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Life after Games: Reflections of a Retired Athlete

As the XX Commonwealth Games draws to a close in Glasgow, I have to admit, I am a little relieved. Not because yet another great sporting event is over, but because I don’t think my emotions can take much more.

Year in year out it is the same; hundreds of athletes from around the globe come together to experience what it is like to be part of an exclusive event that most people can only dream of participating in. Less than 1% of athletes who compete in sport will become elite, so odds on, most of us will never fully understand what this experience means to an athlete. (strengthplanet.com)

Yet for many, these events are tinged with sadness. A heavy heart because they’ll never get the chance to be there again, they won’t race against the best in the world, win international medals again, nor watch our flag be raised above the podium.

Despite this heavy heart though, I can’t take my eyes of the television. As with most of the nation, I leap off my seat and shout incredibly loudly at the athletes, willing them on, sharing their joy, and occasionally the inevitable pain.

This was no more apparent that in the final event in the swimming pool, the men’s 4x100 Medley relay. I did what most parents tell their children not to do, and got as close as I feasibly could to the TV with every metre that England edged towards the gold. Ousting the Aussies in an event everyone expected them to win. What a way to end 6 days of high class competition.

Through the entire event, I have had to resign myself to the fact that once again I am back on the emotional rollercoaster of memories, flashbacks, highs, lows, tears...a spiralling downfall of negative emotions, that if not contained, can have quite an impact on the normality of a retired athletes day to day life.

You only have to look at the Face book newsfeed of a retired athlete to see the huge numbers of status updates and photos related to past events, and the level of nostalgia us ‘oldies’ succumb to for the duration of a championship event.

Having had many a conversation in the past 7 days with my retired athlete friends, there are a few repeated emotions that are being experienced by all that make you realise you aren’t alone, and at times like this, the nation is in it together.

The Tears

Extreme highs and crushing lows are normal part of life as an athlete or coach. As a spectator this is actually no different, from the stands of the Games you see every face filled with expectation, joy and the tears that will come with both success and failure. Audiences see athletes at their strongest and at their most vulnerable. A retired athlete can see the same but they also know what lies beneath and what comes next, and for some the tears flow because you are reliving your own experiences as you watch others.

Pride

How many people have dreamed of representing their country? How many people actually get to represent their country. For an athlete the feeling of wearing your country’s colours is an amazing feeling, and when retired you quite simply have to recall that feeling. Close your eyes, listen to your national anthem and feel that swell of pride when you realise than that was once you. Yes, that was me, I did that, I represented my country, and I should be proud to remember it.

Self esteem

There is no doubt that retirement can affect the self esteem of an individual. And when events such as the Commonwealth games come around, this can trigger old feelings that may not have been dealt with or that sit just beneath the surface. Athletes are judged by how they perform, and self esteem is directly linked to how performances have been perceived. In a world of social media people should be very careful as to the impact their comments could have on an athlete, who at the end of the day is only human. Those of us who are longer retired will battle at times during major events with self esteem issues recalling past experiences that may or may not have has the desired successful outcome.

Life’s journey

It was the end of an era, and now we are on a different journey. Retirement is a difficult concept to understand, to know that life no longer revolves around the rigid structured approach that training involves. You think everything it going to change, that people won’t respect you anymore now that you are ‘normal’. Your sport defined you, it made you who you were, but actually, nothing changes. You are the still the same person, with the same family, and the same friends. You are just on the next part of your journey, with one incredible story to tell from your past.

Life’s a Measure

Someone one said ‘Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away’. Being an athlete will provide many moments that take your breath away, and upon finding yourself years down the line retired and reminiscing of days gone by, they need to be remembered for what they were. Take those moments, relive them, and in the words of Dr Seuss: ‘ Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened’

The variety of emotions everyone involved in Games has, can impact on people in very different ways. No-one if free from embracing our national pride, and  athletes, parents, coaches, spectators and our future competitors should be prepared now for feelings of loss that will be experienced when the Games draw to a close.

But for now I will be smiling, my athletic career is long behind me, it is moments in time confined to the history books, international medals that sit in the loft, but my memories live on in my heart. However, despite all this, and as much as it shames me to admit, I will be relieved now the Games are over to return to a state whereby I can push the nostalgic memories to the back of my mind. At least until the next time....!