Her Olympic dream in flux, Jordan Raney embraces the chaos

U.S. water polo player Jordan Raney
Getty Images

By Jordan Raney

Editor’s Note: Jordan Raney is a member of the U.S. women’s water polo team. She is attempting to make her Olympic debut at this summer’s Tokyo Games, where the U.S. women’s water polo team will be aiming for a third straight gold medal. 

I feel like I’ve always dreamed of going to the Olympics, almost in a way that I don’t know when the dream first began. Growing up, I wanted to go the Olympics in every sport I played, from soccer to karate.

In water polo, the community is so small that you know who the “big guns” are from an early age. I started in the Olympic development pipeline in 2011 and slowly started going up the levels until I finally got called up to the national team in 2017.

In non-Olympic years, the national team usually gets together for the summers so we can prepare for various tournaments. But in the year leading up to the Olympics, we are together full-time. People take time off from college, leave their club teams overseas, and we train together in southern California. So at this point, we’ve been together pretty much non-stop since the spring of 2019.

[Read more: Maggie Steffens: There is tough. And then there is water polo tough]

Right now, there are 19 people training with the team. When the Olympic roster is named in May or June, it will include 13 players who will travel to Tokyo. The hardest part of this process is that you really want to achieve your goals, but you also want all of your friends to achieve their goals, too. It’s a really hard balance between being competitive, but also wanting what’s best for everyone.

Last March, when the Olympic postponement was announced, there were a lot of emotions: disbelief, denial, frustration, sadness, anger, you name it. It felt like we had put in so much work towards this big goal and we were back at square one.

Even now, looking ahead to the summer of 2021, there is no guarantee that I will make the team and see our work come to fruition.

Am I afraid? Of course. But am I still going for it? Hell yes.

When the pandemic put my Olympic goal on pause, instead of wallowing in self-pity and negative feelings, I decided to take a different approach. Quarantine allowed me the space to re-evaluate, reflect, and shift perspectives. It provided an unparalleled opportunity to explore myself on a deeper level and I discovered a term that has completely altered my perspective: antifragile identity.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote about the term in his book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Here’s an excerpt:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

In essence, the moment life becomes disrupted – even chaotic – it can actually be beneficial. Chaos is what you need to grow and flourish because it forces change.

This is the approach I am taking. I will take advantage of this chaos.

I’ve applied this mentality to my full identity. If I only see myself as an athlete, I won’t push myself or test the waters of what is possible. Now, and in the future, I will maintain an unbreakable sense of self through the ebbs and flows of life and embrace the chaos and uncomfortability of growth. If an aspect of my being leaves or is no longer relevant, I won’t be destroyed. This may sound abstract, so here’s an example:

Almost my entire existence has involved playing sports and for the past twelve years I have been almost solely devoted to water polo. There was school in the background, but water polo was the focal point of my attention. Before the Olympics were postponed, it was full steam ahead with horse blinders to Tokyo. I didn’t allow space for other endeavors. However, this forced standstill allowed other ideas and interests to seep through the walls I had put up, finding a way in through the cracks.

I became more interested in playing the piano, taking weekly lessons to learn how to play better and understand music theory. I love playing classical and contemporary music. Instead of cruising down the highway blasting tunes, I listen to podcasts (current favorites include Ted Talks, Finding Mastery, On Purpose with Jay Shetty, and WSJ news). I’ve become more interested in sustainability, and one of my goals for the future is to create a sustainable straw instead of the cardboard ones that disintegrate in your mouth when you use them.

[Read more: Olympics or not, Tara Geraghty-Moats is making nordic combined more equitable]

A realization surfaced: sport is certainly a part of me – and an important part – but it is not all of me. It is something I have devoted years of my life to, but it doesn’t define who I am. From the outside, this may seem like an obvious realization, but when you’re training for something like the Olympic Games, it can become easy to wrap up your whole identity in your athletic goals.

This is where antifragile identity comes into play. If I view my athletic persona as my only persona, I will be utterly devastated when it is gone. To be sure, I am chasing a really big life goal – representing the United States on the biggest world stage with my best friends – but I also have to remind myself that there is more to life than that singular goal. It is inevitable that – at some moment in the future – it will be time to pass the baton to the next generation of water polo players and pursue other passions.

But my life will go on. So then – and now – I will maintain an antifragile identity, aiming to constantly reinvent myself. I invite you to join me in rejoicing in the chaos.

[Related: Continuing the count: American women look to extend Olympic medal streaks]

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