Athletes retire on Games high but what next?

LONDON: American swimmer Michael Phelps is hanging up his goggles. British cyclist Victoria Pendleton is garaging her bike.

Chinese diver Wu Minxia is getting off the springboard.Hordes of retiring athletes are bowing out at the London Olympics after years of arduous dedication and sacrifice for their sport with some having plans in place for their lives postcompetition while others are heading into the unknown.

Athletes like Phelps and Pendleton are quitting at the top of their game and their swags of gold medals guarantee them a lucrative career with endorsements and media appearances.

Some are leaving as their age is against them such as 27-year-old British gymnast Beth Tweddle, who says her body cannot hold out for another four years until the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Others failed to make the cut at London and know they need to move on. Then there are those forced out by injury such as U.S. gymnast Shawn Johnson, a four-time Olympic medalist, who quit before the London Games due to a knee injury.

For all, the transition to a life not dominated by training is a massive adjustment, giving rise to the expression that athletes die twice – the first time being when they retire.

Studies show retired athletes can suffer depression and other mental problems and are more prone to substance abuse, eating disorders and suicide than the general population.

British cyclist Bradley Wiggins has talked openly about how his father Garry, a former cycling champion, spiraled downward after leaving the sport, dying as an alcoholic in Australia.

Sports psychologist Victor Thompson said many athletes left the Olympics, where 10,800 athletes compete in 302 medal events, having failed to achieve their goal or dream and feeling they has missed their ultimate opportunity.

“A lot of athletes have a sense that they are not that great and they fear failure. They struggle to appreciate what they have achieved or face things in a positive light. They are their own worst critics,” Thompson told Reuters.

But growing awareness about this difficult transition has led to the building of some safety nets in recent years, with more planning by athletes and those around them for life after the Olympic Games.

More athletes are using sports psychologists, growing numbers undergo media training hoping for a TV career, and careers advisers are increasingly at hand to help.

The International Olympic Committee and various sports federations have programs to assist athletes with alternative careers, which can include coaching or going into further education.

Motivational speaking is also a post-Games option.

British Olympian Kelly Holmes, 42, who retired from athletics in 2005 after winning two gold medals at Athens, has created the DKH Legacy Trust to help athletes build on their experience as they move from competition to a new career.

“High level sports people tend to put everything in one area when it comes to self-esteem and this is not healthy,” said Andrew Lane, a professor in sports psychology at Wolverhampton University.

“Hopefully athletes plan for this transition and their career is not snatched from them but they need help as they are so focused on their sport that they don't think beyond it.”

Studies show that exercise can be as addictive as drugs.

An Australian study, published in March in the Journal of Sports Sciences, found 35 percent of 234 elite athletes were exercise dependent and stopping could trigger depression and anxiety.

This addiction could be one reason why some athletes retire only to reappear in the sport a few years later.

British rower Greg Searle won gold in Barcelona 1992 and bronze in Atlanta 1996, but retired after finishing fourth in Sydney 2000.

He returned to the water in 2010 and won bronze at London, describing this as his last shot of Olympic glory.

Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, nicknamed Thorpedo after winning nine Olympic medals, retired in 2006 aged 23 but tried to make a comeback for the London Games. He failed to qualify.

Thorpe, who has been a hit in London as a television summarizer, had advice for Phelps – the most decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals including 18 golds.

Phelps has said he wants to improve his golf handicap after the Olympics, run his charitable foundation and summer schools, and he wants to travel. Thorpe’s tip? Keep swimming.

“He should take about three months straight after the Olympics and just carry on training, get back in the pool and put some work in,” said Thorpe.

“Rather than just stopping, you let your body settle into a normal exercise routine gradually.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 10, 2012, on page 13.




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