Imagine you are forced to retire in your twenties with no plan and the daunting task of starting from scratch staring you down.
This is the unfortunate reality that countless Olympic athletes face.
Elite athletes train extensively for years and in many cases, it consumes the majority of their young lives. Thousands of hours of dedication and hard work are often quickly forgotten after the athlete’s prime years are over.
As an audience, we see the highest of highs. We see the highlights of an athlete’s career. We remember them for their jaw dropping feats of strength, or their uncanny ability to capture the hearts of millions.
What we don’t see are the personal sacrifices they make to achieve their athletic goals and dreams. We don’t see the missed parties and social engagements they couldn’t make because of their commitment to their sport. We don’t see the grueling rehabilitation from injuries.
Most of all, we don’t see what happens when the games end.
A successful transition into a life after sport is not as common as one would hope. Stories of depression and struggle have dominated the mainstream in recent years, with loss of identity being a major factor.
Here are the stories of three Olympians who have reaffirmed their identity after their sporting careers came to an end.
Kyle Shewfelt: 2004 gold medal gymnast
Strength. Agility. Endurance. Control.
These are some of the most important factors for any successful gymnast, but for Calgarian and Olympic gold medalist Kyle Shewfelt, only one thing mattered when he decided to take his hands out of the chalk bucket for good: resiliency
“Particularly in gymnastics, you have to do elements thousands of times before you finally get it,” says Shewfelt. “There is a lot of rejection and there is a lot of no’s, but you need to keep having this blind belief that it can happen. You need an internal trust in yourself that you know what the vision looks like and that you’re going to continue to push towards that.”
Shewfelt, who began his gymnastics career at the age of six, is the first and only Canadian to win Olympic gold in artistic gymnastics, a longstanding goal that required years of grit and focus.
“I was a kid from Calgary who wanted to become an Olympic champion and that happened,” says Shewfelt. “I think what that did was instill this belief that no matter what the next thing was I would be able to succeed.”
But for Shewfelt, his life after gymnastics didn’t come so easily. After a tumultuous buildup to the 2008 Beijing games, where Shewfelt fractured both of his tibias in a fluke landing, the result was an intensely difficult journey to even qualify for the games. He did, but did not qualify for the finals in any category. At only 26 years old, retirement from a 20-year dedication to gymnastics was looming on the horizon.
“I knew in my heart of hearts during the buildup to the Beijing games that those would be my last Olympics,” says Shewfelt, now 35. “I was really at peace with it. It was obviously really scary, but it was almost like the flame had been put out. I could tell when I would go into training, I just didn’t have the spark.”
“Don’t be afraid to start somewhere, because you will land. That’s why I was so afraid. It felt like I was in this free fall, but I would never just dive in and land.” — Kyle Shewfelt
On May 21, 2009, Shewfelt announced his retirement from gymnastics to the world, and was immediately faced with the challenge that so many athletes have to deal with: what’s next?
The next chapter for Shewfelt
“I felt like I was so far ahead in so many ways, but also so far behind when it came to ‘real life’,” says Shewfelt.
Opportunities for public speaking, entrepreneurship and broadcasting came Shewfelt’s way, but stepping away from a lifelong passion became something that he, and so many other athletes, found almost impossible to overcome.
“I was lacking a sense of purpose and sense of belonging and I just kind of felt like I was stale,” says Shewfelt. “I love growing towards something and I just didn’t know what that next thing was. That was a really weird feeling for me, to wake up and not know what my daily purpose was. My daily purpose became trying to avoid having four hour naps.”
“I know some athletes can transition really quickly, they take a few months, maybe a year. For me it was a solid five years of trying a lot of different things.”
Shewfelt was given the opportunity to be a broadcaster for the Olympic Games in London and that is when retirement seemed to turn around for the gymnast.
“I got to spend the months building up to those games just dreaming about gymnastics and thinking about how to tell the stories of the athletes and the coaches,” says Shewfelt. “I could really just think about gymnastics as a sport and what that means to the world and to society.”
The Olympic buildup and subsequent comedown was something that Shewfelt had gotten used to, but after returning from London, the spark that he had when he was competing had returned. After countless hours of soul-searching, dog walking and self-reflection, the gold medalist knew exactly what he had to do to break the funk of retirement.
“I went for a walk and I was just thinking about as a kid, what was the thing that got me the most excited,” says Shewfelt. “When my gymnastics magazine, the International Gymnast Magazine, would come to my house, I would tear it open and read it front to back before eating dinner. It was the thing that got me excited.”
For so many athletes, the identity crisis that comes with retirement is that they feel that their sport has defined them and that they have to take a step away from their biggest passion in order to find success. Shewfelt did the opposite and dove right back into the world of gymnastics.
