As Olympics end, athletes face new challenges
LONDON — Most-decorated Olympian Michael Phelps, 27, is thinking about improving his golf game and traveling.
Gold medal cyclist Victoria Pendleton, 31, is looking forward to getting married and doing “normal stuff.”
Misty May-Treanor, 35, is carting her beach volleyball gold medal home to focus on family.
As the London Games end, some 30-odd retiring Olympians face the daunting question — what's next?
For world-class athletes who have focused their lives on training, their next task has no direct path: readjusting to a routine outside sports and creating a life that may or may not involve the limelight.
The challenges have given rise to a small field of advisers who specialize in helping retiring athletes cope with the abrupt change.
“These people have a strong Olympic identity; they see themselves only as athletes. Unless they have good friendships and connections outside of sport, it can be quite painful,” says Misha Botting, a sports psychologist at SportScotland Institute. “Most experience a low-mood state after the Games because it's such an exciting event.”
As gold medalists, Phelps, Pendleton and May-Treanor have endorsement and coaching possibilities beyond most top-level athletes, thousands of whom will be leaving London without a medal to gild their careers.
Some retiring athletes suffer depression, said retired gymnast Craig Heap, although he explained that he was “quite pleased” when he stopped competing at 29.
“I was looking forward to my retirement,” said Heap, 39. I had achieved my best and was looking to start another chapter of my life.”
Going back to a normal life may run more smoothly for athletes with a day job. But for those who have never worked, the task might be more challenging.
“We go through their future plan of career, their skills,” said Gary Penn, an adviser with the English Institute of Sport. “We look at their (résumés), help them apply for work.”
As awareness about the challenges of the transition spreads, initiatives to support retiring athletes are growing. Heap is a mentor for the DKH legacy trust set by British Olympian Kelly Holmes, which provides guidance to elite athletes as they move on to another career.
When Heap quit, he said, there was nowhere to turn for help. “I had to find my own way,” he said.
The ex-champion stayed in the sporting world by organizing gymnastics workshops in schools.
Academics can be key. Penn said well-educated athletes often end up in management, business or banking.