Late athletic start: Daunting but rewarding


For some sports, success is rooted in talent and physique, while for others it is diligence and time. Simply put, there are some sports where it is nearly impossible to be good if you do not start engaging with them at a young age. On the other hand, there are sports where a late start does not diminish chances of success. It can be very demoralizing to join a sport that requires a lengthy history for a chance at being good. So, what makes some sports more or less inclusive than others?

When Berkeley High School senior Ari Fendel decided not to go out for the freshman baseball team in ninth grade after playing throughout his childhood, “I thought I was closing a door.” He said. However, his senior year, he stepped back onto the diamond for tryouts, making the varsity team. 

This rare comeback to a sport where continuity is the norm found Fendel playing catch-up: “I’m trying to not ask too many questions. But I’m also very confused,” he said. However, despite the toll that four years off took on his play, he is certain that his childhood dedication to the sport was essential to his return.

“The muscle memory that’s developed from such a young age is so important. I’ve lost a little bit of it (but) … if I hadn’t put in all that work as a youngster, I wouldn’t be able to do this,” he said. 

Isa Bessette, senior and BHS rower, grew up swimming and playing soccer, and currently rows for the crew team. When Bessette reached high school, she figured she wanted a change. “I knew that the sports I was in weren’t the right ones for me, but I was a little bit intimidated when I wanted to switch since I had done those sports where you have to start so young. … I thought all sports were like that,” she said.

Another BHS athlete, sophomore Tallulah Owsley, grew up doing gymnastics and now plays field hockey and lacrosse. Gymnastics is arguably the most known sport in terms of rejecting newcomers beyond a certain age. Owsley started taking gymnastics seriously at age six, yet considers herself to have joined too late. “Coaches won’t pay attention to you as an older kid. They only value the kids who started at two years old and are naturally gifted,” Owsley said.

The physical aspect of growing with a sport as your body and skill develops with it also gives early starters an advantage in certain sports. Part of why Owsley quit gymnastics this past year was due to a long term back injury from the sport. Younger kids are also less afraid to try difficult skills, as older kids understand the risk of getting hurt. Owsley said, “when you start super young, you get used to the super high-pressure environment. You also don’t get injured in the same way.”

Upon joining new sports, both Owsley and Bessett found value in how hard work and dedication — not necessarily time — were the most determining factors in one’s success.  Bessett went on to commit to row Division 1 at Columbia University her junior year, after joining BHS crew as a sophomore. Bessete emphasized that she “was drawn to crew because what you put in is really what you get out and it was a sport where I could show my competitiveness and drive.”

Owsley echoed this sentiment, saying, “With field hockey and lacrosse, a lot of people start older and the coaches will really help you improve. It feels like hard work will pay off, and that you can still learn and get better, which is really different from (gymnastics),” she said.

Ultimately, the passion and drive of an athlete is what will set the ceiling for their ability, but the path of a newcomer can look very different based on the sport they choose. For Fendel, choosing a daunting return to baseball rather than feeling pressure to continue since a young age infused his season with intentionality. “There’s something special about understanding that I’m really happy here.”