“To me, this is my base, this is my foundation and I’m trying to deny it and move away from it? I had to own this passion. I always had a little spark that was on the back burner and that was opening a gymnastics centre,” says Shewfelt.
Vaulting into retirement
Using the same entrepreneurial skills that allowed the gymnast to create a vault that is named after him, Shewfelt created a business plan for a gymnastics centre that would focus on being accessible to the public, but most of all a place that he and so many others could call their own. Opening Kyle Shewfelt Gymnastics in Calgary in 2013, Shewfelt remembers the moment that allowed him to find success in retirement.
“It was like I was standing on the edge of a diving board for a long time and my legs were kind of shaking and then I decided to powerfully push down on that board and dive off and I fully committed to it,” says Shewfelt. “I think that is why I was successful in sport, because I fully committed to my goals and so I had to make a full commitment to opening this business.”
Four years later, Shewfelt’s lifelong passion has resulted in his gymnastics studio being one of the top recreational studios in Canada. With a focus on building a strong, healthy foundation in a fun way, Shewfelt finally feels like he has found himself after retirement.
“I remember being on airplanes after Beijing and people would say, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ I used to have the coolest answer. Well, I’m an Olympic athlete,” says Shewfelt. For such a long time, I didn’t have that next thing in my life that I could identify with. Of course I could have said I was a speaker, or a broadcaster, but that didn’t feel like it was all that I do.”
“Now, I can confidently say to people, ‘I own a gymnastics centre.’ There certainly is an identity crisis. There was that awkward phase where I was trying to decide what to do without that being the centre of my life, but I’ve come to realize that gymnastics just is me. I am gymnastics.”
Janis MacDonald: Basketball Olympian shut out from the 1980 Games
The 1980 boycott of the Summer Olympic games in Moscow is surrounded in infamy. Only 80 nations were represented in the games, one of the smallest numbers in the past century, as countries around the world boycotted the games due to the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
The political nature of the games is largely what is remembered almost 40 years later. What we don’t hear about are the stories of athletes who had trained for years to finally showcase their skills on an international stage and their hopes and dreams were taken from them. Sadly, many of the athletes had only one shot to be Olympians and the opportunity to compete for their country was taken from them because of political unrest.
One of those athletes is former Olympic basketball player Janis MacDonald (Paskevich).
“I couldn’t even do a layup in junior high school. I was taller than everybody else, but my skill set was pretty weak compared to what skill sets kids have today,” says MacDonald, 58, who started her journey in basketball later than most, but quickly excelled in the sport after being surrounded by a group of passionate young women at a tryout for the junior national team in 1978.
“It was daunting, but it was also exciting. I was surrounded by some girls who had played for years in the national program, or even went on to coach the national program,” says MacDonald. “Being surrounded by a group of young women who had the same kind of desire I did, the same kind of work ethic I did, we all pushed each other to be better, which was great.”
Being immersed in such a high level of competition allowed the young basketball player to take her raw talent and transform it into national success. From winning awards at a national level, to making the Olympic national team just four years after she had started in the sport, MacDonald’s drive for success gave her the opportunity to compete at the 1980 Summer Olympic Games, where Canada was poised for medal contention.
However, dreams of international play were quickly cut short due to the infamous boycott.
The boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games
“It was hard,” says MacDonald. “Everything that we had done for the previous years was to be able to go to the Olympics, so it was devastating not being able to see that goal through to the end.”
After learning about the boycott at an Olympic qualifying tournament in Bulgaria, MacDonald’s frustrations boiled over as she was forced to stay home during the Games.
“There was nothing we could do about it and no one seemed to care that this was happening to us,” says MacDonald. “Some people did care, but the people that were making the decisions didn’t seem to realize the effect it was going to be having on all these athletes across Canada that had given so much time and dedication to their sport. Not everybody is a career athlete, either. Maybe for some people, that was their one shot at the Olympics.”
For MacDonald, the boycotted games were her only shot at the Olympics.
After suffering an ACL tear in the buildup to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the basketball star was forced to make a tough decision.
“It’s so different now than it was then for women. At that point in time, the Olympics was it. There was no professional league, no WNBA, so that was our goal,” says MacDonald. “I had to think about the rest of my life and what I would be able to do.”
MacDonald had always wanted to become a teacher, but that goal took a backseat as she focused on her basketball. Due to the injury forcing her out of the game she loved, MacDonald transitioned into a career in education after an illustrious university basketball career.
