Olympics sports: athletes wrestle with when to retire

Kerry Gillespie
Sports Reporter

The Toronto Star



A few days ago, Clara Hughes got on a bike for the first time since her dream of stepping onto another Olympic podium slipped 31 seconds from her grasp when she crossed the time trial finish line in fifth place.


It wasn’t one of her bikes, it was her mother’s old beater. It was heavy and way too small for her 5’9’’ frame. Her riding partner was her father who turns 80 this year.


It’s that 10-km ride, through the streets of Winnipeg where she grew up, that helped bring home just how comfortable Hughes is with her decision to quit elite sport — this time, she says, for good.


That makes her a sports rarity, yet again. Few other Olympians, it seems, enjoy such confidence and certainty over when to retire. For many athletes just about the only thing harder to face than punishing training regimes for years on end is the prospect of getting to roll over in bed on Saturday morning because their athletic careers are over.


“I was on this completely random bike,” says Hughes, “that made no sense considering the bikes I’ve been riding that cost tens of thousands of dollars. It was removing myself from any and all technology and all the things that high-level sport entails and, in the end, makes you forget what it’s like to be a kid on a bike.” As a six-time Olympic medallist in cycling and speed skating and the only multiple medal winner at both summer and winter Games it’s been a long time since Hughes, 40, was just a kid on bike.


“As an athlete, physical activity becomes your job,” she says. “Now, I don’t have that and, to be quite honest, I don’t want that.”


Since returning home from London two months ago, Canada’s Olympians and Paralympians have been caught up in a whirlwind of parades, award ceremonies, dinners and speaking engagements. But that’s slowing down now, leaving them with time to think about the elephant in the room. What now? Stay in and try for another shot at a world championship or Olympic medal in four years or call it quits and move on?


“I’m kind of in the middle,” says Karen Cockburn, a three-time Olympic medallist in trampoline, who finished in the dreaded 4th place spot in London. “There are things that motivate me to keep going,” she says. “But there are other things in my life that I’m looking towards.”


When Cockburn won her first Olympic medal, a silver in Sydney in 2000, she was a fresh-faced high school graduate. Now, four Olympics later, she’s 32, has studied economics, runs a production company for trampoline shows, and has been married for five years. With all that, and an aging body, she says keeping at the top of her sport is getting harder.


What’s making her want to stay isn’t the next summer Games in Rio so much as the chance to compete before a home crowd audience at Toronto’s 2015 Pan Am Games. “That would be amazing.” The flip side, though, is her desire to start a family. “I know there are lots of Olympians who have had babies and gone back to their sport but I don’t know if that would be in the cards for me.”


For now, she’s still training but allowing herself a little more fun, too. She finally went kiteboarding, something she couldn’t risk trying in the years leading up to London.


“Before the Olympics that’s your only thought. You’re training six to eight hours a day and even when you’re not training your thoughts are consumed with being ready for training. I need to get enough sleep, I can’t do that or I’ll be too tired or I could get injured. Everything focuses around that one moment which is insane but you give it your all so you have no regrets.”


Cockburn thought the Beijing Games would be her last. She intended to retire in 2010. But, the excitement around the winter Games in Vancouver got her hooked again. “That’s why, this time, I’m not saying I’m done until I really know what I want to do.”


Finding a new focus for all the energy and dedication that athletes have used to get to the top of their sport is at the heart of whether they will make a successful transition to retirement or not, says sports psychologist Judy Goss.


If they are only known as an athlete and, more important still, only see themselves as an athlete, looking in the mirror after retirement isn’t pretty. “Now, what are you? Well, I’m nothing,” says Goss, who works with athletes to prevent and turn around that kind of thinking at the Canadian Sports Institute Centre Ontario.


Athletes craft and follow detailed diet and training plans for years on end but failing to plan for a life after sport is an all too common misstep.


The sports institute — which works proactively on other aspects of athletes’ careers including, for example, injury prevention rather than rehab — is now applying that same philosophy to retirement. Instead of waiting for an athlete to turn up with a “I retired yesterday, now what?” question, they’re making support services part of athletic training so that when the time comes, the athlete already knows the answer.


As the age of retirement from sport has risen, along with advances in training and technology and better funding, athletes are often more ready to accept the end of their competitive careers than they used to be. Still, it takes about two years for an athlete to completely make the transition, says Goss.


But the pull of an athletic life and the magnetism of the Olympics and Paralympics, in particular, are such that even athletes who think they’ve happily retired can find themselves mounting a comeback before those two years are up.


Patrick Anderson, arguably the world’s best wheelchair basketball player, was pretty sure his career was ending in 2006. “I looked up and thought there may be other things in life,” he says. He had already helped Canada win back-to-back Paralympic golds in Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004.


But, Beijing in 2008 was a siren call offering the opportunity to win three in a row. He retired after the team won silver there. “I was really sure that was it,” he says. “It was a very easy decision to walk away.”


Yet somehow he still found himself on a plane bound for London where he led the men’s wheelchair basketball team to another gold medal victory. This time, he says, the enticement was the promise that the Paralympics would be more high-profile than usual.


After so many false finishes, he’s not willing to say he’ll retire before the next big event. “On the one hand, I look at it and say ‘I’ve got to be part of that moment.’ On the other hand, there’s a new generation of guys coming along … and I think I should just get out of the way and let them make the most of it.”


Now 33, Anderson says he knows that the “twilight” of his career is coming no matter what he decides. He certainly wouldn’t be the first athlete, though, to use experience and sheer willpower to compensate for an aging body.


For now, he’s finishing his music degree. And, like many of the athletes that were in London not long ago, keeping “one eye on 2016.”


With this feature on the choices facing Canadian athletes after the Olympics, Kerry Gillespie begins her beat as amateur sports writer for the Toronto Star.

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