elite athletes

Retired Elite Athletes Open Up About Post-Career Battles

By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor

Last week, a Seattle Times article revealing that 1980’s cycling legend Rebecca Twigg is now homeless ricocheted around Bike World social media. In many of the posts that crossed my feed, it arrived adorned with a single word: “Shocked.”

My only shock came upon reflecting how wholly unsurprised I felt reading the story of a woman with transcendental talent who struggled to fit into a world where her gift was no longer accessible or relevant. “Once you’ve done something that feels like you’re born to do it, it’s hard to find anything that’s that good of a fit… anything else that feels that way,” Twigg told the Times.

Who You Are Shapes The Athlete You Are

A few days before the Twigg story appeared, I moderated a panel discussion of retired elite athletes for Boulder’s Conference on World Affairs entitled, “Reaching the Top of Your Game: How do sports help you be your best self?” In response to a question about how sports had helped him develop personally, Chris Thomforde, a basketball player and Sports Illustrated cover boy circa 1967, said he believed that sports do not actually create our character, but rather reveal what is already present.

On its face, this seems a positive and motivating statement, but as Twigg’s story shows, exactly how those sport-revealed traits impact an athlete may depend on the individual. In the Times article, Inga Thompson, one of Twigg’s contemporaries, noted that some of the traits that made her former teammate and competitor such a force on a bicycle were exactly what made it hard for her to exist in a traditional, workforce society.

One of the athletes on my CWA panel, soccer icon Hope Solo, cited her competitive spirit as one of the greatest gifts of her sports career. Frequently cited as one of the best female goalkeepers of all time, Solo was often criticized for fiery comments and impulsive choices — actions that could easily have been pushed along by that same spirit.

Solo’s contract with U.S. Soccer was terminated following critical comments she made about the Swedish team after they knocked the Americans out of the tournament at the 2016 Olympics. Afterward, she issued as statement that read, “I could not be the player I am without being the person I am, even when I haven’t made the best choices or said the right things.” Perhaps it is up to us to determine whether to let our strengths be a benefit or a burden — Solo now works as an outspoken equal-pay and equal-rights activist.

“Sports bring out the best and worst in us,” says CTS coach and former US National Road Champion Matthew Busche. “It is in the deepest and darkest moments that our true colors are revealed.”

Now a coach, Busche has had the opportunity to watch many athletes develop through the trials of training and competition. “You become incredibly vulnerable when you are run down and tired late in an event or during a hard training cycle. Those are the moments that define us.”

The Athlete You Are Shapes The Person You Become

In some cases, the habits that enable athletic success do carry over into the real world. George DiCarlo, a gold-medalist swimmer at the 1984 Olympics who is now a medical scientist and avid cyclist, told me his professional pursuits frequently benefit from his ability to set goals.

“I love strategy,” says DiCarlo. “I love breaking down swims, goals, other people. And I love trying to figure out how to get from A to Z in the shortest possible way. From a strategic standpoint — you tell me what you want in six months, and I’ll figure out the quickest way and break down some of the barriers to get there.”

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DiCarlo honed those techniques as a young swimmer. “From 12 years old until high school, I wrote goals every season — what the splits were, what I needed to be doing in practice, I wrote them out and I had them in my locker and I had them in my bathroom in my house,” DiCarlo said. “I saw them everywhere. By the time I got to college, I had enough under the bridge that I didn’t need to write them out, I could just keep them rolling in my head all the time.”

Sports can also help build the appetite and confidence necessary to go after those big goals in the first place. “I’ve taken those insanely hard obstacles I’ve overcome in sport to smaller challenges in daily life,” says CTS coach Jane Rynbrandt.

“Sport can give us the confidence to approach the impossible,” says CTS coach Clayton Feldman. “If that means a challenging event, high level goal, or difficult career path… The skills you learn from training, and the trust you build in yourself can have immeasurable results.”

The Downside of Singular Focus

Still, the personal-strength revelations of our sporting careers don’t always find an automatic application in the real world. During my own professional racing career, I thrived off of the challenge and motivational power of pursuing a single, consuming goal. Now, when I can’t figure out where I am going, or when the steps to get there aren’t linear, measurable workouts, I flounder.

Even champion-grade goal-setter DiCarlo admits he struggled to use his talent for strategy in the years immediately following his Olympic gold. “I lived singularly focused for August 1 and August 3. I knew those dates four years prior, and I didn’t know what August 5 was going to be, I didn’t have a clue. It’s still vivid 35 years out,” he told me this week.

Perhaps, as we look at the ways that sports participation influences our lives outside of competition or training, we must consider this: Sports can do an excellent job of teaching and revealing, but it is still up to us to remember our strength and apply what we have learned. That isn’t always an easy task.

