What comes after gold? Retired Olympians struggle with return to daily life

TORONTO – They have coaches, nutritionists, physiologists, massage therapists and a tight schedule that packs in training, exercising, eating and sleeping. There are competitions around the world to prepare for, early morning wake up calls, daily heart rate testing, hours at the gym.

That all culminates at the Olympics. Some athletes even leave with a medal – and adoring fans and days of back-to-back interviews. Then, when the games wrap up or you’ve retired in your 20s, what’s next?

Coming down from the high of being a world-class athlete can be an experience as scary as competing at the Olympics, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist says.

“It’s understandable, they are their sport and their identity is so strongly forged. It’s possible they realized ‘I’m not going to achieve this again,’” Dr. Oren Amitay told Global News. Amitay is a registered psychologist and university lecturer.

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He says that retiring from your sport is akin to leaving your job, graduating from university and even a change in your family. In short, it’s a major life transition and it comes with loss and grieving what you once had.

“It’s a normal phenomenon for everyone,” Amitay said.

“When you look at Olympic athletes or celebrities or anyone like that, that transition is amplified 100-fold. It’s not just a job or career, it’s a lifestyle. It’s not just loss of stability or certainty after mastering your environment, it’s beyond that. You’re losing your source of revenue, esteem, being in the spotlight and at the top of your game,” he said.

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Some athletes could grapple with depression, insomnia and anxiety.

In an NBC report, Dan Gould, a kinesiology professor who consults with the U.S. Olympic Committee, said he recalled bonding with Australian swimming legend Shane Gould – they shared the same last name.

Shane had five medals, including three gold from the Munich games. She was a national hero.

“She said it was like being taken up to the highest mountain peak to see the view, and then being brought down, never to be there again,” Gould told NBC.

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“Life can seem meaningless, trite. How does it compare to the gold medal?” Amitay said.

“That sense of meaninglessness can lead to hopelessness,” he said.

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Skiing superstar Diann Roffe told NBC of a “big bucket of melancholy” she fell into. She missed “being exceptional at something.”

When she retired from her sport in 1994, she was only 26  – not too far from when most of us begin our careers.

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Alexandre Bilodeau, who has said he’s retiring after taking home the gold in Sochi, is only 25 years old. Figure skater Patrick Chan is 23, and ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are each 23 and 26 years old – they’ve also hinted at retirement.

Sports psychologist Dr. Todd Loughead says that athletes could lay the groundwork for life after their careers in sports – some transition into another career smoothly, and others struggle. They could go into coaching, or something where they stay connected to the sport.

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Others go into a completely different direction, but the common thread is that they have planned this for some time.

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Amitay suggests that athletes can feel anxious – it comes with not knowing what the future holds – but in those instances, they need to break down their challenges into pieces and attack them one by one.

They also need to remind themselves that as athletes, they have a tough skin: it was through their sport, afterall, that they’ve learned resiliency and perseverance, Amitay said.

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