When the Road Ends: What Athletes Do After the Olympics
For some people, there is a fear of being bound to one goal, to days filled with the same activities, weeks split up by the hours of “what, when, and where.” For others, the fear is the opposite. There are those who fear that suddenly, the walls of control and schedule will crumble, and they will be left standing in some space of unknown, surrounded by possibilities they can’t see.
An elite athlete is a well-trained, tightly-scheduled individual, whose mornings, afternoons, and evenings are bound by specific regimens to perfect her body’s performance. It is easy to imagine that after years of this kind of training, the schedule becomes a blanket of comfort, and suddenly, after the event or the career is over and that blanket is taken away, the athlete is confronted with an enormous feeling of loss, as if the identity she held after years of performing one task is no longer hers.
What becomes of Olympic athletes after the Games end? While we hear the stories of preparation and aspiration in the lead-up to the events, we seldom get a look at the next chapter.
My good friend Elise Laverick Sherwell retired from her sport of rowing after three Olympic cycles (Sydney, Athens, and Beijing) and two bronze medals in the double sculls (one in Beijing and one in Athens). She explains her decision:
The reason I didn’t want to stay in the sport is because I saw that it had a short timeline. When you retire as an athlete, you can either walk away from the sport completely, or you can stay with the sport and either do public speaking or coaching. That often isn’t long-term. When you watch the Olympics in 2012, no one can remember who won the bronze in 2008. Surely, there were a few people who remember, but in 2012, it’s not really about 2008 medalists. If you want someone to come and speak publicly, you want the latest medalist. So I just felt that it wasn’t really a long, term sustainable lifestyle.
Also, I don’t completely want that recognition. I want recognition for being good at something, not having been good at something. How long do you live off of having been good at something, when you no longer do it, and suddenly, there are people out there who are better than you? That wasn’t good enough for me.”
Elise has done well for herself after her rowing career, and credits her tremendously supportive home community for her post-Olympic success. Today, she is an attorney at a London firm and has begun the journey of motherhood with her nine-month-old daughter, Erin, who she calls her little gold medal.
But this post-Olympic career came with sacrifice, a constant balance between rigorous studies and rowing commitments, for which her non-rowing career always took the backseat. Elise studied two years at a time between Games until she earned her law degree and was hired in 2007 by a London firm, which contracted her for work six months after the Beijing Olympics.
After her Olympic career, Elise had to remind herself that she was never just “the rower,” and that she could eventually find something else that filled the tremendous hole she now felt. Elise explains about her experience looking back on the Games:
Your life was so regimented before. It was a four-year goal. Every month, you knew what you had to achieve and perform at. Suddenly, you don’t have that same structure. You can choose your own life, and that’s so frightening when you come straight from sports because you had this full-on lifestyle right from university that was tightly scheduled, and suddenly, you’re faced with this unknown where you plan your own path. "
Another former Olympic rower from the 1988 Games in Seoul, Anne Martin, has similar sentiments. Anne says:
It’s clear what your goal is and what you had to do to get there. Your path is very straightforward. You race people in training, and there’s a status check all the time, so you get a lot of feedback . Day to day, somehow, you have to translate your dreams to the single day. You have to think, I have to make this stroke and this practice the best I can.”
But Anne, unlike many other athletes, was able to keep her career moving while she was training for the Olympics. Even when she was competing in world championship events in 1985-1987, she never left her desk completely as an East Coast consultant. Anne says:
I wasn’t one of those people that felt I could put the rest of my life on hold. I was really lucky in finding a work situation that was challenging and flexible—I had a boss who loved sports and arranged project work where I could take lots of time off in the summer. As a result, I was able to have a pretty good career. I was able to move forward and learn in a different sphere outside of rowing, even while I was rowing. I was in a single boat so I had a lot more flexibility. For most people, the big challenge is that it’s really competitive now, and people train three times a day, which makes it hard to have a job.”
After her rowing career, Anne attended the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and is currently the Chief Investment Officer of Wesleyan University’s endowment.
The transition of going back to business school was really easy. It was a chance for me to be in a group of people who had also taken a few years off before coming to business school. And in the U.S., there’s an attitude toward athletes that says, ‘ she’s competitive , she has stamina, she’s a team player, she can learn from mistakes, and failure won’t kill her spirit.’ That puts you at the top of the class rather than the bottom.”
But what has been the most challenging journey for both these elite athletes-turn-full-time-professionals? Elise would say that having Erin has taught her to work just as hard as her Olympic days, but without sleep . “You can’t just put her in a desk full of pillows like you would a medal when you’re tired!”
Anne describes raising her twin boys, now 17, as “driving a Maserati in a traffic jam,” but goes on to say that the key to managing the chaos of work, a deeply and continuing athletic passion, and family life is a responsibility balanced between both parents (her husband, John Pescatore, was also an Olympic rower).
Of course, despite the challenges these women faced in preparing for, competing in, and transitioning from the Olympics, they explain that they wouldn’t have wanted a different experience. For both Elise and Anne, competition and sports have been an outlet for an incredible energy that needed to be expressed in one way or other, either on the boat or in the office. I asked both women what their advice to young, elite athletes would be.
I think if you take a long time becoming the successful athlete you want to be, then it takes a long time coming away from that. You have to give yourself time to enjoy what you’ve done. After the Olympics, don’t think about the future as this big, scary thing. Enjoy the experiences, and then give yourself a deadline to look forward. I think people try and rush it too much. They feel they have to do something, and they panic. Whereas actually, if you give yourself six months to detrain and not be so hyped up and emotional, you can transition more smoothly. You’re not going to change yourself in five minutes to become a new person.
For example, I found this year to be hard. People ask me, ‘Why aren’t you going for 2012?’ Whereas if I were at a law firm, no one asks, ‘Why have you moved firms?’ If you’re an athlete, it really seems like all these personal questions are fair game to the public. Expect that to happen, and move on.”
Anne’s advice is:
If you were an elite athlete, you have certain characteristics you need an outlet for, like competition and learning and feedback. I think what helped me was going to school, which was a lot of the same things, and then later into a career. Find something else you are passionate about and channel yourself into it—a career, nonprofit work, a different sport on the side. Once I left the elite sport, I didn’t row very much, and the few times I did, I was so disappointed. You will never be at that peak again. But finding a different sport has been terrific. I can get better at it.
You just have to find a way where those personality characteristics have an outlet that is close to what you were doing but different enough, so you can be on a different learning curve and feel like you are gaining something new in life.”
While Elise and Anne both look at their lives as an everyday search for the next everyday challenge, their stories bring deep wisdom and comfort to the women of 2012. Their continued passion and energy extends beyond the sport, and it is in this reincarnation of athleticism that we are all propelled forward, by example, in what defines a strong, independent, and confident woman. We thank you for this.
Want more? Read about these other athletes’ road to the Olympics.