Ready for whatever future holds

Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

Ruth Riley won an NCAA title in 2001 and was a two-time WNBA champ with the Detroit Shock.

“Do you play ball?”

It’s a question I have heard most of my life, so when the waiter in the Atlanta airport posed it to me, I gave him my default answer: "Yes."

It was the follow-up question that, for the first time, made my retirement a reality. When he asked what team I played for, I was about to respond with the name of my previous WNBA team, as I had for the last 13 years, but then I realized that it was May 5, and while my Dream teammates were in their second day of training camp, I was actually on my way to a summit in New York. I was completely at peace with my decision to end my professional basketball career -- injuries had inhibited me from playing the last few years at the level I wanted to compete at. What I was not prepared for was how to answer the question differently: "No, I do not play ball."

My faith has gratefully allowed me to live a balanced life, so I can now walk away from the game I love without a crisis of identity. My sport did not define me as an individual; rather, it has simply been one of the contributing factors in shaping my life thus far. Knowing that allows me to reflect on my career with a sense of gratitude for all the amazing memories, and it gives me a sense of excitement for what is next.

Most people think of rest and relaxation when the issue of retirement comes up, but for me, it is quite the opposite. Granted, they also think of people in the later years of their lives and not 34-year-olds! Originally I thought I would have a little downtime to enjoy my first summer off since middle school, but my personality does not allow me to sit still for long. From attending various conferences, going to the Congo on an upcoming State Department trip and then starting the Executive MBA program back at Notre Dame, I have successfully scheduled almost every day this summer -- it’s just that for the first time, very few of them will be spent on a basketball court.

One of the most surprising things about retirement thus far has been how humbling it is. As a professional athlete, I have successfully competed at the highest level of my field while my fellow Notre Dame classmates have been working their way up the corporate ladder. When our playing careers are over, as athletes, we literally have to start over. Of course we have the intangible skill sets that one learns through sport, but as for exact transferable work experience, there is no direct path -- we are left with a significant learning curve. There are very few fields of employment where the window of opportunity is so finite. Could you imagine CEOs forced to find a completely different field only a few years after they reach the pinnacle of their profession?

Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images

Ruth Riley played in 387 career WNBA games, averaging 6.3 points and 4.1 rebounds over 13 seasons.

This past weekend I was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans (TOYA) by the Jaycees. It was an incredible honor, especially after meeting the other nine nominees and learning about the amazing list of former recipients ranging from Elvis to past U.S. presidents! As a professional athlete, I am used to doing a lot of evaluation and preparation, but contemplating my acceptance speech caused me many moments of introspection. This award did not rest solely on the surface of “what” I have done, it went deeper to “who” I am and the “why” of my accomplishments.

Through my travels around the world, I noticed that besides our obvious physical needs, the one thing that I believe unites us as mankind is our quest for purpose and the desire for our lives to have meaning. My purpose has always been seen, understood and lived out through the lens of my faith. From there I began to learn and gain confidence in the fact that I have been given a unique set of talents and abilities and that if I choose to, there would always be opportunities for me to use them to make a meaningful contribution to this world! One of the greatest lessons I have learned was that while I liked to think of myself as a “good person,” my life would get swallowed up in a certain level of busyness unless I approached “doing good” with a similar act of preparation that I did with my basketball career. For most of us, our default mode of life exhibits an unfortunate disconnect between our actions and our intentions. I recognized that I needed to prioritize my time so that I was not just an athlete with “good intentions,” but rather one where there was evidence of them in how I lived out my life.

While my “purpose” answered a little bit of the “who” question, the second concept -- the “why question” -- kept surfacing as I contemplated my life, and to that I concluded my actions are largely a result of “gratitude.” I was overwhelmed with a sense of thankfulness to all the coaches, teachers, mentors, friends, teammates, fans and family members who have shaped and influenced my life along the way! Living a life of gratitude to me simply means living with my hands open, ready for the constant flow of giving and receiving, equally grateful for both what I have been given and for what I am able to give.

While I might now have a different answer to the most common question in my life, the answer to the question “what’s next?” is still unclear. Yes, I will be starting grad school in the fall, and I am excited to be just a student for the first time since elementary school, and I look forward to being back closer to my family. I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to utilize the platform of basketball for social good as a NBA/WNBA Cares Ambassador, a spokesperson for Nothing But Nets and No Kid Hungry, and I will certainly carry on my other humanitarian efforts. My passion to secure sustainability and to define and grow our league, as well as to empower our players with knowledge and resources through player development programs, will undoubtedly be something I continue to work on. I will of course be taking on the role of a fan, cheering on Dev, Skylar, Kayla, and my former WNBA teammates and friends!

The TOYA award is one of the most unique awards I have ever received, because it was not just commending what I have accomplished, it is also an affirmation of the work they think I will continue to do with my life. I left the ceremony filled with mixed emotions, aware that we never truly arrive in life, but simply transition from one stage to the next, and regardless of age or occupation, opportunity always lies before us! With fondness and gratitude, I close this chapter of my life and turn the page with excitement and anticipation of what the next phase of life entails.