After Olympic glory, retiring athletes often need help finding their way
Game Plan organization offers assistance in developing skills for life beyond the spotlight
For many Olympians the real agony doesn't come from defeat, but from having to say goodbye to a sport they loved and dedicated the better part of their lives to.
All elite athletes must eventually retire, often at the age when most people start their careers.
After Gavin Maxwell paddled his last race for Canada in sprint canoeing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he found himself floundering, trying to find purpose as a 29-year-old retired elite athlete.
"I was a pharmaceutical rep for about a year, I actually went back to school for human resources management … so I worked in a couple of roles in HR," he says.
"I worked as a corporate trainer, I worked as a bartender, I worked as a personal trainer, I worked as a headhunter, I sold office furniture."
He says none of those jobs lasted because nothing could match the thrill and passion of training and competing.
For me, the sport was everything. It was 100 per cent identity. I lived and breathed it.- Gavin Maxwell, retired Olympic athlete
"For me, the sport was everything. It was 100 per cent identity. I lived and breathed it," he says. "I didn't make much money doing it, so it wasn't about the money. It was about the love of the pursuit of excellence."
Maxwell finally found his calling by building on his kinesiology degree with training as a chiropractor. He's been practising in Mississauga, Ont., for over a decade, but still longs for sport.
It's a struggle that retired rower Krista Guloien knows well. She was part of Canada's silver medal winning women's eight crew at the 2012 London Olympics.
Getting to that podium was Guloien's dream ever since she started rowing at age 21.
But after the glory of the London Olympics, at just 32, Guloien retired from sport with no plan for her second career.
'The desk job was slowly killing my soul'
"It wasn't that I didn't think about it. It wasn't that I didn't prepare," she said. "I didn't have another calling that I knew at the time that I could go to."
After studying fashion merchandising, Guloien landed a job in the head office of a Vancouver sports apparel company, but it didn't last.
"The desk job was slowly killing my soul, so I decided to move on," she said.
She moved on to talking and writing about her struggle to move on from sport to a life with purpose.
That led to a book, Beyond the Finish Line: What Happens When the Endorphins Fade, which was published this month.
Guloien says the title highlights that the struggle is about more than just finding a job post-competition. Most elite athletes can achieve that. She says the struggle for many is leaving behind the natural high Olympic athletes get from competing on the world stage. Few things can compare.
'I want to do something fabulous'
"What it comes down to is, I was so passionate about what I did and I'm not willing to settle and not feel that passionate about the next thing," she said. "Yeah, I could go and join the grind, but I can't. I want to do something fabulous that I'm passionate about."
Guloien channelled that passion into the book and speaking engagements that she hopes use her struggle as lessons for anyone facing a big change in life.
But four years after she raised her oar from the water for the last time, Guloien says she's not yet found her way.
"It's still a struggle. I'm still dealing with it today. Am I doing the right thing with my time? Have I found it? What else am I good at?"
Now, there's a program aimed at helping Canada's elite athletes answer those questions. It's called Game Plan.
It's a partnership among the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees and three corporations, Deloitte, RBC and human resources company Morneau Shepell.
Game Plan offers current and retiring athletes help with career planning, networking, skill development, education and mental health, all from professionals and other former athletes.
Retired rower Jeremiah Brown is Game Plan's first director. He had started a career in corporate banking before becoming an Olympian and then struggled in returning to that life after winning silver with Canada's men's eight crew at the London Games.
'A huge identity shift'
He knows first-hand what retiring athletes face.
"Many athletes will have successful transitions," Brown says. "But we also know there are athletes who are feeling lost. There's a huge identity shift that needs to happen."
He says Game Plan will succeed if athletes feel they have real support in making the tough decisions about their futures. He also hopes the corporate partners will help open up a career market for the elite athletes.
"We've got so many great leaders in sport in these athletes," he says. "One of our missions is to connect that talent to the marketplace."
Brown says Game Plan is also trying to find ways to keep retiring athletes involved in sport through coaching and administration, which many athletes say can ease the transition from competing to watching.
- A previous version of this story mistakenly said Olympic athlete Krista Guloien started rowing at age 12. In fact, she started rowing at 21.Aug 26, 2016 2:37 PM ET