While I was watching the Olympics I kept thinking about the short story “The 80-Yard Run,” by Irwin Shaw. It’s about a man who, looking back from a perspective of 20-odd years, concludes that his life’s highlight was a football-field play (in a scrimmage, no less), and that everything since had been downhill. It’s a sad story, leavened only by thought that the guy at least had the run to look back on.
That’s not something I think of when taking in the American-staple sports of baseball, basketball and football, all of which have come to offer lucrative futures to the keen and lucky few who qualify to play them at the highest levels. By contrast, the Olympics are the pinnacle of sports such as track and field, swimming and gymnastics, whose later commercial opportunities are few. Thus, just about all the competitors who thrilled us during last month’s Rio extravaganza will have to move on to quite-different lives, either immediately or eventually.
One might think that given the energy and discipline it takes to get to the top of any sport athletes would be likely to succeed in any endeavor they choose, but proof of that notion is elusive. Eric Heiden, the five-gold-medal speed-skating star of the 1980 Winter Olympics, and Dot Richardson, the shortstop of the U.S.’s gold-winning women’s softball teams in 1996 and 2000, both became orthopedic surgeons, and Seb Coe, the record-setting British miler, went on to become a member of Parliament and head of the world track federation, but other such examples are hard to find. Mostly, former O-Games stars can be found hanging on at the fringes of their sports, coaching, providing media commentary or hawking gear. Apparently, once you’ve heard the roar of the crowd it’s tough to leave the stage for the anonymity in which the great majority of mankind toils.
It might be ironic but the Olympian I worry most about is Michael Phelps, whose 23 gold medals over the last four Games, and 28 medals overall, makes him the most successful Olympian ever. I don’t worry about his finances—with multi-million-dollar endorsement deals in hand, and a reported net worth of more than $40 million going into this year, neither he nor his descendants need ever lift a finger in toil should they so choose.
But time can weigh heavily on the richest of us, and the 31-year-old Phelps seems at a loss for how to spend his. A swimming pro since his teens, and with little college to fall back on (he attended just a few classes at the University of Michigan after following his coach, Bob Bowman, there in 2004), his between-Olympics sojourns have been marked by lack of focus, alcohol use and, possibly, depression, making him (excuse me) a kind of fish out of water. He announced his retirement after the 2012 Games but, finding little else to do besides swim, rescinded it. Now he says he’s again retiring, and one only can hope that he finds challenges sufficient to profitably fill his remaining decades.
The Games star I worry about least is another swimmer, Maya DiRado. A late bloomer at age 23, the backstroker was a double-gold winner at Rio, surprising many, obviously including herself. Perhaps because she wasn’t a child whiz at her sport she combined it with academics at Stanford U. and emerged with a degree in management science and engineering, and a job offer from a major management-consulting firm. She should grab it without passing “Go” or collecting the $200 she might earn by lingering in her glory.
What makes moving away difficult for successful athletes is the regimentation their achievements demand on today’s fields of play. Even in such little-noticed sports such as judo and fencing competitors with Olympic aspirations must put all other pursuits on hold, devoting years to single-minded training. Schedules, usually set by others (coaches, mainly), are regulated down to the minute. Meals and sleep are programmed with an aim toward achieving maximum performance. Once the last whistle has been blown, returning to the everyday world can seem strange and alien, much like astronauts regard it after coming back from long missions.
That sense came through strongly when I read some “Where Are They Now?” pieces in a recent Sports Illustrated Magazine. One of them focused on the “Magnificent Seven,” the group that won the U.S.’s first women’s team gymnastics title at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Ranging in age from 14 to 19 years at the time, they now are women in their middle-to-late 30s.
According to the story all are doing pretty well, but not without some travail. Rather than bow out at the top of their brutally difficult sport, five stayed in training through the 2000 Olympics (but only two—Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes-- made that year’s squad), and one—Dominique Moceanu-- kept trying until injuries finally waylaid her in 2006. Three of the group—Moceanu, Jaycie Phelps and Amanda Borden—still are in the game as coaches. Shannon Miller remains involved peripherally with a company that markets video workouts and health and fitness products.
Writer Greg Bishop devoted most of the article to Dawes and Kerri Strug, who seem to have had the most-circuitous personal journeys. Strug, whose broken-ankle vault dramatically secured the U.S. gold medal, has earned bachelor’s and master’s degree from Stanford, taught in elementary school, held positions in the U.S. Justice and Treasury departments and is a wife and mother. She divides her life into two, sharply different periods, one on each side of her Games triumph. As a gymnast, she says, she traveled widely but never saw much bedsides hotels, gyms and arenas. Once on her own she was free to wander and wonder, and both were revelations. “It was really interesting to form my own thoughts and opinions,” she told Bishop. “I wasn’t used to doing that. It was liberating and scary, too.”
The more-glamorous Dawes opted for show biz after weaning herself from gymnastics, performing as a dancer, actress and model. Then she got a college degree and gravitated toward sports administration. Since 2010, she’s been co-chair of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, in addition to being a wife and mom.
She, too, spoke of a before-and-after. “I had to rewire my brain [after gymnastics],” she said. “I had to learn to let go. Look at our team in ’96—you didn’t see us smile. It was that intense. That’s why I don’t want my daughter to train for the Olympics.”