The experience of hearing a motivational keynote speaker giving Olympic speeches on peak performance – generally, no one knows the dark times of retirement. For a professional or Olympic athlete, retirement depression is very real. Some of the despair is minor, if not imperceptible. Some of the hopelessness is flat-out suicidal. Gold medalists, champions and also-rans alike, we all experienced some degree of depression in retirement.
Sugar Ray Leonard’s post boxing comebacks resulted from his own haunting words, “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring.” His well-documented life revealed extreme bouts of depression. Other retired elite athletes have made the same brave admission of depression: Ian Thorpe (swimming), Bill Walton (basketball), Dame Kelly Holmes (track), Andrew Flintoff (boxing) and Eddie George (football) to name a few. Warriors, too proud to seek help or admit weakness resorted to suicide - Junior Seau (football) and Wade Belak (hockey) to name two names - too many.
From personal experience, the depression after the Olympics in Albertville wasn’t from placing 15th. Going through a divorce didn’t help. Working in a place-holder job compounded the effect. The despair was directly from the loss of purpose.
For four years, every waking moment leading to the Olympic Winter Games was mapped out. Training, competing, team travel, a fraternity of world cup colleagues all vanished with the extinguishing of the Olympic flame.
This week, a smattering of Gold medalists will be recognized in the media. To my family’s credit, a welcoming party was waiting at the airport upon my return from Albertville. But the following 18 months were empty.
I remember sitting at a conference six months after the Games. A gentleman came over gushing about how much he was inspired by my Olympic story. The gift of his words was lost on me. Inside I was in agony. My mouth said, “Thank you,” but my heart was destroyed with the pounding of, “You have no idea what you’re saying. I am nothing.”
In researching this topic for you, many articles surfaced regarding post athletic depression. In many cases, references to "entertaining fans" or "the media spotlight" is what the athlete misses.
I have to disagree.
A life of purpose is the big loss. The meaning of every day is gone. No matter what others think or may say. It is the internal compass unable to find north like an astronaut spinning into nothingness.
If you’ve recently experienced a loss of identity or purpose, reach out to others who’ve gone through what you’re going through. They can be an extraordinary source of direction, clarity and comfort.
If you know a recently retired athlete please forward this 70 Second eBrief to them. If you are that retiring athlete, reach out to me. I know how you feel and what it takes thrive instead of feeling like you’re lost in space.
Either way, be brave! Grab onto a helping hand.