“The path that I’m taking right now is the most sure pathway to go play as a professional soccer player,” said Simon Diagana, a Berkeley High School senior who switched into Independent Study (IS) to play for the San Jose Earthquakes Major League Soccer Academy team.
For elite high school athletes hoping to make a career of their sport, there is no time to waste. Riyen Rabe-Alexander, who graduated a year early from BHS in 2022 to pursue circus full-time, explained that “companies like young skilled performers because they can be thrown into anything and taught any apparatus. So as a 17 year old professional, I’m more highly sought after than if I had waited any amount of time more to fully devote myself to the sport.”
These athletes spend rigorous days traveling and training while their peers attend classes – Diagana spends upwards of four hours in a day on BART to train in Santa Clara four days a week; for Rabe-Alexander, a typical day looks like 3-6 hours of training and 1.5-4 hours of teaching.
The communities that athletes build through their intense training are a defining element of their choice to step away from the traditional educational system.
“It was pretty easy for me to step away from (a regular school schedule) because I do have friends that are going through the same thing as me. All of my teammates had to do the same thing,” Diagana said. But beyond serving as a support system, these bonds often lead to the opportunities that pre-professional athletes are chasing.
“You get jobs by talking to people, and … (performers) all look out for each other and know that our connections are what keep us employed and let us grow as artists,” Rabe-Alexander said. Having an entirely flexible schedule is essential in building a network in her sport, and seizing unique opportunities that arise through these connections. Rabe-Alexander was invited to attend workshops at a Cirque Du Soleil partner gym in Portugal, and while there, was “offered multiple jobs, just because I happened to be at the same workshop as the man who casts 90% of all circus shows in Europe.”
The ability to dedicate all of their time to their sport also shifts how young athletes view their athletic future over the long-term. “I’m realizing that being a professional isn’t really too far out of my reach now,” Diagana said. This perspective provides enough motivation to weather the difficulties of leaving a traditional high school experience behind. Diagana was a social student, and enjoyed being engaged in the classroom, “but at the end of the day, I’m working for something that I want in the future. So I just kind of have to put those feelings aside for now and in the long run, everything I’m doing now will pay off,” he said.
However, for other young athletes, rather than fueling the fire behind their dreams, a foray into professionalism leads them to reevaluate their hopes for their sport. Alex Meyers is a junior in IS and professional surfer. Able to drive to good wave breaks without working around school hours, he picked up sponsorships from OCN Culture and Manda, and his weeks were filled with photo and video shoot obligations as well as surfing competitions. But as his sport became a job, it didn’t feel the same.
“When you do that s— professionally, it sucks… I hadn’t surfed for two months because of that… I surfed again for the first time two weeks ago,” he said. While he became less enamored with professionalism, he witnessed the toll that it took on the athletes around him. “I have a friend who … was pretty much living off surfing, and then she turned into an alcoholic because of surfing.” He now believes that while “yes, it’s cool to go professional in the sport and to be the best… you can be the most saucy bruh at your sport and also find something else you’re passionate about in the workforce.”
Despite having a falling out with professional surfing, Meyers doesn’t plan to go back to BHS campus next year. He now works full time at cafe Baker & Commons, and “I see the real world more without school…. I feel more self-fulfilled.” He intends on putting less energy into competitions and sponsorships and instead “just surf with just my homies when I wanna surf.”
IS led Meyers in a different direction than envisioned when he set off to be a professional surfer, but the characteristics that made his switch out of BHS and personal growth possible are consistent with all athletes who make this choice. These athletes must resist the pressure to uphold the high school status quo and be confident in their alternative decisions.
“You have to be strong mentally to play this sport and go to a higher level,” asserted Diagana. Despite the challenges, “I’ve never questioned my choice. I can’t see myself doing anything else with my life or taking any other path. This is what makes me happiest, and I’m good at it, and I am and will continue to be successful and be able to support myself,” affirmed Rabe-Alexander.