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Olympic Silver medalist and Canadian women’s eight rowing crew member, Krista Guloien, tears up as fans sign the Canada's National anthem after arriving at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, British Columbia, Monday, August 13, 2012. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
Olympic Silver medalist and Canadian women’s eight rowing crew member, Krista Guloien, tears up as fans sign the Canada's National anthem after arriving at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, British Columbia, Monday, August 13, 2012. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Life after the Olympics: athletes struggle with what to do next Add to ...

It was 2012 and Canadian rower Krista Guloien was competing in one of the glamour events of the London Olympics – the women’s eight. Just as soccer resonated so greatly this summer with fans in Rio de Janeiro, and hockey mattered to Canadians in Vancouver in 2010, Great Britain’s love affair with rowing put Guloien’s sport in the dazzling glare of the spotlight. She and the Canadian crew excelled, bringing home a silver medal.

For Guloien, it was the exciting culmination of a 13-year career that saw her compete in two Olympics. But in Canada, when a rowing career ends, it ends with finality. And in the year following her Olympic medal performance, Guloien, then 32, was asking the same question that many amateur athletes are forced to ponder once they reach the end of their competitive careers. What happens now? What happens next?

And many – including Guloien – are unsure of the answer, and unprepared for what comes next.

“Leading up to London, I was all in,” says Guloien, who wrote about the struggles of her transition Beyond the Finish Line, What Happens When the Endorphins Fade, published earlier this month. “I knew the end was coming, but I wasn’t deep-diving into my next passion because I didn’t have one that rang true to me. Looking back, I almost stumbled upon rowing; I think it was naive to think my next passion would fall into my lap the same way.”

Guloien found, as many ex-Olympic athletes do, that while the skills they develop as athletes can help them succeed in more conventional lines of work, finding that next career path can be extraordinarily challenging. They devote so much of their life to a singular focus on sport, and then, when the cheering subsides, they arrive at an uncomfortable crossroads, usually when they’re much older than the university graduates with whom they must compete for jobs.

“Often, having conversations about what you want to do after sport, or devoting any brain power to it, feels like cheating on your sport,” says Chandra Crawford, a three-time Canadian Olympian in cross-country skiing and a gold-medal winner in the 2006 Winter Games in Turin. “As athletes, we are uncomfortable with that at times, because it feels like we should be using every fibre of our being in this insane pursuit – and we do that.

“But it’s been interesting to learn more recently about the performance benefits you can get from thinking about the future – and addressing the underlying anxiety rather than just pretending everything’s fine.”

Even professional athletes encounter troubles when their high-profile careers end, but most Olympians don’t have the finances to cushion their exit. After Canada played host to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the Canadian Olympic Committee did a comprehensive Games debrief, which included extensive athlete interviews. One of the surprising findings, according to Cara Button, director of stakeholder relations for the Canadian Sports Institute in Calgary, was how many of the athletes were concerned about their futures, even in the midst of competition.

In response, the COC – in conjunction with Canadian Paralympic Committee, Sport Canada and the sport institute networks across the country – launched a program called Game Plan in September of 2015. The goal was to help the women and men on the country’s various national teams make a smoother transition to life after sport.

“They’ve done something they’ve loved and been passionate about, and now people are telling them, ‘find your next passion,’” says Button. “Well, I think that’s bad advice – because it’s hard. You have to start thinking about what you value, what you can visualize yourself doing, the lifestyle you want to lead, where you want to live – and then work backward.

“For athletes, many doors get opened for them, so we try to talk to them about how to take advantage of that. If you can develop a little bit of an elevator pitch, you can get a conversation started.”

Some, such as downhill skier Emily Brydon, have done remarkably well. Brydon, 36, is a three-time Canadian Olympian who earned nine World Cup podium finishes, including a 2008 Super G victory in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Upon retirement, Brydon enrolled in Imperial College Business School in London, England, and graduated with an MBA. Now based in San Francisco, she works as a franchise business consultant for Arco’s AM/PM retail sites, she is an athlete ambassador for Right To Play, and she has her own youth foundation.

According to Brydon, she found many transferable skills in elite-level athletics that helped her adjust to a second career. But it took her awhile to figure that out.

“In the business world, people tell you you’re wrong all the time – and a lot of people get offended,” says Brydon. “But athletes, we’re told we’re wrong and useless and awful all the time – so you become very good at dealing with it.… You build up this resilience against the naysayers and you build up this audacity to dream. So when you get into this corporate world, you think, why couldn’t I be CEO of the company?”

But that takes confidence. “In sport, you have these massive goals and dreams where the probability of success is so miniscule, but for some reason, athletes don’t transfer that,” Brydon says. “All of a sudden, [our athletic careers end and] we’ve lost our confidence. All of a sudden, we think to ourselves, ‘Oh my god, I don’t have any skills.’”

Melinda Harrison, 54, swam for Canada in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and now helps athletes get through major transitions as president and founder of Moving Beyond, a coaching and research venture on athlete transition. Recently, Harrison completed a study in which she interviewed 100 former athletes, some amateur, others professional, trying to gauge their abilities to adapt to life after sport.

