Against a theoretical backdrop of narrative career construction, this article argues for the cultural constitution of life-designing processes in and through sport. A narrative case study approach is used to explore the culturally infused, gendered construction of elite athletic careers from the life story perspective. One Finnish, male, professional hockey player (age 29) and one Baltic, female, amateur orienteer (age 27) participated in a series of three individual interviews, generating approximately five interview hours per athlete. Both participants drew upon the performance narrative plot of an exemplary athletic career to make sense of their sporting experiences, life choices, and career behaviors. Further analysis of gendered career narrations in the context of participants’ lives extended contextualized understandings of career practices, discursive resources and cultural constraints of the life design at a particular socio-historical juncture. The present study elucidates the complex social, cultural, and gendered underpinnings of athletic career, as well as the ways in which agentic individuals create novel meanings in bringing authenticity to their life through the athletic pursuit. •We examined the cultural context underlying career construction in elite sports.•A performance narrative provided the structure of meanings for career identity.•Athletic career practices were culturally and historically constituted.•Individuals deconstructed and created novel meanings in the process of living authentically through the athletic career.