Doug Vandor faces unexpected challenges of post-rowing life

Doug Vandor faces unexpected challenges of post-rowing life

‘I no longer even recognized myself in the mirror’

By Doug Vandor for CBC Sports
January 6, 2016
Retiring from rowing wasn't the smooth transition Doug Vandor had hoped. (Photo courtesy Kevin Light Photography) Retiring from rowing wasn't the smooth transition Doug Vandor had hoped. (Photo courtesy Kevin Light Photography)

Change is difficult. We only make changes reluctantly, and then, only if absolutely necessary. It is much easier that way.

As a retired Olympic athlete, I am in the midst of my own change. I retired from Canada’s rowing team in 2013, one year after the London Olympics and before my 40th birthday.

Having talked to many retired athletes before the end of my career, I was prepared for what I was told was going to be a challenging transition. It was going to take anywhere from two to four years, I was advised, to get "sport" out of my system.

“Two to four years?”

Not me, I thought to myself. I was ready to retire. I was ready to move on. I was ready for life’s challenges beyond the rowing venues of the world.

But then I retired.

My funding was revoked and my sponsor stopped sending monthly cheques. My goal of winning the Olympics, which had been a part of me since childhood, was all of a sudden irrelevant. I no longer had to show up at the lake at 7:30 every morning. Overnight, I was no longer an athlete.

In a strange way, I felt as if my identity was being rescinded. Who was I? I no longer even recognized myself in the mirror. My muscles began to atrophy and my clothes no longer fit properly. In an attempt to hold onto the past, three-hour bouts of exercise in search of endorphins and the old body became commonplace, to little avail.

All of this made me scared and feel lost.

“But why?” I kept asking myself. This had been what I had wanted. I knew this day was coming, so why was I feeling as if I was losing my self-worth? Why did I feel confused?


‘Rowing was my passion’

I had been a member of Canada’s national rowing team since 2001. I was dedicated, determined, but most of all fanatical about what I did. Rowing was my passion. It was the fuel that sustained me.

I had rowed for so long that it became not only what I loved to do, but who I was. Rowing defined me. I was not a person who liked rowing; I was a rower, period. I breathed, lived and dreamed the sport.

But after hanging up my oars, it felt like I had lost something. It felt like I had gone into mourning. Indeed, I was in mourning, not only for a career that was over and for a lifestyle that had passed, but also for a post-athletic future that felt doomed from the outset.

After spending more than a decade training and competing with the world’s elite, I was frightened that anything I did moving forward was not going to live up to the hype of what I had poured my heart and soul into for the last 12 years. The prospect at being mediocre in life’s next chapter was also unnerving.

I felt despair. I felt old.

I knew how hard I had worked to be an elite rower. Was I going to be able to achieve that kind of success in a new enterprise? Was I going to have the energy, the capabilities or the wherewithal to manage this new reality of entry-level jobs while being managed by individuals half my age?

It felt bizarre to feel so conflicted. My focus had been so clear for so long. Now I was disoriented about a decision I had made and had accepted for myself.

Now at peace with retirement, Vandor  works behind the scenes with both of Canada's rowing and boxing teams. (Photo courtesy Doug Vandor) Now at peace with retirement, Vandor works behind the scenes with both of Canada's rowing and boxing teams. (Photo courtesy Doug Vandor)

Healing powers of time

Three years on, I see things quite differently, partly because of the great support that I have surrounded myself with, and mostly because of the healing powers of time.

Time allowed me to work through the emotions that were thrust onto me after I stopped doing what I loved to do. It also allowed my body the time to acclimatize to no longer training six hours a day, something that it was accustomed to.

Eventually, instead of bringing consternation and anxiety, past memories started bringing a quiet smile to my face. And as this happened, I was able to draw from my experiences and give back to sport in a positive way.

I experienced this for the first time at the Pan American Games this past summer, as I worked behind the scenes with the successful rowing and boxing teams.

I relished seeing the athletes' passion. It was infectious and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to support them in any way that I could. And witnessing them trying to be their best made me want to be at the top of my game as well, a feeling I had not experienced for some time.

As I reflected on my own career and what it was that I had needed to succeed on the big stage, I was able to anticipate the athletes' requirements. This allowed me to be two steps ahead of them, providing them with what they needed.

Something as simple as ordering a private van to whisk the boxers back to the downtown athletes' village from their Oshawa, Ont., venue, instead of waiting around on tired legs for a late shuttle following an evening of bouts, paid dividends in their next round of fights.

I was able to foresee the importance of these small acts because I had once walked in their shoes. My insight, in some small way, was contributing to their success.

Working with the athletes also made me think of the commonalities that we shared.

Characteristics such as hard work, determination and perseverance! All traits that are still a part of who I am.

These are the qualities that allowed me to reach the highest levels of competition, and I will draw upon these in order to succeed in my next career, as I did this past summer in Toronto.

Failing never stopped Vandor before, and it won't in the next phase of his life. (Photo courtesy Doug Vandor) Failing never stopped Vandor before, and it won't in the next phase of his life. (Photo courtesy Doug Vandor)

Who I am

I may no longer be one of them, but I am still a hard worker, I am still determined, I will always persevere and I will once again succeed.

This is who I am.

And for me, this is what is important to remember.

I triumphed and failed in the past, and I will continue to do both in the future.

Failing never stopped me before, precisely because of my persevering tendencies, so there is no reason that it will dictate my path today.

This makes me excited for what lies ahead, even though I cannot always see through the fog.

And though I will always cherish my years on the team, rowing was simply one chapter, albeit a great one, in the multi-chapter novel of life.

This I know for sure.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

(Large photos courtesy Kevin Light Photography)

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