Ash Barty, Alysa Liu, and the Beauty of the Happy Retirement

Liu and Barty shockingly retired from their respective sports. Here’s why that’s actually a good thing.

By Alexandra Cadet

(WRITER’S NOTE: Per her Instagram, Liu uses both she/her and they/them pronouns. This article refers to Liu with she/her pronouns for consistency.)

“I’m going to be moving on with my life,” Alysa Liu wrote in an Instagram post on Saturday. In it, she announced her retirement from figure skating, only days after her bronze medal win at the 2022 World Championships. Due to her young age––and the fact that she only spent one full season in the senior division––many fans found Liu’s decision to be rather abrupt. But regardless of timing, only one thing matters: her retirement was her choice and hers alone. “Finally done with [her] goals in skating,” she’ll now be free to live the normal life she’s always wanted, trading camel spins for college apps and salchows for schoolwork.

We’ve seen this kind of sentiment before. Nearly everyone has heard of Ash Barty’s shock decision to call time on her tennis career––influenced by the lack of motivation she felt after finally winning Wimbledon. “When you work so hard your whole life for one goal,” she said, “to be able to win Wimbledon, which was my dream, the one true dream that I wanted in tennis––that really changed my perspective.” Similar to Liu, Barty experienced major success right before her retirement, winning the Australian Open on home soil. She came, she saw, she conquered. And afterwards, she was utterly “spent.”

To the layman, Liu’s and Barty’s decisions might seem baffling. The former is just sixteen, in the prime of her life, and coming off of a medal-winning campaign at Worlds––how in the world could she decline to build off of that success? Arguably, the same goes for Barty. She was well on her way to winning the U.S. Open, the only major missing from her trophy cabinet…and then, just like that, she was gone. But considering how brutal retirements in women’s sports can be, it’s safe to say that these two are among the lucky ones. 

Ash Barty called time on her impressive career in March.
(Image courtesy of NPR)

In Barty’s case, the tennis world is full of less-than-optimal career endings. American CiCi Bellis started her career off with a bang, and became the youngest person to win a match at the US Open. But her career stalled due to injuries, leading her to undergo multiple major surgeries before even turning 20. She eventually announced her retirement in January. At that point, she hadn’t featured on a Tour event in almost two years.

Conversely, defying retirement in the face of injury woes doesn’t produce great results either. Serena Williams, one of the undisputed GOATs of tennis, continued to compete at the highest level after literally almost dying in childbirth. Instead of being met with praise upon her return, however, she was attacked by some people for being “past it” and “spoiled” in the wake of her US Open match against Naomi Osaka. That’s not even mentioning the racist treatment she received at the hands of the media. Williams’ story proves that in the WTA, the path to athletic and reputational longevity is extremely hard to navigate, making Barty’s choice look more and more desirable.  

Figure skating is more of the same––with the risk of extreme physical and mental injury being arguably even higher. Evgenia Medvedeva––after attempting to skate past her early 20s despite numerous roadblocks––now can’t turn her back to the left. Meanwhile, Gracie Gold struggled with eating disorders and suicidal ideation later on in her career; she had to made a long, hard-fought comeback to overcome these struggles, and placed tenth at the 2022 U.S. Championships. 

Of course, skaters of all legal ages should get a chance to compete if they have the talent. And both Medvedeva and Gold deserve kudos for their efforts to soldier on in the sport that they loved. However, one can’t help but feel grateful that Liu paved the way for skaters, no matter the age, using their right to call it quits before the suffering begins if that’s what’s healthiest for them. 

In short, more sportswomen should feel comfortable following the Liu and Barty model. Throughout the modern era, athletes who achieve great success have faced tremendous pressure to repeat their victories until their bodies break down, all for the sake of “bringing pride to their country.” This phenomenon can be beneficial for those who already want to continue competing, since they can use their homeland’s backing as extra motivation. But the others—the athletes who would rather go to college, spend time with family, or maybe just rest—should be given the chance to go out on a high note and live the rest of their lives in peace. 

This proposal isn’t to say that Liu and Barty didn’t experience their share of hardships, nor is it to argue that working through professional and personal struggles is pointless. But the revolutionary choice that these two women made to set their own boundaries is undeniably a brave and healthy one––and it will hopefully help pave another path for athletes looking to call time on their careers.  

“I honestly never thought I would’ve accomplished as much as I did […] I’m so happy. I’m really glad I skated,” Liu shared later on in her retirement post. Let her and Barty’s final bows be a lesson to everyone. At the end of the day, athletes are not gladiators. They deserve to leave the arena on their terms instead of dying on the battlefield.

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