and down, friends have come and gone, and I’ve received rejection after rejection since coming to Penn. In the real world, life is crazy, messy, and unstable. There’s no rhyme or reason to why things happen— they just do.

But in volleyball, there’s always a reason— you shanked that ball because you weren’t facing target; you missed that swing because you didn’t get your feet to the ball. There’s a calculable pattern you can follow to achieve success. It’s the same three or four motions— pass, set, hit— over and over again until the ball drops. And then the pattern begins again. It’s clean. It’s simple.

Life outside of the gym isn’t like that, though. Few things in my life have ever been consistent. I moved around a lot as a kid— by my sophomore year of high school, I had already attended five different schools. Normalcy wasn’t something I could count on. But volleyball was. No matter what town I was in, or what group of new friends I had to make, volleyball has always been there for me. Ever since I was 11 years old, when I showed up to my middle school tryouts in soccer shorts and knee-high socks, volleyball was something I could count on. Through ups and downs with my parents, picking up from one part of the country and moving to the other, fights with my friends— volleyball was the thing that kept me afloat. It was the best part of my day, everyday— my whole year, really. I knew that if I could only make it to practice, things would be okay. I loved volleyball so fiercely and so passionately that it was like therapy. It was this secret stash of happy pills I kept in my back pocket, only to whip out when I needed them most. It was my coping mechanism for anything and everything. Some people cook. Some people color. I played volleyball.

And abandoning that routine, that controlled simplicity, is terrifying. Walking away from something you love is never easy—but any sports movie will tell you that. What they won’t tell you is how hard it is to walk away from a space, where if I only worked hard enough, I could be my very best time and time again. They won’t tell you how devastating it is to lose a support system of teammates, trainers, and coaches who do everything within their power to help you succeed. They won’t tell you how letting go feels like loosing a piece of yourself.

I’m heartbroken, obviously. But I’m also proud. As I walk away, looking back over my shoulder, I know I’ll be leaving something great—worth all of the pain and sweat.  My athletic career gave me everything: a competitive outlet, pride for the name on my jersey, friends I’ll rely on for years. It’s easy to feel disappointed— wrapping up anything always leaves you with the question of “What if?” But at the end of the day, playing volleyball was never about the rings or the all-tournament team placards. It was about giving myself over to the moment, the team, and the game, and leaving nothing in reserve. And I did that. I gave Penn the best four years I could. And for that opportunity, I will always be grateful.

This post first appeared on 34th Street.com