Success at the Olympics is a pinnacle of sporting achievement. It requires decades of dedication, single-minded focus and sacrifice (from a very early age) to meet the standard required to represent your country. Even participating requires intense commitment, not to mention the extreme levels you need to reach to win a medal! The path is incredibly tough, fraught with risk of injury and burnout, which can derail your ambitions temporarily or permanently.
An additional challenge faced by elite athletes, including those performing at Olympic and similar levels, is what’s next… All reach a point, perhaps in their twenties or thirties, depending on the sport, where they can’t participate at the levels they’d like to – it is no longer physically possible for them, whether injury- or age-driven. A natural quarter-life crisis of sorts...
While not comparable, we can think of qualifying as a professional from this perspective too. Years spent dedicated to studying and passing the technical requirements, step by step. Painful failures along the way that we cautiously pick ourselves up from, taking time to recover. Then one day, we finish all the exams and conditions, and are ‘qualified’. YAY! Well deserved celebrations. Once the initial euphoria passes, we start to wonder, ‘Now what?’… ‘I’ve got decades of work left. Should I study further? What other skills do I need, especially non-technical ones? What should my next goals be? How do I keep learning and remain relevant?’...
Another example of a significant transition, requiring a major mindset shift is when people leave the military, and move across into civilian life and careers. They move from a highly structured environment, perhaps with international deployments, to a foreign-to-them workforce culture. Some specific examples for athletes and servicepeople respectively are joining a physical performance troop (such as Cirque du Soleil) or becoming a financial advisor.
I’ve written before about bouncing back, and keeping going, even after we’ve achieved success and we worry whether we can reach those heights again. These emotions are indeed relevant to big career transitions, but incomplete here: it’s also about re-imagining and remaking ourselves as we grow wiser i.e. we’re not trying to bounce back to where and who we were, but rather, pole jump to somewhere new.
In support of this, I came across advice on reinvention from Alexandra “Sasha” Cohen, an American figure skater who won an Olympic silver medal, and was a World Championship medallist multiple times. In her early twenties at the time, Sasha achieved her Olympic medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Read more for Sasha’s reflections.
Sasha graduated from college in her early thirties, having done her first summer internship when she was 29, a decade older than the other interns… She works as an associate at Morgan Stanley, the investment bank, and became a mother in 2020. In her 2018 New York Times opinion piece entitled “An Olympian’s Guide to Retiring at 25”, she eloquently describes challenges she faced when shifting phases in her life and changing her identity. Sadness, confusion, feeling flat. Taking a break, finding new goals, and discovering a fresh sense of purpose.
Below, I share parts of Sasha’s article, especially those relevant beyond a professional sporting context. The emphasis is mine to highlight elements of Sasha’s words relevant to all of us, whether we are ‘retiring’ from professional sports, structured professional exams, the military, or even an industry we’ve worked in for a while:
“...During the first 30 seconds of my long program in figure skating at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, I fell twice. The gasps from the audience drowned out my music – and even my thoughts – for a split second. It was my second Olympics, and I knew that any hopes I had for gold were gone.
But I had a program to finish, and I pulled myself together. The rest of my program was everything I could have hoped for, earning me the silver.
Standing on the podium that night, I felt a deep sense of loss, which at the time I attributed to missing my chance at gold. But in retrospect I realise that part of what I was experiencing was a glimpse of the end of my skating career, and the sadness and confusion that would accompany my retirement.
Four years later, when I didn’t qualify for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and I finally knew I would never again compete in the Olympics or elsewhere, my identity as a competitive figure skater – two decades in the making – crumbled away. Suddenly, at age 25, I had to figure out who I was... I hope sharing my experiences might provide some guidance about what to expect.
At first, I confess, retirement felt like a much-needed vacation. I loved being able to sleep in, not needing to coax my aching body into hours of training or to worry about carrying my own immense expectations, let alone those of my country. But after a few months, life felt flat. Without the ready-made purpose of training for the next season, I was lost. I missed the highs – and the lows – that made me feel alive when I was a competitive athlete.
...As athletes, we are taught to suck it up, to deny pain and fear, to push through debilitating injuries, to persevere through anxiety and depression. It is hard to know when you need help and which emotions are “normal” when you have spent years in a physically and emotionally demanding environment.
...If there is one thing I have learned in my own post-Olympics life, it is the importance of finding new goals, a new sense of purpose. When I entered college, I had never learned to write properly, and the equations in my math classes looked like hieroglyphics. But I put the same focus into college that I put into skating, and when I graduated with honours in 2016, it was one of the greatest moments of my life.
...Olympic athletes need to understand that the rules for life are different from the rules for sports. Yes, striving to accomplish a single overarching goal every day means you have grit, determination and resilience. But the ability to pull yourself together mentally and physically in competition is different from the new challenges that await you.
So after you retire, travel, write a poem, try to start your own business, stay out a little too late, devote time to something that doesn’t have a clear end goal – in short, do everything you couldn’t do when you were training. There are endless ways to find purpose and meaning after the Olympics. Just give yourself some time. Learn to live for the process again without being defined by the results, the way you did when you first started your sport.”
If you’re also in a stage of reinvention, and are wondering to yourself ‘Now What?’, these three resources could help you right now. As Sasha’s reflections reiterate, your feelings are normal: you are not alone.