Column: Olympic athletes need to think beyond Rio Games
Around the world, thousands of Olympic athletes are training intensely for the biggest moment of their lives.
Hopefully, they’re also pondering what they’ll be doing a year from now, once the high of the Rio Games wears off.
Dealing with the rest of your life can be even tougher than winning a gold medal.
American swimmer Allison Schmitt knows that all too well. She fell into a deep depression after taking five medals at the London Olympics. Only in the past year did she finally seek out professional help.
“I set my goals for 2012 ... and I reached those goals,” Schmitt said. “Then I was like, ‘I don’t have any more goals. OK, what now?’”
That’s a question that faces many Olympic athletes, who spend four years on a single-minded pursuit but aren’t prepared for what comes next. And the time for everyone — athletes, coaches, organizations — to start thinking about it is now.
Win or lose, and even if they have no plans to retire from competition, it’s not like there’s a new season right around the corner, a conduit that allows them to quickly hit the reset button.
“The depression that comes after the Olympics, I would say at least 75 percent of the athletes have it at some point,” Canadian swimmer Ryan Cochrane said. “Before Beijing, that’s all I talked about, every conversation was about Beijing, and as soon as it was over, I almost didn’t even know how to have a normal conversation.”
While there’s no hard numbers to back up Cochrane’s anecdotal assessment, the issue has come to the attention of organizations such as the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Swimming, which have started looking for ways to help athletes deal with the post-Olympic blues. In swimming, there’s a new mentorship program that includes retired national team members. Some have turned to groups such as the Navy SEALs, who cope with similar letdowns.
“It’s hard to be able to get that momentum again after all the hard work you’ve been through emotionally and physically to get to the Olympics and get a medal,” American sprinter Justin Gatlin said.
Maybe it’s not a surprise that Michael Phelps, the winningest athlete in Olympic history, kept running into trouble away from the pool after some of his biggest triumphs. He’s had two drunken-driving arrests, along with an embarrassing photo that showed him inhaling from a marijuana pipe.
“The nature of preparing for the Olympics is you don’t look ahead, you don’t look behind,” said Bob Bowman, who coaches both Phelps and Schmitt. “You don’t think about the future, what might happen, what’s out there, any of those things.”
Phelps and Bowman are now preparing for the Rio Games in Tempe, Arizona, where they moved recently after the coach took a new job at Arizona State University.
While the main focus is on training, Bowman has already started talking with his swimmers about what their lives might look like after the Olympics. That may sound like coaching blasphemy, but Bowman has seen what can happen when those issues are put on hold.
“Michael is doing an exceptional job right now thinking what life is going to look like at this time next year and five years beyond that. He never did that before,” Bowman said. “I’m trying to get Allison to start thinking that way a little bit.”
The U.S. Olympic Committee has a program called ACE — Athlete Career Education — that focuses on job placement and educational opportunities as a way to help athletes deal with the transition to their post-Olympic careers. As athletes such as Schmitt and Phelps have shown, more needs to be done for those still competing, even those at the top of their games.
“Surviving success is harder than surviving failure,” Bowman said. “With failure, you go back to work. You have motivation to get better. When it’s the other way, you don’t know what to do except pat yourself on the back.”
Steve Roush, former chief of sport performance for the USOC, knows how difficult it is for athletes to find something that comes close to matching the high of reaching a goal that was four years in the making.
He wonders if that’s what happened to Suzy Favor-Hamilton, a three-time Olympic runner who turned to prostitution once her career was over.
“It’s really what a lot of the athletes keep chasing and why they stick around,” Roush said. “I don’t think an accounting job gives them the same feeling.”
Benita Fitzgerald-Mosley, chief of organizational excellence at USOC and a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the hurdles, recalled working a part-time job toward the end of her track career.
That helped her deal with the transition, she said, but “it was still difficult, an emotional letdown to not go to the track every day, not to go outside, not to be with my teammates, not travel all over the world, not have that real tangible goal-setting I was able to do in track.”
British swimmer Fran Halsall said the year after the Olympics is the most difficult.
“There wasn’t really a support system in place to help me to deal with it,” Halsall said, remembering her struggles after the London Olympics. “It’s just such a high and you’re coming down so much.”
Let’s hope all these marvelous athletes are better prepared for life after Rio.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
AP Sports Writers Beth Harris, Eddie Pells and Pat Graham contributed to this report.