There is perhaps no fork in the road more significant in an elite athlete’s life than the decision to retire. With the Rio Olympics right around the corner and selection for the US Rowing Team in the books, I couldn’t help but think about the current group of athletes. Usually, the recipe for retirement is one part giant life event (either getting cut from the team right before the biggest athletic event in the world or competing at that event) and one part giant life decision (should I hang up the oars or commit to four more years of training and racing?). No wonder so many athletes struggle with this shift. Retirement seems like the best thing ever when we’re in the thick of training – after all, how hard could it be to sleep in, not work out, and finally have weekends? In reality, we’re thrust into the real world with no real idea of what to do next.
The craziest thing about it is that there’s minimal information or help out there about how to manage the change and know what to expect. As one of the rare athletes who retired mid-cycle, I have a completely different – and far more empathetic – view of what many elite athletes will go through in the coming months. When I retired last fall, which you can read about here, I learned more about myself and about the process than I could’ve imagined. It was a bumpy road, and I don’t have things totally figured out yet, but I’ve found new ways to feel fulfilled and driven and I truly love the life I’ve created.
So with selection complete and the Olympic Games just weeks away, here are five things I wish I knew before I was faced with what to do next:
- Keep some structure. Elite rowing provides unbelievable structure to our days. It determines where we live, what time we wake up, what workouts we do, what and when we eat, and what job we have (or don’t). On a broader level, it provides a structure for how to succeed: pull great erg scores, race at NSRs, do what your coaches ask, survive the seat racing gauntlet, and go overseas to see where you stack up. Rowing takes many decisions out of our hands, which is great at the time but doesn’t lend itself particularly well to the real world.When you step away from rowing, you step away from the day-to-day structure you’ve grown to rely on. Suddenly, you have to create it yourself. You can live anywhere. You can wake up whenever. You can eat whatever. You can work at whatever job you want and choose when you go on vacation. Freedom of choice seems so alluring when you’re training, but completely overwhelming when you stop training. There are so many choices that it’s hard to choose anything.What helped me most was keeping some structure, especially when I had none at first. I kept my same morning routine; I woke up, had my usual shake for breakfast, and did a workout every day, even if it was less than half of my normal training workouts. Structure – in any form – provides some sense of normalcy, which helps the rest of the decisions seem more manageable.
- Take time to learn who you are and what you want. Ok, easier said than done, but this was huge. When nearly your entire identity is wrapped up in being a rower, it’s natural to wonder who you are without rowing. Of course it’s natural to go into coaching to stay connected to the world we know so well, but I’d challenge retiring athletes to consider other options, too. There are infinite possibilities out there that can be as exciting and rewarding as you can imagine – tons of which don’t include the 8-5 cubicle slog.Understanding who you are and developing an idea of what you want in post-rowing life is daunting but exciting. I started out by specifically defining what kept me in rowing for so long. The ability to create my own path to the top by being a Trials athlete was a major component. I’m super independent and driven, so mapping out a plan that I had a high level of control over, choosing who to surround myself with, being challenged every day, working really hard for something I love, not being tied down to a place because of my “job,” and aiming toward big goals were all qualities that I loved about rowing and wanted to have going forward.Here’s the thing: you can to take those attributes and apply them to any job you want – or create your own. I went the entrepreneurship route because it was the most exciting option that matched all the qualities I loved about rowing. The wellness business I created has given me all of this. It’s challenging, it’s fun, I can develop it into anything I want (so long as it’s valuable), and each day is different. The best part is I get to help my clients lose hundreds of pounds and make real changes in their lifestyles. Crazy! I never dreamed it would be so rewarding. And since we are all paid for how much unique value we bring to others, your job can be as profitable as you make it.I’m not saying any of this to brag; I say it to inspire others to imagine career dreams as big as our Olympic dreams. Let every option be open for a while and then navigate towards whichever fits your personality and needs best. The possibilities are endlessly exciting.
- Reach out for help. Eight months ago, it would’ve been hard to imagine having what I have now, but I didn’t do it alone. As athletes, we’re used to getting coached on every part of our rowing careers: technique, skill, strength, strategy, mental training, nutrition, and teamwork. So reach out for help in other parts of your life and get some valuable guidance. Who cares if there’s a stigma against it? Some of my biggest gains came from sessions with life coaches or therapists who helped me understand why I am the way I am, helped me carve out what impact I wanted to make on the world, and guided me down the path to get there. They challenged me to go outside my comfort zone and form what my end goal was so I could start progressing towards it.Having a few critical friends/family in my life to be my sounding boards was also an enormous help. I now show up as a better girlfriend, friend, daughter, trainer, coach, and leader in day-to-day life. If you don’t know where to start, then reach out to me; I have lots of recommendations I’d love to share.
- Develop other parts of you. Rowing does an amazing job of making us competitive, driven, confident, and logical. It makes us good at controlling ourselves emotionally and physically. They’re critical skills to being a successful athlete, but there are other sides of our personalities that need developing to integrate into “real” life. The two most important ones? Emotions and creativity.During all my years of rowing, I saw vulnerability as weakness. Whenever I felt a certain way, I developed a strong ability to push my body into another state; if I was excited, I remembered not to let the highs get too high. If I was devastated, I pushed myself to get over it, remembering not to let the lows get too low. But real life operates in a different way. By sitting with our emotions and feeling them for a moment, we reframe them as cues for what to do next rather than things to be ignored or overcome. Admittedly, I’m still working at this, but I’m learning a lot. I’ve gained an enormous appreciation for the more authentic, dynamic life that awaits on the other side. If we leap from elite athletics into retirement without considering the emotional work that needs to be done, we risk operating as robots rather than growing to be empathetic members of our communities.Second: creativity. We don’t have that many chances to work on our creativity in rowing, since we’re always operating in specific parameters with repetitive motions and schedules. By stepping into arenas that use more of our right brain, we figure out how to solve problems, use our imagination, and create new things using a much broader palate of colors.
- Remember that your skills are immeasurably valuable in the marketplace. When you hang around elite athletes all the time, you get used to people showing up on time, having extraordinarily high goals, working extremely hard for those goals with unbelievable daily quality, prioritizing the priorities, and taking care of themselves when they’re not at practice. It’s hard to imagine people operate in any other way. It becomes normal to work and socialize with people in the top 1% of the field. It’s taken me a long time to realize that these skills – and the drive that accompanies them – are unique. Employers and clients alike love working alongside people with these skills.
Some days, I still feel like I haven’t figured everything out; like I’m that flailing kid at learn-to-row who has no idea what’s going on or how to coordinate myself. To some extent, I think that’s just life. But by taking time and making daily progress, it’s possible to feel just as fulfilled as we did while training – even more fulfilled. The best isn’t behind us; it’s ahead of us.