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Going to the Olympics Was My Dream. Here’s Why I Gave It Up.

pool megan macnee olympics wanderful

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Over ten years ago, I decided that I would be at the 2016 Olympics.

At the time, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make it there as an athlete. But I also knew that 2016 would be my first chance to partake in the games in some way.

And now, the Olympics have arrived. But instead of following my dream, I’m watching the games from my couch.

As I push 30, I’ve had to decide if the Olympics-sized dream that I had in high school is still mine.

Falling in Love with the Games

For the first two decades of my life, I defined myself as an athlete. If I wasn’t in school, I was in the pool practicing. By the time I reached high school, I was pulling two-a-days for a good part of the year, with water polo practices starting as early as 5 am. (Swim season wasn’t much better at 5:30.)

water polo megan macnee olympics wanderful

My collegiate water polo team winning the NCAA Division III National Championships.


The long weekends traveling around Southern California for tournaments combined with frequent weekly afternoon swim meets created bonds with my teammates, many of whom are still my best friends. We capped off high school with a tournament in Hawaii. Losing in water polo at the CIF semi-final (our closest thing to a State Championship) and the season coming to an end is still one of the my biggest heartbreaks to this day.

And even before then, I’d already fallen head over heels for the Olympics. I remember watching gymnasts twirl in Atlanta in 1996. And I have a vivid memory of fighting with my parents to stay up well past my bedtime to watch figure skating in 1998. I was 12.

In high school, I decided that, no matter what, I’d get to the Olympics in 2016.

[Tweet “”The Olympics have arrived. Instead of following my dream, I’m watching the games from my couch.””]


Why the Olympics?

The Olympics were a way to indulge my growing wanderlust and curiosity of the world. It wasn’t just getting to the games for me. It was traveling to who knows where and meeting people from across the globe that piqued my interest. This globalness has always been a big part of why I’ve loved the games.

In college, playing water polo became my identity on campus, the source of my friends, and the thing that got me through that major transition in life. Cracking jokes during long van rides driving around the state and the nights spent out with the team are some of my best memories from those four years.

Watching the games this past week, I’ve been reminded of the high I got while competing, the passion that went along with it, and the burst of energy I’d get not just while racing, but also while cheering on my teammates. I have yet to experience anything else comparable to that rush.

pool megan macnee olympics wanderful

If a high school or college athlete tells you they don’t daydream about being in the Olympics, I think they’re lying, even if they know there isn’t a chance. You can’t help but dream about being on that team, competing with the best, and being recognized on an international level for all the work you’ve put in. I know I couldn’t help it.

Falling in Love with Adventures

In the fall of 2007, while studying abroad in Rome, I made one of the toughest decisions of my life: I gave up being an athlete to pursue the other interests and passions I’d discovered.

I don’t know if I would have made this choice if I’d stayed on campus that semester. But while studying abroad (my first long-term and international travel experience), I found and fell in love with a version of myself that was much more than an athlete.

In Rome, I had to find ways to fill my time that wasn’t practice, competing, or hanging out with my teammates. It’s weird to say that this was a first for me.

Luckily, it wasn’t too hard to do in Rome. Whether it was aimlessly wandering the streets after class to find a tiny beautiful church I’d never heard of, eating suppli (deep fried rice balls filled with mozzarella, aka the best thing ever), taking weekend trips around the country with new friends, or just sitting in a cafe on Piazza Navona watching the locals and tourists pass by, there was always something new to explore.

rome megan macnee olympics wanderful 3

I read so many books in Rome, as I survived off public transit. I wrote to friends and family about my adventures, and even more in a journal I kept. These were seeds of a passion to write and tell stories. I missed my family, my friends, and my college. At one point, I got so homesick that I felt like a little kid at overnight camp, crying alone on the roof of my apartment building, wanting to go home to my mom.

I was forced to learn how to do things on my own, in a way I never had before. Everything from eating a meal to going on a day trip, or even taking a weekend by myself, was foreign and exciting. I loved exploring this new place, meeting new people, tasting everything I possibly could, and igniting the newfound spark of my love for wine.

I did realize one thing in this time: I didn’t miss being in the pool.

