One of the hardest things in sport, I have to come to realise, is something that happens off the field. It is the question that all our sporting heroes face one day and seemingly something that terrifies them most. What am I, they must ask themselves, when my sporting career is done?
For years they have been slaves to early alarms as they drag themselves out of bed and hit the training park. A tough life, a hard life, but a life filled with purpose. Their goal is always clear cut, perfectly defined and marked by a distinct beginning and end, with an undeniable result – a win, a loss, a PB, a world record. It is the pursuit of this that spurs them on and fills them with desire and importantly, gives their life meaning.
What do we do? We watch. We marvel at their determination, their commitment, and their skill. We heap praise upon them, we hold them up on pedestals and worship them, the gods of sport. Is it us, then, who are to blame when the lights go out and they descend to what now appears to be a painfully ordinary and dreary reality? We gave them the unbelievable high of glory and now it is gone.
One of the things not often considered is the length of a sporting star’s career. They spend years toiling away to reach their full potential. They finally reach the summit and then after a moment all too fleeting, they begin the descent. Some are not so lucky and their descent is not slow and gradual, but an injury fuelled free fall from the top. They wake one morning a star, the next, a person. One moment can make their career. One moment can end it.
It is a universal reality that one day we must all retire. The mental image conjured up in most of our minds is that of the grey nomads, plodding around the country in their caravans, enjoying life and kicking back. It is the lifestyle we tell ourselves we will one day enjoy, that makes the daily drudgery of work life bearable. For these sporting stars, the day their career ends, is the beginning of uncertainty. They don’t bear the signs of a long career and full life, their hair is not greying, their faces not crinkled with the signs of years of living, loving and laughing.
They are young but they have lost all they have ever known. Their days lie before them, a blank canvas no longer book ended by training sessions, their weekends no longer carved out around game day. They are faced with emptiness and the challenge to begin again. They must find a purpose once more and build a life most of us have already built. To be ordinary, I now realise, can be a blessing.
This struggle is not uncommon and in many cases results in mental illness and even criminal acts. Grant Hackett and Ian Thorpe have both struggled, fish out of water, unable to find their feet. It is unsurprising that both attempted comebacks, desperately reaching out in the darkness for their glory days. This could only ever be a short-lived solution and even if successful, would one day leave them facing this same emptiness once more.
The sporting world needs to realise its responsibilities extend beyond getting the win, the medal, the record. It must teach its stars to be more than their sport. It must prepare them for what lies beyond the finish line and enable them to win at life.