The starting point for Harrison came when a friend and former Pan Am and Olympic athlete died by suicide.

“When that happened, it really shook me to the core,” says Harrison. “I thought ‘What is really going on with athletes?’ They’ve had these successes – what happens to them after they’re done? That’s how I came to the question: If I could interview 100 people who were successful in their transitions, [I’d ask] what did they do to help them become successful?

“Often, athletes think that, because they’ve been successful in one domain, they will be automatically successful in another. That wasn’t the case. There wasn’t a single athlete I interviewed who didn’t say it was a struggle.”

Harrison’s research found one of the principle difficulties for athletes adjusting to life after sport was in their communication skills.

“If you think of an athlete who starts to train at a very young age, the way they’re communicated with is very different than a normal child,” says Harrison. “They’re judged. They’re assessed. They’re cajoled. They’re celebrated. They’re isolated. They’re ignored. They’re yelled at. They’re praised. And so, because that’s their primary influence, it’s the way they’ve learned to communicate … And that’s a problem, because that’s not the way normal people communicate.”

Another issue for transitioning athletes, according to Harrison, is they do not get the same levels of feedback in new jobs that they did when they were competing. Harrison says athletes are used to external stimulation – instruction from coaches, reactions from fans – and “that can go away quickly in everyday life.”

“Imagine being an athlete who gets feedback every day at every practice for 20 years – and then you go to work at a company and you don’t get anywhere nearly the same amount of feedback,” says Harrison.

Now 36, Guloien, a Simon Fraser University grad with a degree in criminology, originally pursued fashion as a post-sport venture, and found it wasn’t for her. She is finding her path now as an writer and in her work with Fast and Female, a non-profit that Crawford started more than a decade ago to encourage young girls to get involved in athletics.

“It’s only in the last six months that things are starting to connect,” says Guloinen, “but it took, what, four years? I’ve talked to other athletes who are eight years removed from their careers, and are just getting into their grooves. It’s a weird process, more like a divorce than a retirement, because when I say I’m retiring, people respond ‘Oh, it must be nice,’ and they laugh.

“But I tell them it’s not like the kind of retirement where you get to go to Palm Springs and kick up your feet for the next 20 years, if you’ve done things well.”

Crawford, who retired from skiing in 2014, went far outside her comfort zone in search of a job. She earned an MBA at the University of Calgary and, before she went on maternity leave in June, had landed an entry-level position with National Bank.

“That all happened because of being open,” says Crawford, 32. “Even though it’s a conventional thing for a lot of people to work downtown, for me, growing up in the mountains, my dad’s an adventure photographer, my mom’s a Pilates instructor and hairdresser, it was really wild to do something so mainstream.

“The bank job was so amazing. They sought me out because they desperately want more women in capital markets. They were willing to try hiring one of these female athletes, someone with leadership attributes and resilience, and teach them finance. I’d go to work and spend two weeks at each desk, with each group. I’d do a couple of weeks in corporate banking, a couple of weeks in commodities.”

But there were times when Crawford doubted her ability to succeed in a field so far removed from what her norm.

“I had to learn to deal with being crazy uncomfortable,” says Crawford. “My ego was put through a wood-chipper the last two years, going into an environment where I had no idea what I was doing. I’d be sweating in class. In group work, I could barely get the documents out of the shared file. It was so hard, all that fear. I had to feel so out of my element all day at work, and then go to my study group and be totally confused and struggling at night.”

And then, it all clicked.

“After doing this for two years, I’ve grown so much with being uncomfortable – and just kept pushing through it,” says Crawford. “I think that’s a big part of transition. I think I can go do anything. I’m way less tied to how proficient I look and way more open just to being able to learn.”

Crawford, Guloien and Brydon all have launched and/or worked on foundations to promote women in sport. Brydon launched hers in 2006, before she retired, and described it as “a seed for the future – because [the foundation] taught me a lot about business and using my skills as an athlete in a different way.”

Coming out of Rio, Canada was celebrating the 22 medals its Olympic team won – tied for the most ever by Canada in a non-boycotted Summer Olympics. But Brydon says that sometimes there is too much emphasis on winning a medal.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to stand on the podium,” says Brydon. “That’s the reality of sport – winning is part of it, and you have to strive for it. But it doesn’t define you.”

“If I look back on my life, some of my peaks don’t involve my best results,” Brydon adds. “Some involved coming back and racing after a massive crash. Starting my foundation was probably my biggest peak, ahead of a World Cup win. So when I refer to the peaks, it’s trying to take people away from the superficial part of sport and looking at values and behaviours.”

For Crawford, there is no one answer to the retiring athlete’s question: “What am I going to do next?”

“My advice would be: Pick something hard,” she says. “It’s just so hard to grow when you’re super comfortable. I don’t think we’re built to just lounge around.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Emily Brydon's name and misidentified the Canadian Paralympic Committee. This version has been corrected.

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