What it’s Really Like to Retire after the Olympics
by Kristin Hedstrom
Sometime in November 2015, I made the decision to end my pursuit to compete in a second Olympic Games. I can’t put an exact date on it because life decisions like these don’t hit you one morning when you wake up; they slowly creep into your life, a nagging feeling that at some point you can’t ignore any longer.
For the sake of my greatest and most loyal supporters, as well as those who simply watched from afar, I felt it necessary to write about this process and this decision once the dust had settled. Given that it was a very challenging transition for me, I’m so glad this time has come.
The beginning of the storm can be traced back to May, a few weeks after the second NSR I’d lost in the lightweight double. The journey leading up to that race had been a stressful one, but in the normal way we experience stress in elite athletics. Balancing super focus with mental exhaustion, excellent performance with physical fatigue, and euphoric highs with emotional lows was – and is – part of the job description. The stress I felt after the NSR, however, wasn’t that kind of stress. I felt like things weren’t quite right, like I had gotten away from why I was training and competing in the first place. Everyone around me supported my decision to keep going after 2012, but I’d reached a point where I wasn’t sure why I kept going.
May, June, and July brought me back to the drawing board. I’d always loved rowing and everything that came along with it (which is to say, an entire lifestyle) so it was uncharted territory to feel a strong pull away from it. I didn’t want to practice. I had no interest in doing pieces. I told my coach that I wanted (and, in retrospect, needed) to take the summer off of competing. I’d competed at the elite level for eight summers straight, so this felt very, very foreign. I needed to do my own thing for a while and figure this out.
So I distracted myself with other passions; work, my relationship, visiting family, and giving back.
By mid-summer, I was rowing every day again, but each time I pushed off from the dock, I hoped that my real passion would come back. I was searching for that feeling when you’re deep in flow state on the water and nothing better in the world exists. That feeling that you’re doing exactly what you’re meant to be doing. Every day I looked for it, but always came up short.
It didn’t help that my absence from the race entry lists had people constantly questioning how rowing was going. Coaches (not my own) and athletes called me asking what my plans were and told me they were shocked to hear a rumor that I’d retired.
Retired?! Who said anything about that? And why was it their business anyway?
Clearly, I wasn’t in the best of places. To jolt myself out of this and prove I was still on the map, I put my hometown race – Head of the Charles – on my calendar and wrote myself a training plan to get there. I spent late summer and fall doing my own workouts in my single, be it pieces, long steady states, endurance lifts, or cross-trains. I wanted this pursuit to belong to me again, and I was happy that it did.
I showed up in Boston in late October with more than just my suitcase and a 1x entry. I brought along lots of questions in my head: what would it be like to perform on the rowing stage after six months of training on my own? Would I love the experience of competing again or hate it? Would I feel excited to put Olympic Trials on the calendar after this, a mere six more months away?
I placed fifth in the Championship Single, which exceeded my expectations based on the self-proclaimed abysmal numbers I’d pulled on my weekly erg pieces all fall. There were plenty of positives: I’d gotten closer to some of my best competitors than in previous years, had a good line, and successfully battled a huge headwind as a lightweight. I’d gotten so many of the little things right.
But I couldn’t shake the one big thing I felt: lack of excitement. I rowed to the start line with such ambivalence that I barely recognized myself. “Kristin, you love this. Remember?” I tried to convince myself but was met only with “meh.” What was this? I never approached racing with this mindset. Something big had shifted.
I came back to California and, over the next several weeks, took a hard look at where I was and what I wanted. It was the strongest push-pull I’ve probably ever felt, with one side arguing that we were less than a year out from the Olympics, that I’d come so far, and how I’d be the biggest quitter if I stopped now. Meanwhile, other side reminded me of my newfound – and unrecognizable – apathy towards competing, that my priorities had shifted, and that I was excited to pursue other goals.
Ultimately, the fight going on in my head was stripped down to one thing: would I do what I felt pressured by others to do (whether real or imagined) or what I felt like was the right thing for me?
It often takes more courage to stop what you’re doing and change paths than to stay the path that you’re on.
Sometime in November 2015, I made the decision to end my pursuit to compete in a second Olympic Games. For all the courage it took to compete on the national and international stage, it took more courage to listen to what I needed in this process and then accept it. Amidst a challenging transition out of elite athletics and into a brand new identity, I realized that it was truly the best decision for me.
These days, I’m spending time developing other parts of my life. I’ve created a successful wellness business that has grown enormously in the past eight months. I work with amazing clients and completely love my job. I’ve been able to start giving back to others. I’ve been able to take leaps ahead in my relationship, even though Hans and I live across the country from each other. I’m finding new challenges and new opportunities.
I often stop and take in the view from the other side of elite rowing. It’s a brand new one and I’m still getting used to it. I’ll say this: nothing in my life has ever given me what rowing has given me, and I’m endlessly grateful for the opportunities I got. I started out as a chubby high school freshman who was very vocal about despising sports and chose the 100m race distance in track because it would be over the fastest. Sixteen years later, I’ve earned six international medals in a historically tough event as well as a couple “first evers” (like the World Cup Points Trophy for the US in 2011). I proved myself completely wrong with regards to athletics. The most important lesson I learned throughout? You can have anything you want in life if you work hard and believe you will do it. For that lesson alone, I will never be able to repay the wonderful sport of rowing.
As I move on, I constantly find myself thinking of all the people who helped me get where I got. A few I cannot let go unrecognized:
Mom, Dad, and Matt – for loving me and saying “go for it!” no matter what crazy decision I came up with next. For instilling values in me that drove me to get where I got. For countless drives to New Jersey to watch me race. For being on the journey end-to-end.
Ethan Curran – for teaching me the fundamentals, without which I would never be the person I am: do the little things right, ask if what you’re doing is moving you toward your goal, and focus only on this stroke, not the last one or the next one.
Margot Williams – for being intricately involved in the process simply because I was. I routinely tell people – and strongly believe – that you can’t make it to the Olympics without one person who is your main supporter. You were that for me. Thanks for helping make my career what it was.
Erik Miller – for being the first person to believe I could make the US National Team. I often say that had I not transferred to Wisconsin, I would’ve never continued rowing after college. That credit goes to you.
Heidi Krupp – for hugging me in London after a big disappointment in the semifinal, which was really a representation of all the times you’ve been there for me throughout my rowing career, wherever we were in the world.
Julie Nichols – for believing the same assumption I did: that the way to make the boat fastest was to have fun doing it. For jumping in headfirst and having some of the most fun – and closest – races ever. What a thrill that journey was!
Hans Struzyna – for being on the front lines with me over the past three years, talking through each transition, letting me be myself, and standing with me through all of it. For reminding me that the best is yet to come. Your love is the best I could ask for.
Kate Bertko – for coming to California and giving me an excellent reason to keep going, even if it didn’t work out in the end. For pushing the standard and making me better in the process.
Nancy Philips – for being so wise. For reminding me that a big world exists out there and whatever I choose is going to be awesome.
Amory Rowe – for taking a chance on me and being steady with your support through the ups and downs.
The Hudson Team – For answering “so…we need a boat in Munich in two weeks…think that’s possible?” emails with, “we’ll make it happen.” You are the gold standard for athlete support in rowing.
Cheers to all of you – thanks for reading and on to the next challenge!