Sure, I missed my teammates in the way you do when you’re an athlete, but I didn’t miss actually playing water polo. The activities I missed were my student involvements as an RA and in student government.

Plus, my wanderlust had grown. After that first international trip, I dreamed about so many places and the opportunity to not just visit, but to dig into the culture, landscape, and environment.

Cut to seven years later, 2012. I was building a career in politics. I was spending my time traveling with friends and family. I had begun writing. My lists of places to go, books to read, and things to accomplish had grown beyond what I could ever have dreamed 10 years earlier.

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In 2012, posing with my high school teammate and Olympic gold medalist Tyler Clary.


In hindsight, that year will likely be my closest personal connection to the Olympics. My high school teammate, Tyler Clary, won a gold medal in the 200 meter backstroke by beating Ryan Lochte. And the US Women’s Water Polo Team was made up of many women I had competed against at some point in high school or college. In many ways, these were “my” games.

If I’d done the math better, I might have picked 2012 as my year. But I had made the promise of 2016 to myself as a kid, and that oath irrevocably shaped my dreams.

The Olympics aren’t exactly something that you plan for at the last minute. So last year, I had to make a choice.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned since leaving college (where I tried to defy this to no avail) is: You can do everything, but you cannot do everything at once.

Whether it’s money, time, or energy, the reality of life is that we have to prioritize our choices.

For me, this meant that I could either go to Bali (which had risen to the top of my travel bucket list) or I could go to the Olympics this year. I still loved the Olympics, and going to the 2016 games had been a dream of mine for most of my life. But was it still my dream?

Letting Go of Promises That No Longer Fit Who I Am

The answer was no.

ubud bali megan macnee olympics wanderful

In Ubud, Bali in 2016 at the Monkey Forest.


Instead of looking into tickets to the games, I booked a flight to Bali and spent two weeks exploring the island and myself. It was
today’s dream, and I don’t know how the trip could have been any better.

I ate amazing food, explored a beautiful culture, accomplished another lifelong dream of getting scuba certified, and found my first solo trip a success. Those things and more are what make up my dreams now.

As the 2016 games progress, there is a part of me that feels like I should be disappointed in myself. This was so important to me, and I didn’t accomplish it.

The overachiever in me wants to tell myself I failed. Instead, I’m telling her to be quiet.

I’ve changed over these years, especially in the four since the Beijing games. And it’s okay that my dreams have changed with me.

Letting go of dreams is as hard as following through on them. Letting go of this particular dream is one more way that I have developed into the complex person I am today, and not just the athlete that I once defined myself as. I am a wanderlusting writer, full-time professional, friend, sister, daughter, adoptive aunt, sports lover, wino, foodie, reader, nerd, pilates practitioner, fandom member, and so much more.

It’s important to dream, to look forward, and set goals.

[Tweet “”The overachiever in me wants to tell myself I failed. Instead, I’m telling her to be quiet.””]


But at the same time, it’s just as important to let go of them, rearrange them, and let ourselves change and grow.

This Olympic games, I’m looking back at where I was four years ago — even eight years ago — and, while that self would likely be a little disappointed that I watched the Opening Ceremony from my couch (and not Brazil), I think she’d also be impressed by who I’ve become and what I’ve done with my life.


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Going to the Olympics Was My Dream but I Gave It Up, and That's Okay | Wanderful

Have you ever found that giving up on a dream was the right decision for you? Share in the comments!

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Author Megan MacNee

Megan MacNee is the founder and editor of Traveling Nine to Fiver. After spending five years working full-time she decided to make a change and keep her job while still exploring the world. During the day she works in politics in Sacramento, California, but in her time off she travels around the west coast and the world. She writes to encourage other full-time professionals to get out and explore the globe.

More posts by Megan MacNee

Join the discussion 17 Comments

  • Karilyn says:

    Loved reading this about you Megan. How amazing though to see people you used to play against in the Olympics. I have a dream to go as a spectator. Hoping for LA games in what 2024 or something way down the line!

