Ian Thorpe was just 14-years-old when he was selected to swim for Australia.
He was the youngest man ever to be included in one of our national sporting teams and in the four years that followed schoolboy Thorpe achieved phenomenal success on the world stage.
By the year 2000, he was 18-years-old and went into the Sydney Olympics under intense and highly visible public pressure to win. And win big.
The Daily Telegraph ran a photo of Thorpe on their front page, with a banner headline screaming INVINCIBLE below it. News reports called him Australia’s great hope for a substantial medal haul. Our sports-loving community was desperate to see Aussie athletes succeed at an Olympics on home turf.
And succeed he did; winning three gold medals and two silver in Sydney.
Like the rest of Australia, I watched Thorpe on TV back in 2000; giving poolside interviews after his races. I remember thinking he handled the media so incredibly well. Cool, calm, collected and softly spoken. Just the right mix of confidence and excitement without sounding up himself.
It wasn’t until I was older that I realised this was no accident.
Outstanding swimming talent and conversational eloquence aren’t necessarily a natural match. Thorpe, and his teammates, had been trained very well to perform in front of the press. No matter how shy, retiring or introverted these champions were naturally – significant effort and preparation went into ensuring they could put on an affable and confident show for the media.
When our athletes are young, talented and show potential for success, our community invests a huge amount of time and effort in them. They have coaches for their minds as well as their bodies. They have teachers and trainers and scientists and physios and media minders and therapists and nutritionists and sponsors and managers and publicists.
But it wasn’t until recently that people were hired whose job it is to think about what happens to these same athletes when it’s all over.
To think about what happens when the adrenaline stops racing, the crowds stop cheering and there is no grumpy phone call asking why you haven’t shown up for training at 4am.
The presumption is that athletes will move to a career in coaching, commentating or TV presenting. And if that’s not your forte, you quietly disappear from public view; to be left fumbling around for something that fills the void left by your sporting passion.
But does that have to be the case?
It was confirmed yesterday afternoon that Ian Thorpe, 31, has been checked into a rehabilitation hospital after he was found by police and ambulance officers disoriented near his parents’ home in South Sydney.
His battle with depression, which he has spoken about publicly, continues to haunt him and his transition from the world of professional swimming to the next stage of life hasn’t been a smooth one.
Clearly, there are many things at play for Ian Thorpe personally and I recognise that mental health issues are or never caused or ‘cured’ by any single factor.
But surely, preparation – both mentally and emotionally – for the time when the dizzying heights of his swimming success came to a natural end, had something to do with it.
Certainly, Thorpe’s fellow swimming teammates seem to agree. Former swimming rival, Grant Hackett told the Sydney Morning Herald that “I think over time those things, when you’re a naturally introverted person, can add up and be quite challenging to deal with and then you transition out of sport and you lose that sense of community, that real team feeling, that real strong sense of purpose that you had.”
Former swimmer Nicole Livingston has commented, “You have to get yourself prepared because when the adulation stops and it’s quiet and there’s not a lot of people around you, it’s actually really difficult…. Some people chase that for the rest of their lives rather than understanding that was one part of your life and you may never reach that high or get that feeling again.”
Sport, as a profession, has an incredibly short lifespan. Retirement isn’t something that takes place at 65 as it does in the rest of the world, it happens at 30 – and that’s if you’re really lucky and injury free. Sport is also a profession that doesn’t necessarily leave you with easily transferable skills beyond the sporting world more generally.
Our athletes give up everything, often from extremely young ages, to spend their lives in the pool, or at the gym, on the field or on the court. Study or training for any other pursuit tends to be sidelined in favour of that one extra hour of preparation for the next big event. The psychological support they receive focuses heavily on dealing with success as it happens, as it should, but not to the detriment of how to cope when the success is over.
More and more, sports are starting to get the ‘what comes next’ bit right. The AFL, for example, have had huge success in working with their athletes on transition plans to ensure that they will be happy and successful in the next phase of their lives.
Collingwood Football Club President Eddie McGuire told Mamamia “We see it for people who finish their careers at 65, where they struggle to adjust. So when a person’s career finishes at 25, the realisation that this life that has been pitched always is going to end, it’s hard… suddenly when it stops, it takes its toll”.
“It’s why we have a whole team of people from sports psychologists and psychiatrists, to careers advisers who are full time working to help the transition from the varying stages of a player’s career.”
It’s promising to see the work being done by so many sports to support their athletes after their careers are over; their commitment to doing better is worthy of applause.
So many Australians benefit from the joy, excitement, adrenaline and pride that came from watching our sporting heroes succeed. As a community, we owe it to them to make sure the next few steps in their journey are positive ones.
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Do you think athletes need to be prepared for what comes next?
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