Many retired athletes struggle to ‘unravel their identities’ after their careers are over
Kaetlyn Osmond has been like a ship adrift at sea.
Four years after retiring from competition, the world figure skating champion says she is just starting to find her feet as a former athlete.
“Definitely harder than expected,” Osmond said. “Mentally, retirement is difficult because you lose a lot of the identity you’ve had all your life.”
Cara Button, who has mentored retired Canadian athletes for 16 years, says while some find it relatively easy to move on, no athlete makes the transition completely unscathed.
“The identity is huge. Who am I, if I’m not an athlete? How can I present myself? What is interesting about me outside of sport?” says Button. “It’s also mourning the loss of what they loved to do and can no longer do.”
Button is the senior director of Game Plan, which was created seven years ago by the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees and the nation’s network of sport institutes as a high performance transition and wellness program.
“I was not prepared”
Osmond, 26, won the world title in 2018 a month after winning bronze in the women’s singles at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
She was only 22 and had no plans to retire that year.
“So when I came out, I was unprepared,” she said. “All I knew was that I couldn’t convince myself to train, to compete anymore.”
Cutting the tie, however, was accompanied by an immediate and profound sense of loss.
“There was a loss of validation,” she said. “For a long time you’re the center of the conversation, you’re trending on social media. And then the next thing you know you’re completely forgotten about.”
Osmond’s body image issues that plagued her as a skater amplified after her retirement.
“I couldn’t convince myself to go to a gym,” the 26-year-old said. “And once I started to feel my body changing – obviously because I wasn’t training five hours a day and just focusing on how I looked and how my body worked – I started to struggling a lot, and actually going to a gym, I started having panic attacks.
“It took almost two years before I could convince myself to go to a gym… It’s been four years and I’m still trying to walk into the gym without feeling that kind of panic.”
WATCH | Osmond looks back on his sports career:
Miranda Ayim, former captain of Canada’s women’s basketball team, retired after her third Olympic Games in Tokyo. She crashed at her parents’ house for an entire week after the Games.
“I just spent quality time with them,” she said. “A few tears may have been shed, but you need this process of grieving and transitioning and having people around you who can support you through this.”
The 34-year-old, who has played her last six professional seasons in France, said being prepared was key. She quoted Carl Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will rule your life and you will call it fate.”
“Be aware of the reality of the transition, that it’s not going to be easy, your whole identity as an athlete is tied to your sport, and has been for so long, so realize there’s going to be a bit of an erosion of that identity,” she said. “And it’s going to be a bit of a painful process.”
Short track speed skating star Charles Hamelin has retired after his fifth Olympic Games in Beijing. He originally planned to retire after the 2018 Games so the 38-year-old was given more time to prepare for the impact.
“It gave me four more years to make sure everything was in place for my retirement,” Hamelin said. “And so, I was not afraid.”
He’s co-owned Nagano Skate, a company that sells speed skating gear and offers training through his academy, since 2016. After a busy summer that included the marriage of longtime partner Geneviève Tardif and a moon of honey in South Africa, he started a full-time job. September 1 as director of operations at SODEM, a company that owns recreational facilities in Quebec.
The six-time Olympic medalist can announce the date of his last training. It was April 8.
“People ask me ‘Do you miss it, do you [wish you could] get back on the ice and practice? and I’m like, ‘No way,’ he laughed. “I went to see [skaters] a few times during training and the summer race. And I was just happy to be on the other side of the boards watching them, it was really, really fun. I don’t miss the pain in my legs during short track speed skating practices. »
WATCH | Hamelin speaks of an “emotional” final race:
Nam Nyugen called it a career after the Canadian Figure Skating Championships in January. The 24-year-old, who won the world junior title in 2014, now coaches hockey players in power skating. Jack McBain of the Arizona Coyotes and Paul Ludwinski, the Kingston Frontenacs forward and second-round draft pick from Chicago, are among his clients.
What is he missing in figure skating?
Nguyen, who bought hockey skates and a stick for his new gig – he happily said his shoulders hurt after learning to throw a puck – recently attended a cup figure skating competition. He failed to rekindle the love for the sport.
“It just pushed me further back because I remembered how awful I felt during my warm-up and how nervous I felt, and sitting there in front of the TV, I’m like, ‘I’m so happy not to do that anymore.
“I still refuse to teach figure skating. I’m just in love with this new thing I’m chasing right now.”
Maintaining fitness is a challenge
Finding consistency in fitness can be problematic after retirement, Button said. Some, like former field hockey captain Scott Tupper, take up long-distance running.
“Because they feel they need a goal to set,” Button said.
Tupper, an assistant coach for the University of Maryland women’s team, has completed a few half-marathons since retiring after the Tokyo Olympics. His “chimera” is to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
“The competitive element is a big element in terms of having a goal to keep me [motivated] – that’s the only thing that can hurt you is when you have no reason to get out of bed, tie your shoes and exercise,” he said.
“Exercise is your anti-stress, your therapy, it’s a whole lot of things.”
Athletes often seek out high adrenaline activities in search of that competitive race.
Osmond has tried snowboarding, mountain biking and surfing, and would like to try skydiving.
“I like to ride roller coasters and stuff like that,” Osmond said. “It gives me a rush. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to getting that nervous butterfly feeling. It’s one of the things I miss the most.”
Olympic bobsleigh champion Justin Kripps, who announced his retirement last month, said he had had enough adrenaline “to last a lifetime”.
“I’ve put myself in enough dangerous situations in bobsleigh,” said Kripps, who won gold in the two-man at the 2018 Games and bronze in the four-man last winter in Beijing.
Mandy Bujold, an 11-time national flyweight champion who retired after Tokyo, is pregnant with her second daughter but remains a regular at her boxing gym.
“Boxing is still something I’m very passionate about, on the physical activity side. So for me, it’s a natural outlet,” Bujold said. “And then the camaraderie, I have my teammates and the people I hang out with who have been my social circle for so long, and I still crave that.”
The two-time Olympian misses the rush that inevitably hits moments before stepping into a ring.
“There are a lot of emotions, whereas right now my life is pretty simple, you don’t have these really high ups and downs. I really miss that,” Bujold said.
Education partially funded by the government
Canadian athletes also receive $5,500 for education for each year they are funded by the federal government, up to a maximum of $27,000. It can be used for up to five years after an athlete retires.
Osmond is studying media at the University of Alberta. She first moved to Toronto after her retirement, cutting ties with the skating community, including her teammates, sports psychologist and longtime coach Ravi Walia.
“I just ran away from it all and had to figure it out myself – which didn’t go over very well,” she said.
She moved back to Edmonton a year and a half ago, to be closer to her parents and other members of her support system. She found happiness coaching at her former club, Ice Palace.
“Watching someone learn something new or understand it a little bit better is exciting for me,” Osmond said. “And then ultimately, I just want to see their joy. If I can see that they’re having fun, that gives me a lot of pride.
“I want skating to be an exciting place, because that’s what it’s been for me all my life, I loved going to the rink, I loved my friends that I had there. Everything that flowed from it was just a prime addition.”