From Victory to the Void

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Duncan armstrong wasn't the most graceful swimmer of his time, but you'd have been pushed to find a more determined one. Driven by a deep love of swimming and raging ambition, he sometimes won, it seemed, by sheer force of will. In this vein, his masterwork occurred at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where he sliced nearly 3 sec. off his previous best time to win the 200-m freestyle. In interviews afterward, the world glimpsed a confident, engaging man who looked likely to demolish any obstacle life put in front of him.

Nine years later, Armstrong sat before a psychologist, confused and miserable. His marriage had failed, his two young sons were living with their American mother on the other side of the world, and he was routinely squandering large sums of money. But his problems went deeper. Truth was, this sporting hero-raised in Queensland and nicknamed "The Animal"-felt worthless.

Armstrong had a bad case of what most former athletes experience in the months or years after they retire. Unable to let go of their time in sport and adjust to normal life, they can develop what psychologists now recognize as sports retirement stress. Some sufferers, craving the euphoria they tasted in competition, turn to drugs. More common are periods of depression as retirees search for a new self-image. The affliction can destroy all kinds of relationships, says Melbourne-based sports psychologist Dr. Jeff Simons. "It can make you angry, miserable, demanding or plain odd,"he says. "You don't know how to deal with yourself, so how can you deal with others?"

Though only recently given a name, SRS has surely existed since the great chariot racers of the ancient Olympics took their final bow. But since the 1970s, as sport has evolved into an increasingly high-stakes business in which professional athletes pursue victory ruthlessly, it's been spitting out droves of young people who are ill equipped for life beyond the arena. Only recently have sporting bodies begun to prepare athletes for the shock and give them the skills they'll need in the wider world. Says former Olympic swimmer Martin Roberts, who had his own mild case of SRS and now manages the Australian Institute of Sport's Athlete Career Education (ACE) program: "Australia is a world leader in this area, but we've still only scratched the surface in understanding the full impact on a person of a decade or more spent in the world of elite sport."

The best athletes know soaring highs, or what former Russian weightlifter Yuri Vlasov called "white moments."At the peak of tremendous and victorious effort,"he explained, "everything seems clearer and whiter than ever before, as if great spotlights had been turned on. At that moment you have the conviction that you contain all the power in the world ... There is no more precise moment in life than this, the white moment, and you will work hard for years just to taste it again."

Many athletes share such moments with the closest friends they'll ever make. Paul Salmon is a great of Australian Rules football who, after a year in retirement, has returned to play the 2002 season. As a father of three with roles in business and the media, Salmon had a full life outside of football. "But I wasn't prepared for the hole that retirement would leave,"he says. "The camaraderie in football, the team environment ... it's cult-like. You get brainwashed into a system, and all of a sudden you're cut loose-and the expectation is that you'll be right."

Australia's best known SRS sufferer was swimmer Shane Gould, who at age 15 won three gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, and retired shortly afterward feeling confused and depersonalized by sporting fame. In her recent autobiography, Tumble Turns, Gould recalls her subsequent stint in a New South Wales boarding school, where one night she broke down, describing to a friend "how I had built a brick wall ... to protect myself from others getting close and seeing that I wasn't the golden girl, the goldfish, the ideal Australian girl who was without fault."

Some 15 years later-most of them spent living in voluntary poverty-a psychologist gave Gould some early writings on SRS. Reading them that night in 1990, "a feeling of rage developed deep inside me."Checking off the symptoms of a condition she'd never heard of, Gould was furious that no one had told her about it, yet relieved there was a name for the thing that had plagued her all these years. She became preoccupied with the topic, discussing it with former athletes, suggesting it as a storyline for TV dramas and eventually having a business card made up. "I think,"she writes, "I was the world's first sports retirement consultant."

Any relief retiring athletes may feel about an end to constant injuries and relentless training can be eclipsed by a sense that their best days are behind them, that they're now nobodies in a dreary yet complicated world. And such is the mollycoddling many athletes receive, their fears of being unable to cope are often justified. Recruiting for the Melbourne Storm rugby league club in the late '90s, chief executive Chris Johns gave this speech to an undecided 21-year-old: "We want to supply you with every single resource so you don't have to think about anything. All you have to do is think about training, looking after yourself and playing on the weekend. We're going to take all the worry out of your life."Not surprisingly, the player signed up.

A very different message is being delivered to inductees to the AIS and state sports institutes, where the ACE program has been in place since 1995. Athletes-some as young as 10-are handed a brochure that says, in part: "So you have a talent in sport ... That's great. But ... remember that it is unlikely that your entire life will be sport ... It is vital, and possible, to prepare for life after sport while achieving your sporting goals."To this end, athletes are nudged toward outside activities like study or part-time work, enrolled in various personal development courses and encouraged to talk with retired athletes. When they themselves retire, they benefit from an AIS adjunct program-Athlete Transition Services-which offers referrals where necessary and allows for continued use of AIS facilities for a further year. If this induces them to continue training, all the better: on top of their other problems, retired sports people can be distressed to see their finely tuned bodies turn soft.