MacDonald became the first ever athlete to receive a night in their honour by the athletics department of the University of Calgary. She was inducted into the University of Calgary Athletic Hall of Fame on October 12, 1995, while her uniform and the number 15 were retired in 2002. At the time of her retirement, she was the Dino’s all time leading scorer in women’s basketball.
MacDonald graduated in 1981 with a bachelor of physical education and a diploma in education.
She became a teacher and taught in every division from elementary to high school. She moved into school administration later in her career. She credits the successful shift in her career as an educator to the skills she learned as an elite athlete.
“This is why I love sports so much. You learn all kinds of life lessons,” says MacDonald. “Work ethic, dedication, perseverance, resiliency, how to work with other people. Those are all transferrable skills that you need to have in any career, but even more particularly in education. It’s a job where you’re dealing with all kinds of different people coming from different situations.”
“Sports taught me to strive to be my very best, no matter what I’m doing.”
The sadness of realizing that she would never be able to compete at that same, elite level took a toll on MacDonald, but she wouldn’t let the sport she loved become her identity.
“There was a sense of loss, for sure, because I wouldn’t be able to compete at the level I wanted to compete at anymore,” says MacDonald. “My mother brought up one time about how proud she was of me to be able to transition through it, where so many people have such difficulties. I set a new goal. I used the skills I obtained in sports to ensure I would be successful outside basketball.”
Leaving the basketball community was difficult, as the support system that so many athletes have when they’re playing the game can disappear very quickly. However, MacDonald’s journey through her sport left her with enduring life long skills to move on in her life with drive, resiliency and passion.
Hayley Wickenheiser: Four time Olympic gold medalist in hockey
For arguably the greatest female hockey player of all time, the idea of retirement was a surprising reality, but Hayley Wickenheiser, a four time Olympic gold medalist, knew that preparation and planning were her keys to success in retirement.
“As a female hockey player, or even as a female athlete, what I did was when I started my career, I had already started thinking about the day it was going to be over,” says Wickenheiser.
It all started with a plan
Wickenheiser, 39, who began playing hockey at the age of five, excelled at the sport, leading her to a position on Canada’s national women’s team at only 15. Through a life that was completely entrenched in sport, Wickenheiser was able to use her support system to gain a perspective that would help with her eventual retirement.
“My parents instilled in me at a young age that education was important because they are both teachers and that I should always be thinking about what I was going to do after, because one day it will end,” says Wickenheiser. “So, through my career, I was always setting myself up in different ways. Whether it be getting a masters degree so that I could pursue medicine or investing money since I was 15 years old.”
“I had really good people around me so that’s probably why I came out of sport and I’m still standing,” says Wickenheiser.
Wickenheiser’s dedication to education allowed her to graduate with honours with a bachelor in kinesiology from the University of Calgary in 2013. In 2016, she completed her master’s degree in medical studies, where she ran a study focused on the connection between physical activity and the neurology of autistic youth.
On January 13, 2017, Wickenheiser decided that she would be putting away the skates for good and announced that she would be pursuing medicine, hoping to specialize in emergency trauma. This came as a massive shock to some in the hockey world, but Wickenheiser had been planning her transition for years.
“I’ve been thinking about medicine my entire life, since I was a kid, so medicine was something that I thought that I would do anyways. It was something that felt natural and was a good fit,” says Wickenheiser. “This has all been a well thought out, well planned, long-term journey over probably 20 years. I didn’t just quit and say ‘Oh, what am I going to do next?’ That’s not how it went for me.”
Even with years of planning, preparation and a strong support system behind her, the legendary hockey player still struggled with retirement at first.
“I was so used to doing a certain thing everyday and then all of a sudden, boom, that’s over. I train everyday just as hard as I did when I was playing; it’s just different now. What I found is that if I don’t do that, I don’t feel very good, so it keeps me sane,” says Wickenheiser.
Skating away from hockey
For Wickenheiser, stepping away from hockey, her biggest love, was obviously an incredibly difficult decision, and she understands the difficulty that so many athletes go through.
“It’s difficult because a lot of athletes have no plan and their identity is wrapped up in who they were as an athlete, and they can’t separate the two,” says Wickenheiser. “I get that, but it is important to find through your career and remind yourself that you are more than just what you do.”
By diving right into retirement, Wickenheiser has found an excitement and freshness to life that she occasionally struggled to find during her hockey career, something that she urges other athletes to consider.
“There is room for other things now in my life, and that is really exciting,” says Wickenheiser. “The most exciting part is trying things that I’ve never done before, but I’ve always wanted to do. Just having this mental space to do some of that stuff, when before I never would of had the time to do anything like that.”
“It was important to remember that yes, I’m a hockey player, but I’m other things as well and that will still be there when hockey’s not.”
Editor: Anna Junker | email@example.com