You've been an Olympic champion and a top competitor in a sport that hasn't set you up for life. What do you do when that career ends? That's the question New York Times reporter Karen Crouse recently explored with Olympic freestyle skiing champion Hannah Kearney.
Crouse joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Hannah Kearney, the subject of your story, will retire from competition in just a couple of months at the age of 28. She had been told many times, apparently, that having been an Olympic champion would set her up for life. Why hasn’t it?
Imagine what it's like to be 19 or 28 and feel in some respects as if your best days are behind you.Karen Crouse, New York Times
So while your peers are going to classes and figuring out what they want to do for the rest of their lives, you are singularly devoted to this pursuit of excellence in a sport that doesn't really translate into the working world in any quantitative sense.
Now, as Hannah told me, she's facing the prospect of being 30 years old and entering the job market with 21-, 22-year-olds. Meanwhile, the people her age are already on their second, third or fourth jobs as they're climbing the career ladder.
BL: Has she decided what she's going to try to do after she retires?
KC: She does not really know what she wants to do with the rest of her life. She has interests for sure. She loves cooking, she loves food, she loves the idea of, perhaps, being a nutritionist or working in strength and conditioning because she was telling me that all of the younger competitors on the U.S. National Team sort of follow her around like little ducklings in the weight room, saying, "What do we do next, Hannah? What do we do?"
And so she was saying, "Hmm, maybe I could be a strength and conditioning coach." So she in some ways is mature beyond her years and in some ways is less mature than her age would suggest.
BL: Some of our listeners are going to say, "Hey, why should I feel sorry for Olympians?" "They've had a heck of a ride. They're still young and strong." Are those folks missing how challenging the transition from Olympian to uncelebrated citizen can be for some athletes?
[sidebar title="It's Boston: USOC Tabs Hub As U.S. Bid For 2024 Olympics" width="630" align="right"] The Chicago Tribune's Phil Hersh explains why Boston got the nod — and why the U.S. has a better shot to land these games than it did for 2012 and 2016. [/sidebar]KC: I cover swimming quite extensively, and I look at Michael Phelps and the travails that he has had. And this is a perfect example of someone whose focus has been singularly on swimming success. Imagine what it's like to be 19 or 28 and feel in some respects as if your best days are behind you.
I asked Hannah, "Is the challenge for you to build a life so that your obituary isn't one sentence: Hannah Kearney, who won a gold medal at the 2010 Olympics?" Her challenge is: How do I fill out the rest of that story?
BL: Michael Phelps, of course, is not alone. Australia's greatest Olympian, swimmer Ian Thorpe, has battled depression and substance abuse. I wonder if Hannah Kearney is better prepared than most for life after the medals because she's at least thought about it?
KC: I think she definitely is. And I talked to other Olympians who said, "I am not worried about Hannah Kearney at all. She's gonna be a success in whatever she does because she's at least recognizing the trap."
So I think it's something worth considering for every elite athlete that, you know, as much as you feel invincible and feel that this is going to be your life for as many years as you can imagine, there is going to be time where you are going to have to reinvent yourself, hopefully using your tools that are in your toolbox as a result of all these years spent in the pursuit of excellence.
This segment aired on January 17, 2015.