  • Naomi says:

    It was my dream to go to the Olympics too (not as an athlete but as a supporter). Turino 2006 was closest to home but divorce hit me. I didn’t had the money for Vancouver 2010 and I didn’t want to really really go to the 2010 Sochi Games. I was depressed and burn-out so the timing was very off. But I went. It was everything I hoped for. Holding one of the medals and see my favorite win 2 medals was such a high. But now I’m done, I don’t think I’ll go to another Winter Olympics but it is a memory I cherish for ever

  • Brittany says:

    What a wise decision.. and good for you telling the overachiever to be quiet. Sounds like Bali was pretty incredible! Keep exploring!

    • Megan MacNee says:

      It’s hard to get her “the overachiever” to shut up but it’s helping me find a better balance. Bali really was worth it. But maybe 2020 or 2024 will have to be a new goal.

  • Cat says:

    A great read and a great story! As time passes, our dream changes and who we think we are also changes 🙂

  • Bella WW says:

    I think that is more than ok what you’ve done! I mean, you gave up on a dream so you could chase a bigger one and u succeeded! To answer to your question, I must say that yes, I also gave up on some dreams, because I had to or because I just realized I’ve changed and they weren’t my dreams anymore.

  • Meg Jerrard says:

    Thanks for sharing Megan – and congrats to Tyler Clary! I’m always so impressed by our most elite athletes, and the hard work and dedication it takes to get to the games, though I don’t think changing one dream for another is by any means a failure. I truly believe that we have dreams and goals for certain periods in our lives and they are there for a reason to get us through that stage. But then we evolve, and we change, and we move onto the next phase of our lives, and that means new priorities, and new dreams.

  • Laura Lynch says:

    I would be more surprised to hear that you still has the same goals and aspirations in your 30s that you did in your teens. It’s fairly unrealistic to think you’d still want the same things now that you wanted then. So you’ve just followed the natural progression of who you are, not failed at anything. It was the right choice for who you are now.

  • Beautiful and heartfelt. There is nothing wrong with failing to achieve a goal that you made at some point in your life. Goals change. Priorities change. Though you are obviously still passionate about swimming and the olympics, your life has taken a different trajectory from the one you envisioned in your teens. And whose life hasn’t?

    Also, congrats to your high school teammate!

  • As I read this, I’m watching the men’s Brazilian and Italian volleyball teams vie for the GOLD with Brazil winning. The emotions that show on each of the players’ faces tells us all the commitment it takes to compete at the Olympics. If the desire is not 100%, it won’t be a dream that one imagines. It’s a very tough but wise and mature decision to know that the dream has changed for you, that is very brave. Thank you for sharing your story, Megan.

  • Bravo, Megan. Thank you for sharing so deeply. There are many reasons to travel and even though you’re not competing you are connected to that community for as long as it works for you.

  • You sound like a total go-getter and would have done the Olympics proud, as an athlete or as a dot in the crowd! But I’m glad you found the time and space you needed to realize that you have other interests, too. It’s too bad you didn’t make it this year to cheer the teams on, but I probably would have opted for Bali too.

  • Jenna says:

    Love this: “You can do everything, but you cannot do everything at once.” — it’s so true and really can help put decisions into perspective. It sounds like a good idea that you went to Bali. Even though you had a dream for so long, it’s important to recognize when those dreams change and are no longer a top priority. Glad you enjoyed your time in Bali!

  • Mar Pages says:

    What a great lesson to learn, to let go of old goals and realise new ones. I definitely agree that you cant do everything at once, its something I have to remind myself of every day.

  • Claudia says:

    This heartfelt post really hits home with me. We’re preparing to send off our eldest for uni and varsity rowing training in seven days time. I don’t know if the Olympics is in his future, as I’m sure he’ll face many of the issues and find new passions such as what you experienced yourself during your life journey. The choices we make in life shape ourselves and our future happiness. Sounds like you made some good ones.

  • Eva says:

    It’s a tough call to make. It’s true, as we grow old, we need to re-prioritise and re-arrange our dreams and goals. I find myself constantly reflect on the path that I didn’t choose at a previous crossroad; though it makes me feel guilty sometimes, I’m content with what I’ve chosen. Thanks for sharing Megan.

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