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Lungs screaming and muscles burning, Annamay Pierse surges toward the wall in the final of the women’s 200-metre breaststroke at the 2012 Canadian Olympic swimming trials. She summons every last ounce of power and drives into the touchpad. Whipping her head around to check the scoreboard, she’s confronted by sinking dreams. Her eyes tell her brain something she cannot compute. The number five stands next to her name, indicating her placing in the race and that she has failed to earn herself a ticket to the London Olympics. With a flood of emotions coursing through her, the former world record-holder exits the pool, the same one in Montreal where she won the event and qualified for her first Olympic team four years prior.
Heartbroken and in disbelief, the realization that her career as a professional swimmer has ended washes over her. Before she can process it herself, she is ushered into a press room where reporters thrust their mics at her and fire away with a question she has no answer to: “What are you going to do now?”
Canadian competitive swimmers rarely dive into the thought of retirement. In fact, for some, like Pierse, it crashes into them unannounced and uninvited. According to Judy Goss, Mental Performance Consultant at the Canadian Sport Institute – Ontario, it is the “unanticipated and unplanned” retirements that are particularly challenging for swimmers and most athletes.
The retirement transition for swimmers has garnered some attention in the swimming-captivated nation of Australia, but aside from Mark Tewksbury, the Canadian gold medalist from the 1992 Olympics who was candid with his troublesome transition, the subject matter has fallen under murky waters in Canada. The winds (or waves) of change may be blowing through, though.
“If you’re thinking about what you’re doing after swimming, you’re not really thinking about what you’re doing while you’re swimming.” – Annamay Pierse
With Toronto hosting the 2015 Pan Am Games this summer, and the introduction of Game Plan, a program designed to assist Canada’s athletes as they transition into, within, and beyond sport, this is a topic that is finally getting dredged up from the deep end and to the surface.
In Jeff Pearlman’s 2004 Psychology Today article “After the Ball,” sports psychologist Steven Berglas writes that elite athletes go “from the pinnacle of adulation, excitation and the confirmation of worth to nothing.” High-performance athletes live a slightly coddled life, but with retirement, all safety nets are withdrawn. For elite athletes, retirement signifies a loss of structure, a challenge to one’s identity, a loss of physical fitness and a dissolution or transformation of one’s support network. Additionally, as was the case for Pierse, the daunting “what now?” question sets in and demands an answer.
In a sport as enveloping as competitive swimming, Canada’s swimmers experience these challenges to a high degree. As retired 2008 and 2012 Canadian Olympic swimmer Alexa Komarnycky suggests, being an elite swimmer means, “living, eating, breathing swimming.” After retiring in 2013, she is still navigating the adjustment period: “It takes time and I’m still learning. I’m still learning how to be a real human being.”
One of the adjustments Komarnycky is still making relates to the loss of structure that comes with retirement. Kirsten Barnes, Lead Mental Performance Consultant for the Canadian Sport Institute – Pacific, and a retired Olympic gold medal-winning rower herself, alludes to this and argues that routines form the basis of a swimmer’s environment. Practice and competition schedules demand strict adherence to structure, and if the swimmer is enrolled in school while competing, the value of structure is even more pronounced.
Komarnycky’s Olympic teammate, Tobias Oriwol, reiterates Barnes’ assertion. Oriwol swam for Canada at the 2008 Olympics, retired and enrolled in graduate school, completed his studies and then returned to swimming in 2010. His return was a successful one as he went on to swim in the London 2012 Games before retiring permanently. Oriwol says framing time in the context of a school year is akin to knowing when practices and competitions are in swimming. During his first retirement, the clear path that school paved was crucial to his smooth transition out of swimming. “There was no searching around or finding my way,” he says. Having “something that structured … and finite as a swimming season or swimming cycle,” offered him a familiar and comforting sense of direction.