These measures came too late for former swimmer Armstrong-now 33 and a clear-eyed picture of contentment. Armstrong argues that lurking within elite sport is "this great conspiracy to keep you immature."Coaches are in on it, he says, because immature athletes are easier to control and don't ask tricky questions about the ultimate worth of what they're doing; media, sponsors and the public also prefer their athletes innocent and simple. "In swimming,"says Armstrong, "the general rule is that the guy who can stay 15 longest-mentally-will win longer. He keeps it simple: he goes to the pool, trains, goes on a trip, wins, comes home and trains."

Outside this routine during much of the '90s, Armstrong was lost. His bank gave him an overdraft account, but he had no idea what an overdraft was. He bought a house sight unseen, "and it was a bad house ... I knew how to be competitive and I knew how to win,"he says, "but I didn't know how to walk into a store and buy groceries."His own nagging suspicion that he'd left swimming prematurely made him bitter. "Someone would mention Kieren Perkins' latest feat and I'd go, ÔYeah, but I can do that,'"he says. As a swimming commentator for TV, he'd see the winner's time posted and think, "That's rubbish"-and have to stop himself from saying it. "I had a chip on my shoulder whispering to me all the time."There was another problem. "Sport,"Armstrong says, "programs you to look at the public with a bit of pity, with a sense of superiority, because you're doing something noble: you're training for the Olympics. Then, all of a sudden, you're one of them and you have to change. Some people can't do it. They can't shake the aloofness, the brashness, the abruptness."

It doesn't help, argues psychologist Simons, that the public tends to have little sympathy for the plight of former athletes. Most people, he says, wrongly assume that successful sports people are set for life. On the other hand, some retired athletes don't help themselves by whining that they've made sacrifices for their country and are now owed a living. "I really hate hearing that,"says the AIS's Roberts. "No one has their arm twisted to have a crack at elite sport."

A first step toward adjustment can be for the retiring athlete to accept that he or she will never again experience anything so exquisite as a "white moment."Roberts recalls receiving almost exactly that warning from a psychologist after he retired from swimming in 1996-and being annoyed by it. Now he concedes that the guy had a point. In sport, he says, "there's this constant testing of yourself, discovering your strengths and frailties and uncovering aspects of your competitiveness that you wouldn't have known you had."Yes, it's possible to apply the qualities he needed in swimming to everyday life, "but it's quite rare to find something that forces you to get the best out of yourself."

Some react to the void by frantically pursuing success elsewhere. Former rower Megan Marcks (nŽe Still), half of Australia's Olympic gold-medal-winning coxless pair in 1996, says she pushed herself to become "some sort of corporate highflier"in the years after Atlanta. Now an administrator at the Australian Capital Territory Institute of Sport, Marcks, 29, says she still fights her own "silly perceptions"that people in her hometown of Queanbeyan, near Canberra, expect her to conquer another field. Former world boxing champion Jeff Fenech, 37, felt similar pressures, but made no attempt to resist them. "After boxing, I didn't want to do something and be a failure,"he says. "I wanted to prove that what I learned through my career, through mixing with [business] people, put me in good stead for life after."These days he's making good money from his own range of sporting goods, and from promoting bouts and training fighters. Still, Fenech's adjustment took time. In a sport whose combatants seem less able than any other group to accept the dimming of the spotlight, Fenech made three comebacks-two of them unsuccessful. But unlike many former boxers, he says, "I find it very easy to live with the fact that I was beaten."

Many in sport feel driven to dispel the notion that only those who are prepared to sacrifice everything will excel. The ACE program is compulsory for the 3,000-odd scholarship holders in 36 sports across the country, and has been adopted in the past few years by New Zealand and the U.K.; similar programs operate in the U.S. collegiate system and in Europe. Roberts says it may take another 10 years of tracking retired athletes before it's known for sure whether ACE works, but "every indication"is encouraging. Elsewhere, in professional sports like cricket and the football codes, the growth of players' associations is improving the post-sport prospects of thousands of Australian athletes.

Former gymnast Brennon Dowrick, 30, is a pin-up of the ACE program. At first glance, his experience looks like a blueprint for SRS: a record stint of 16 years at the AIS, starting when he was 12. He became Australia's best gymnast, his career ending unhappily when he failed to make the team for Sydney 2000. Dowrick, however, carried into his new life a degree in journalism. He's eyeing work in the media, but for now is busy on the public speaking circuit, with a presentation that includes his favorite pommel-horse routine. "I haven't had a void at all,"he says. "I still get a rush from my talks. They're not highs like I've had in the past-wouldn't it be lovely if you could get those highs for your whole life? But you can't, and that's what makes them special."Learning to let go of the white moments may be the best way to avoid the void.

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