For Veronica Brenner, the toughest thing about retirement was learning that mere mortals - unlike Olympic athletes - are rarely declared No. 1.
"I didn't miss competing," says Brenner, 34. "I missed winning."
Brenner didn't win every time she launched into the air, her skis helicoptering back down to earth, but that was always her goal. By the time her decade-long career on the Canadian freestyle aerial ski squad ended in 2003, she had racked up 24 World Cup podium finishes, including 11 gold medals.
She retired a year after winning an Olympic silver medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, a decision she weighed carefully right up until her self-imposed deadline of June 1, the start of the summer training season.
Her freestyle career had reached satisfying heights, but her decision hinged on more than that; she wanted to prove that she could succeed in the world beyond aerial jumps. She never wanted to be the athlete who dragged things out, believing they'd never be as good at something else.
"I just looked around and thought, 'There are so many things I want to do,' " Brenner says.
Her first victories were small, but as a 29-year-old who had spent most of her life travelling to competitions and training camps, she had to start somewhere.
Brenner signed a year-long lease on a Toronto apartment ("That scared the hell out of me"), bought her first bed ("I didn't know people could sleep that well"), began road biking, took on triathlons and went back to school to finished her bachelor degree.
When the CBC had an opening for a freestyle ski commentator, she trained as if it were the job interview of her life: writing the bios of her former teammates on cue cards and quizzing the outgoing commentator for insights. The job (she won it) has translated into many more competitions with a microphone, and at the 2010 Vancouver Games, she'll be analyzing the freestyle competitions for CTV.
She's also attached to elite sport-managing projects and logistics for the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) and the Canadian Sport Centre Pacific in Vancouver, where she lives a few blocks away from Kitsilano Beach.
Still, the thrill of the podium was elusive. Brenner raced triathlons with gusto, but cringed every time competitors - young and old - passed her by. She tries to win at yoga, she jokes, even though the Lululemon crowd frowns on such things.
"I think it's always difficult for athletes who had ... I still went to the gym and stayed in shape. But mentally, that's tough, too. It's like, 'Oh my God, I'm getting soft!' "
Growing up in Sharon, Ont., Brenner got her competitive start in gymnastics and ski racing before a friend, who was a freestyle skier, persuaded her to give the sport a try. By 1994, at 19, Brenner was competing on the World Cup circuit, joining the Canadian freestyle team already stocked with stars such as moguls skier Jean-Luc Brassard and Nicholas Fontaine.
At the 2002 Games, Brenner and teammate Deidra Dionne won silver and bronze in Utah.
Aerial jumps aren't something you do recreationally, and Brenner - who has fought back from her share of traumatic injuries, including a torn knee just two years before the 2002 Olympics - has never been one to take safety lightly. Since retirement she's jumped only once - at a water ramp in Quebec.
When she's at competitions now, Brenner doesn't regret trading skis for a microphone.
Only on a perfect day, when the wind has vanished and the sun is out, does she miss pursuing the perfect jump, when time slows down and each flip or twist feels as if it is yours on command.
Still, feet firmly planted on the ground, she says, life is good. "I'm learning to enjoy things as opposed to being a thrill-seeker."
Besides, she has new frontiers to conquer: The Olympics are on the horizon, as is an MBA, which she'll begin in the fall.
"Did I win at retirement?" Brenner says with a laugh. "Yeah, I think I made the right decision."
AT THE TOP
Born Oct. 18, 1974, raised in
Notable accomplishments Won silver medal in freestyle aerials at 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, 11 gold medals on the World Cup circuit.
Background On the national freestyle aerials squad at 19, she retired in 2003. She has since become an aerials commentator for the CBC and CTV, and works full-time for VANOC and Canadian Sport Centre Pacific.