You fell in love. She was elusive, distant, exciting. She taught you things about yourself no one else could or did. She took you to new places all over the world. Months, years were spent chasing her, growing closer, winning and wooing. But, even after entering her warm embrace there was something missing, held back, a slightly stiffened spine, the latent question always lingering, “are you good enough for me?” This whispered hint kept you running, producing fervent efforts to prove yourself, to earn her affections.
Over time the relationship matured, settling into an uneasy balance: occasional punctuations of dizzy delight when things went perfectly and then the opposite, an arbitrary and tempestuous falling out when they didn’t. These episodes created a delicate tension keeping you in her thrall, ever subservient to her whims, always chasing, always pursing. Ageless, her remote beauty and charms only grew and as time passed you grew aware of an expanding list of suitors who began to surround her, muscles flexing, until one day it all ended as she loudly and publicly chose another. The moment was sickening: even as she welcomed a new young, fresh lover to her embrace she continued to call out her undying love to you. You, however, were jaded now: you had been through it all before and had made your choice. Too tired, too old, too weak, too lame, too hobbled from injury you decided to walk away from her fickle charms forever.
Her name was “Sport.”
All breakups are difficult, but the worst breakups are those where attraction still exists even as one party moves on and when there is no clean break, the cuckholded husband forced to watch his replacement woo his wife. The separation from elite sport is this sort of breakup. Even as her insatiable demand for perfection forces you from her embrace, her demeanor never changes, she is still there beckoning even as she entertains the latest crop of suitors. And, unlike real romances, the entire charade, parade and transition is done publicly under flashing lights without any sense of guile or gall. No one apologizes and averted gazes are only directed to you: the flawed, aging or weakened suitor.
What preparation are young, passionate, competitive, perfectionist men and women given to guard against this inevitable moment? Little to none as it turns out. Not once in my 15 years competing on various national teams did anyone ever provide guidance about “retirement” from sport. For the romantic fallen, the discarded companions, the color of life disappears and is replaced by grasping black pits of hopelessness that yawn for long periods, occasional white sparks of manic optimism intruding and then fading into stretches of grey. She is gone. I will never again measure up. There is no replacement for the feeling she brought me. She took my livelihood, my funding, my sense of self. I am nothing now.
At some point in most normal breakups the color returns and a true separation from the “Ex” is made. Old healthy relationships re-assume their former stature, new ones form, and in the blue distance of time and perspective the warm colors of hope return. Eventually for most, new and better relationships are formed and the brilliant red drumbeat of life resumes.
But, what if after the breakup no separation ever occurred? What if the two divorced parties were still forcibly joined in an endless anti-matrimony with an arbitrary set of rules that look something like this:
1) The exact set of qualities that earned your lover’s attention are replicated and improved by the new suitors that have taken your place. They look exactly like you, act exactly like you, but simply put, they are better than you.
2) Your former lover still legitimately needs and wants you, but just as a “friend” since you know so much about her and she and her friends constantly draw you in to the same social circle.
3) Sometimes the only way to make any kind of living is working directly for your former lover and her new suitors in an odd soup of fading admiration and mild contempt.
If this sounds like a recipe for a bout of depression then you are right. I am not aware of any studies that exist on the exit of elite athletes from sport, but anecdotally the story is much the same.
You've met them: the high school football star who didn’t get to play in college, the college track star who never made the Olympics. The Olympian who never won a medal. The silver medalist who never won gold. The gold medalist who failed to win again... and all of those who, at some point were forced to retire and in so doing put to bed the one singular intense focus of their entire lives in order to move on.
The desires and requirements of elite sport are insatiable: at some point everyone fails to measure up. Nothing and no-one can satisfy this lover, the ungrateful achievement whore who demands perfection every time and rallies the voices of the world to judge. Michael Phelps? A failure for only, ONLY winning 19 Olympic medals. Bode Miller – failure. Lindsay Vonn- fail. USA basketball – fail. USA Hockey - fail. Only a few seem to escape the trap by breaking up first - exiting on top and declaring their undying love to some new lover (even if no one believes it). Perhaps Apolo Ohno falls into this camp, or perhaps he’s still riding the coattails of his mistress and doesn’t yet know what awaits.
When I broke up with sport it was heart breaking. It was February of 1998 and weak, slow and tired I failed to qualify for the last final at the Olympic trials despite having a fantastic pre-season winning the first American cup. I did not have enough points to make a second Olympic team and at 29 years old I also knew I could not possibly go another 4 years of income-less training to try again. So, I declared my retirement and Chris Needham, the competition’s announcer, shared it on the loudspeaker of the Lake Placid Olympic Rink. Immediately after in the echoing hallways of the arena I sobbed like a child, terribly embarrassed when my teammates saw me. That night I sat on the steps of the Lake Placid OTC with Apolo Ohno (who had also failed to make the team) and commiserated.
