I was driving home from a ski tour with a friend when we heard on the radio that Lindsey Vonn had announced her retirement from ski racing. My friend’s immediate reaction was “Good.”
He didn’t mean he was glad to see her go. He just felt as if it was enough. He was tired of hearing that she’d been injured again. He wasn’t sure why she was hanging on — subjecting herself to more pain, more surgeries, more injuries — when she’d accomplished so much. In his mind it was time for her to bask in her glory and enjoy her earnings.
But quitting a sport isn’t quite so simple, especially a sport on which you’ve focused your entire life. Especially when the sport has become something other than simply sport — when it is your identity, your motivation, your dream, your goal and your paycheck. Suddenly, when that ends, who are you?
I have never been a professional athlete, nor has my career been linked to my physical performance the way Lindsey Vonn’s has, but I had a time when my life revolved around a single sport.
I rowed crew all through college. A three-season sport, crew meant training from September through June. We traveled to Florida to get on the water in the spring. We ate dinner as a team after practice. We competed against one another for a place on a boat and then with each other against our rivals. For my four years of college, rowing was my identity, my social circle, my primary athletic pursuit and the activity that occupied most of my time.
Then senior year, at the very end of the season, I was cut. Our coach had decided not to take our eight to the nationals, opting instead to bring a four. Two members of our boat weren’t interested in going; that left six of us vying for four seats. My coach decided not to take the seniors, choosing to give his returning underclassmen more experience.
I was devastated. With his words, “Molly won’t be going,” my rowing career was over. I walked out of that meeting unsure of who I was and what I would do with myself. There was no reason for me to go to the gym, no reason to lift weights or work out. I would probably never get into a rowing shell again. I felt disoriented and lost in my new freedom.
On a very limited scale I experienced a bit of the strange sensation professional athletes must feel when their careers end. I suddenly had no sense of identity and purpose. I had no idea why I needed to get out of bed in the morning, as no one was expecting me in the weight room. It didn’t matter if I opted to party hard into the night or eat too much or slack off on my training or even train at all. My time as a rower was over, and the next crop of athletes was already filling in my shoes.
If that experience was humbling and disorienting for me, as a college athlete, I can only imagine what it’s like for professionals. For example, I’ve been reading a lot of stories in The New York Times lately about the price football players have paid for their careers. It’s not only brain injuries; many are also addicted to pain medications. Some can barely move after years of injuries and surgeries. Others struggle with their weight and find themselves facing chronic illness as a result of their obesity.
Lindsey Vonn told reporters her body had given out. She was just too battered to continue ski racing. She is only 34.
We ask a lot of our athletes. They are our modern-day heroes. They inspire us, challenge us, awe us and feed our dreams. We talk about them as if they are, in fact, us, saying, “We won!” when our teams are victorious or our idols succeed. We wear jerseys with our favorite’s name or number emblazoned on the back. We read about their love lives, their diets and their training regimes. We forget they are just young men and women who have given up their lives in pursuit of excellence. We forget they are still young men and women when they retire at 30-something, or 20-something and suddenly have to fend for themselves without the guiding influence of their sport.
I think it must be very disconcerting for these athletes. It’s not that I feel sorry for Lindsey. She’s rich and beautiful and has had an incredibly successful career. I have no doubt she will land on her feet and live a full and rewarding life. But I do feel for her as she figures out how to navigate this next phase. I feel even more for those athletes who don’t quite get to her level, but who have also made incredible sacrifices for their sport, and who, upon retirement, face a long, empty journey that has lost its purpose.
Not all professional athletes flounder after retirement. Many find success in varied careers, some linked to the sport they pursued for so long, some in entirely different fields. But I would guess all of them go through that strange anticlimax of the first day of the rest of their lives when the meaning of their entire previous existence is no longer relevant.
I remember my mother telling me she was grateful for being an OK athlete at a lot of sports. She enjoyed the versatility of her pursuits without having to deal with the pressure of excellence. It’s not that she was a bad athlete, but she didn’t have any ego attached to the outcome, and that freed her to just have fun. Fun. I wonder if Lindsey Vonn has been having fun skiing these past few years. I wonder if skiing will be fun for her now.
Going back to my college experience, I’d have to say rowing was never fun. It was always linked to performance. Always. The joy I felt rowing came from success. It came after the event was over, when we won. And that joy was real. For a few minutes, a few days, we were on top of the world, but then the feeling was gone, replaced by the knowledge that we had to do it again. That we were only as good as our latest win. I suspect that feeling is not an unfamiliar one for professional athletes.
Which makes me realize that I am now in my mother’s shoes. I am an OK athlete, but there is nothing tied to my performance beyond my own personal fulfillment. Whether that sense of fulfillment has to do with a particular goal or fun varies, but ultimately I am grateful that I am under no obligation to risk injury, endure pain and humiliation, or face disappointing others when I go out to enjoy my recreational pursuits.