Heather MacLean, a recently retired member of the 2012 Canadian Olympic swim team, echoes Oriwol’s sentiments on the influence of structure, but also calls the re-identification process that comes with retirement tumultuous. Having retired only months ago, she currently finds herself in the throes of this stage, and according to Gretchen Kerr, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto, her case is not an isolated one. “Retired athletes have to renegotiate their identities … for so long, they’ve been identifying themselves and others have been identifying them as athletes. So when they’re no longer athletes, what are they at that point?” she asks.
For MacLean, removing swimming from her self-image has been the “scariest” part of her retirement transition. She sees herself as a person of lesser value and frequently questions who she is now that swimming is part of her past. She admits that she worried about how people would perceive her decision to retire: “I was really nervous about what my teammates would say, what my coaches would say, what my friends would say … Swimming was who I was and I was really nervous that because I wasn’t swimming, people would view me … as a lesser person.”
Swimming keeps its athletes impeccably fit. With eight to 10 workouts a week, the body becomes sculpted and trimmed. When a swimmer retires, it is natural for this shape to fade, and this can be a hurdle in the retirement journey as well. Not wanting to completely get out of shape is a common fear. Oriwol says juggling graduate school and the need for physical activity was incredibly frustrating. MacLean reveals her fear of gaining 30 pounds and how she is trying to strike a balance between healthy eating and exercise. Komarnycky delves into how badly she missed intense physical exertion and how it has led to a new job as a personal trainer at Goodlife Fitness. As Goss mentions, it is essential for retired swimmers to find a means of exercise, both for their physical and mental stability.
“Swimming was who I was and I was really nervous that because I wasn’t swimming, people would view me … as a lesser person.” – Heather Maclean
Drawing on her experiences with athletes through her work with CSI, Goss also suggests a loss of community may be additionally problematic in the retirement transition. There is a sense of camaraderie that develops when swimmers compete and train together, and when a swimmer exits the pool, that support system may also be left behind. This is a condition of retirement that both Kerr and Barnes relate to. Barnes says in extreme cases, some swimmers are struck with a feeling of “abandonment” when they retire. If a swimmer has to return to his or her hometown following retirement, contact with former teammates is often severed and this can be a source of shock and grief.
Despite all of the pitfalls with retirement, there are ways to mitigate the struggles during a swimmer’s transition. The key is planning and preparation, or as Goss phrases it, as “one wheel stops turning with (a) sport career, the other wheels (should) already (be) moving.” This is substantiated by Barnes and Kerr. To properly do this, Kerr stresses planning at a very early age by developing interests and friends outside of swimming. Identifying preferences, hopes and personal characteristics can expose young swimmers to a variety of avenues that they may wish to follow after their athletic careers.
Martha McCabe, a current Canadian national swim team member and 2012 Olympic finalist, has always taken it upon herself to prepare for her future. With an interest in the human body, she studied kinesiology at the University of British Columbia. After she completed her undergraduate degree, she explored the possibility of working in medicine, and investigated writing the MCATs. Once she learned of the RBC Olympians program, which funds Canadian Olympic and Paralympic athletes and provides them with skills to better prepare for life beyond sport, she educated herself on it, applied for selection, and was accepted. She now works part-time at their head office in Toronto where she gains valuable work experience while still training full-time.
After seeing teammates struggle with retirement in the wake of the 2012 Olympics, McCabe knew she did not want to confront the same obstacles. “I want to have something that I’m passionate about when I’m done swimming … I want to put that energy toward something,” she says. “It always surprises me how little thought people put into their life outside swimming.”
Although McCabe has been proactive in her efforts to locate a passion beyond swimming, this has proven extremely difficult for others.
To achieve her great heights in the sport, Pierse, for example, had to entirely dedicate herself to swimming. In hindsight, she sees how this may have been a hindrance to her future, but still believes that excellence in swimming comes from having it as the sole focus: “If you’re thinking about what you’re doing after swimming, you’re not really thinking about what you’re doing while you’re swimming.” This is reiterated by former swimmer Sandy Lockhart.