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Comments 10

  1. Eddie B called one day and the next thing I know I was trying to help and work with RT for years. I wont go into details but one of the people that reached out to me and tried to help was Alexi. There were several others as well.

    In high school I used to live a few doors down from Alexi at the OTC. Directly across from me was RT. She could answer any question I had with homework. I could never have imagined the roads and paths these 2 would end up traveling.

  2. I’m a former pro cyclist and former teammate of Chris’. Today I’m a clinical psychologist in private practice and a musician who performs solo. As you can see, all three of my careers reveal, strengthen, and exacerbate my penchant for solitary focus, independence, and reluctance to trust my fate to others. Not surprisingly, these have been blessings and curses to myself and others.
    -Doug (Smith) Fitch

  3. So insightful and also true. A few years back, I was the producer of the Callville Bay Classic. This was an early race, February, on the twisted roads in the Lake Mead National Recreation area, a few miles outside of Las Vegas. 5 minutes from where I have lived for the past 20 plus years. I had invited Alexi G. to come stay in houseboats and race in our mini stage race. He was a previous 1984 Road Race Gold Medal winner. Similar to Mara’s subject, he was at the top of his game on one of the biggest stages in his sport, the Olympics.
    As I picked him up from the airport, his homeless story was similarly known. I had never before felt comfortable being around or picking up a person in this phase of life. That day was different. He was kind and appreciative as I picked him up. His luggage was a couple green Hefty bags. He seemed lost in thought yet present. I received some strange but brief looks from other travelers. This is Vegas after all and they were only glances. As we got to my car and I was trying to welcome Alexi and make small talk, he was appreciative and yet cautious. He must have been wondering what my angle was. It was pure PR. I admitted it and he seemed appreciative of the honesty. I also was truly interested in the story. Alexi was a former Olympic Road Race gold medal winner. Now he was homeless in Colorado. He had what he described as few true friends. He was a caring father and apparently a talented finish carpenter in Colorado. Over the next few days we exchanged stories about raising sons, our successes and failures. We read scriptures together. He shared his thoughts on God. I really enjoyed my time and have a few priceless pictures snapped by Brian Black Hodes, our race photog. There was one moment however that has stuck with me over the last decade that has made a huge impact.
    On our way from the airport to the race site where we would stay on the lake in a 5 bedroom houseboat for a few days, I asked Alexi what advice he would give me if I were to attempt to guide my sons into the competitive race world. He paused, gazed out the window and without looking back at me said, “Count the cost.” It was a sad statement. It didn’t remain there as he continued with a bit of upbeat council. He stated that his transition could have been more smooth if during the time outside of racing, training or resting, one would have prepared for that inevitable day when the racing would end. Don’t let racing and the attention it would bring completely define who you are. It’s too brief of a moment in ones life.
    “Count the cost” has echoed in my mind since that day. It wasn’t advice against racing. It wasn’t bitter. It was direction as to how to make your dreams work and make the sacrifice blend in a worthwhile mixture of sacrifice and happiness.
    Alexi never claimed to be a victim. He knew his eccentric ways had the isolating effects. He seemed more happy homeless and honest than living whatever lies from his past he had lived at times. It was one of the most strangely pleasant times of my life.
    Thanks again, Alexi. I feel somehow this will get back to you.
    And Mara or Chris, I would love to meet you both personally. If ever you are in Vegas and need anything, my door is open.

  4. Mara:
    I really enjoyed this article and appreciate your research and thoughts on this complex topic. Thanks for taking this on.

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  6. Upon reading the article on Rebecca, a lot of what she experiences resonates with me. I was of the same era, but never close to the talent level of the elites of that era. I was of enough talent to compete in the same races but was always, as an old friend described himself, an “Olympic doubtful”. Nonetheless my desire, commitment and mindset was very much the same of the most talented.

    Once my desire to compete at such a high level waned I managed a cycling team for two years, the last year in ’92 I had the privilege of being in the same organization as Rebecca.

    I forwarded the article about Rebecca to my wife. As she read it and the struggles for athletes to find their place in the workforce, she thought “that is my husband”. I’ve always said that I would struggle to work in a corporate setting or for someone else. Having had my own business as sole proprietor for the past 18 years now, it parallels what I enjoyed about the cycling lifestyle, much time by myself, being solely responsible for my own success. This is not always a positive thing, but it is the way that I am wired.

    The article on Rebecca helps me to understand more about myself and my colleagues from my days of involvement in the cycling world. I’m wired differently, she is wired differently, we are all inherently individual in our being. It is what makes us all fascinating and challenging at the same time.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this Chris. It helps a lot.

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