I cried on and off for days. Skating was the rhythm of my life, my reason for being. Despite all my passion and sacrifice I had failed to make a second Olympic team despite putting every sinew and synapse towards that love affair the sense of loss was overwhelming. My friend and teammate Stefan Spielman was a rising star in cycling when at age 20 injuries forced him to retire despite 8 surgeries attempting to fix the problem. The loss stayed with him, weighed him down for a decade or more, in fact he's still not sure he's entirely over it. "I would have paid any price just to be back competing, trying. I was so depressed for 5-10 years, even up to today I do not think I am over that loss."
I was fortunate. I had a new love and one that could actually compete with my former affair – I was in love with a real woman. I also found separation – immediately: the next morning I moved all my meager possessions into a car and drove 45 hours straight west to get as far away from ice as I could, landing in Phoenix, Arizona with my fiancé and starting a new life. I was also fortunate enough to have a fallback in the form of a pair of college degrees from good schools. I hoped that someone would hire me despite my failure and had to be convinced to even put my sports achievements on my resume.
It may sound odd, but the overwhelming feeling I had for a long time regarding my time in sports was one of embarrassment. In those early years I lived with an ambient backdrop of humiliation. I had professed to be something I was not, and I had failed. My romance with sport had become a source of disgrace. Fellow speedskater and Olympic bronze medalist Alex Izykowski shared similar feelings, "I shared the same 'disgrace'. I had a very similar reaction for about a 2 year period…which came after a year-long denial period."
I refused to watch the 1998 Olympics and for nearly a decade I didn't talk about the sport, didn’t enter an ice rink and severed most of my connections with my friends from that world. I gladly gave my Olympic medal to my parents who kept it for a decade and lived enshrouded in the bubble a new world of work, marriage and, eventually, parenthood.
It was many years later before I finally began to recognize the gift that sport had given me: of discipline, agility, tenaciousness, self confidence and perseverance. It was nearly a decade later when the rewards of that original relationship were made plain to me.
It started simply. A sign in a grocery store in Madison, Wisconsin read, "Short Track World championships coming to Madison Wisconsin – Volunteers needed." And I thought to myself, "well I could help out - prepare the track, chase blocks - whatever." So I called the number.
"Hello?” I said and continued, “Yes, I saw the ad for the world championships and ... I'm a former speedskater and thought I could help out if you still need volunteers.." An odd pause on the end of the phone.
"Is that you?"
Welcomed back. It was Tom Riley one of my former competitors and a coach and organizer for the event. Quickly I was re-enrolled in the sport in a new role and recognized not for my failure, but for the part I had played. I began coaching, I began announcing and then was invited to join the Olympic broadcast crew for the Olympics with NBC the following year in Torino, again in Vancouver, and soon in Sochi Russia.
I have been very lucky - my first love has requited her love to me in unforeseen ways. No, perhaps they will never trump the one desire that I aimed to achieve - a gold medal - but with perspective I can see that even such an accomplishment would not have been enough. Perhaps had I reached my goal, my pain would have been lessened, or, perhaps it would have been that much worse. At some point the chase must be replaced by the lessons and narrative of the pursuit.
I do wonder and worry for the coaches of sport. I see so many of my peers during those years still traveling, still on ice, still chasing a revised version of that dream. How many of them are still pursuing the same unrelenting mistress and translating their energies into vicarious living through their athletes, trying to become what, in hindsight is impossible – a marriage to sport until “death do us part.” It does put into perspective some of the incredible passions displayed by some of my coaches through the years. It was almost as though they wanted it more than us…
PS: There is an even more uncomfortable wrinkle to this tale. What if someone’s breakup with sport occurred during the transition to an era of cheating and performance enhancing drugs. What if an early retirement from, say, cycling, occurred right as the elite of sport took to illegal substances to improve their performance? What might have this crop of legitimate athletes have accomplished? Scott McKinley, Mike McCarthy, Marty Jemison and others on the cusp of greatness, winning the world’s toughest events and then suddenly marginalized – only to learn a decade and a half later that maybe, just maybe it wasn’t their limbs that failed them. It is hard to imagine what was stolen from these incredible athletes and and hundreds of others by the cheating scandals in cycling and other sports. Cheating is the perfect word – the heartbreak resulting from the betrayal of true love is perhaps the saddest outcome and these athletes can only wonder what “might have been.”