Lockhart, who never competed at the Olympic stage, but represented Canada internationally and won events in the pool at the university level, retired in 2008 and admits to never fully developing an outlet from swimming. Even though it was his choice, swimming consumed his life. When he unexpectedly reached retirement’s doorstep, he says that he was ill-prepared for his future. He had an undergraduate degree, but it was in an area he was growing further and further disinterested in, and recognized that he now needed to, “go back and put those blocks in place to do what it was that (he) wanted to do.” Having a resource to help identify this would have been a welcome help, he says.
Enter: Game Plan. Following the 2010 Olympics, Barnes was asked to put together a debriefing report. Her findings were startling and sparked a move toward better assisting Canada’s athletes with the various transitions they encounter in their careers.
One of Barnes’ more alarming discoveries was that two of Canada’s gold medalists from the 2010 Olympics were struck with distressing realizations days before their final performances at those Games. These epiphanies came from recognizing they were at the end of their careers without the faintest clue as to where they were headed after the Games. Clearly, something needed to be instigated to help athletes plan better.
“I’m so happy. I absolutely love being in school, I love teaching. It’s absolutely what I’m supposed to be doing.” – Annamay Pierse
September 2014 served as the launch pad for Game Plan, a program aiming to assist athletes in integrating life with sport through all phases of their athletic careers, including their segue into post-athletic endeavours. Rolf Wagschal, Athlete Career Transition Advisor for Game Plan, says planning and preparation are what Game Plan strives to emphasize. “Let’s not build the house; let’s just lay good foundation,” he says.
As it pertains to swimmers, Wagschal understands their struggles when competing at a high level. “You need to be so dedicated. You need to expend so much time towards that singular focus that you basically become defined by your sport. Your entire support structure is made up of swimmers. Your entire daily routine … Your financial life … your physical life … revolve around swimming. And when you remove that person from swimming it be can very traumatic if they haven’t done any preparation … there’s a massive hole there,” he says.
Pierse, who says she was “basically just dumped by Swimming Canada,” calls Game Plan and its benefits invaluable. Following her disappointment at the 2012 Olympic trials, she emphasizes her need to consult a sports psychologist in the aftermath, but that her efforts to have that service covered by the governing body were denied. In her most vulnerable state, lost in a “dark, dark space,” as she calls it, she was left stranded on her own. She admittedly turned to food and alcohol, lost sight of herself, and handled the entire process in an irrational, unhealthy manner. But she knew no other way.
Game Plan ensures that there is another way, and as Wagschal says, it aims to help athletes “find their way” beyond sport.
Although retirement has proven challenging for some notable swimmers like Ian Thorpe, the Australian superstar and multiple Olympic gold medalist who publicly grappled with depression following his competitive career, it is not an agonizing process for all. As Goss underlines, the number of elite swimmers who wallow in despair for an extensive time following retirement is quite low. After two years, most manage to swim through the retirement wave successfully.
It would appear that Goss’s estimate rings true for Pierse. A little over two years out of her failure to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games, Pierse is back in school to become a teacher. “I’m so happy. I absolutely love being in school, I love teaching. It’s absolutely what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says. Pierse did not have an answer for reporters when they asked her what her plans were in 2012, but it is clear that she has now found a new life for herself in a different lane.
About the Author
Matthew Pariselli recently completed the first year of the two-year post-graduate accelerated Journalism program at Humber College Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning in Toronto, Ontario. He plans to specialize in print and online journalism in his final year.
A native of Toronto, Pariselli was a competitive swimmer for 17 years. He swam for the Etobicoke Swim Club while in Ontario and eventually the UBC Thunderbirds/UBC Dolphins in Vancouver, B.C. Specializing in distance freestyle and 400 I.M., he represented Canada at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships and was a member of UBC’s winning team at the 2009 CIS championships.