Many high-level athletes struggle with 'unravelling of identity' in retirement

·9 min read

Kaetlyn Osmond has been like a boat adrift at sea.

Four years after retiring from competition, the world figure skating champion says she's just now starting to find her feet as a former athlete.

"Definitely more difficult than expected," Osmond said. "Mentally, retirement is difficult because you lose a large part of your identity you've had your whole life."

The past few weeks have seen several high-profile athletes retire. Serena Williams announced she is "evolving away from tennis." WNBA legend Sue Bird retired after 21 years in the league. And Roger Federer announced his retirement on Thursday, saying the Laver Cup, Sept. 23-25 in London will be his final tournament.

Cara Button, who has counselled Canadian athletes on retirement for 16 years, says while some find it relatively easy to move on, no athlete makes the transition completely unscathed.

"Identity is huge. Who am I, if I'm not an athlete? How do I introduce myself? What's interesting about me outside of sport?" Button said. "It's also grieving the loss of what they loved doing that they can no longer do."

Button is the senior manager of Game Plan, which was established seven years ago by the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees and the country's network of sport institutes as a high-performance wellness and transition program.

The 26-year-old Osmond captured the world title in 2018 a month after winning bronze in women's singles at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

She was only 22, and hadn't planned on retiring that year.

"So, when I stepped out of it, I wasn't prepared," she said. "All I knew is that I just I couldn't convince myself to train anymore, compete anymore."

Cutting the tether, however, came with an immediate and deep sense of loss.

"There was a loss of validation," she said. "For a long time, you're the centre of conversation, you're trending on social media. And then the next thing you know you are completely forgotten."

Osmond's body image issues that nagged her as a skater magnified after retirement.

"I couldn't convince myself to go into a gym," the 26-year-old said. "And once I started feeling my body change — obviously because I wasn't training five hours a day and focusing solely on how I looked and how my body functioned — I started struggling a lot, and actually going into a gym, I started having panic attacks.

"It was almost two full years before I could convince myself to go into a gym ... It's been four years and I'm still trying to get into the gym without feeling that sort of panic."

Miranda Ayim, former captain of Canada's women's basketball team, retired after her third Olympics in Tokyo. She crashed at her parents' home for a full week after the Games.

"I just had quality time with them," she said "A few tears may have been shed, but you need that grieving and transition process and having people around you who can support you through that."

The 34-year-old, who played her final six pro seasons in France, said being prepared is key. She quoted Carl Jung: "Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will rule your life and you will call it Fate."

"Be conscious about the reality of the transition, that it's not going to be easy, your whole identity as an athlete is wrapped up in your sport, and has been for so long, so realize that there's going to be a bit of unravelling of that identity," she said. "And that's going to be a bit of a painful process."

Short-track speedskating star Charles Hamelin retired after his fifth Olympics in Beijing. He'd originally planned to step away after the 2018 Games, so the 38-year-old had extra time to brace himself for the impact.

"It gave me four more years to make sure that everything was in place for my retirement," Hamelin said. "And so, I wasn't scared."

He has co-owned Nagano Skate, a company that sells speedskating equipment and offers coaching through its academy, since 2016. After a busy summer that included marrying his longtime partner Genevieve Tardif and honeymooning in South Africa, he started a full-time job Sept. 1 as director of operations at SODEM, a company that owns recreational facilities in Quebec.

The six-time Olympic medallist can rattle off the date of his last practice. It was April 8.

"People ask me 'Do you miss it, do you (wish you could) go back on the ice and train?' and I'm like, 'No way,'" he laughed. "I went to see (skaters) a couple times during the summer practise and race. And I was just happy to be on the other side of the boards watching them, that was really, really fun. I don't miss the pain in my legs during practice for short-track speedskating."

Nam Nyugen called it a career after the Canadian figure skating championships in January. The 24-year-old, who won the world junior title in 2014, now coaches hockey players in power skating. Jack McBain of the Arizona Coyotes and Paul Ludwinski, the Kingston Frontenacs forward and Chicago Blackhawks' second-round draft pick, are among his clients.

What does he miss from figure skating?

"Nothing," Nguyen said, then added, "I miss performing for the audience. But in actuality, there really isn't much that I miss from figure skating. The last two years as an athlete really messed me up mentally (due to the COVID-19 pandemic)."

Nguyen, who purchased hockey skates and a stick for his new gig — he delightedly said his shoulders are sore from learning how to shoot a puck — watched a sectional figure skating competition recently. It failed to rekindle any love for the sport.

"It just pushed me away further because I remembered how awful I felt during my warm-up and how nervous I felt, and sitting there in front of the TV, I'm like, 'I'm so glad I'm not doing this anymore.'

"I still refuse to teach figure skating. I'm just in love with this new stuff that I'm pursuing right now."

Finding consistency in physical fitness can be problematic post-retirement, Button said. Some, like former field hockey captain Scott Tupper, take up long-distance running.

"Because they do feel they need a goal to set," Button said.

Tupper, an assistant coach of the University of Maryland women's team, has completed a couple of half-marathons since retiring after the Tokyo Olympics. His "pipe dream" is to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

"The competitive element is an important part in terms of having a target to keep me (motivated) … that is the one thing that can hurt you is when you don't have a reason to roll out of bed and lace up your shoes and exercise," he said.

"Exercise is your stress reliever, your therapy, it's a whole bunch of things."

Athletes often seek out high-adrenalin activities in search of that competitive rush.

Osmond has tried snowboarding, mountain biking and surfing, and would love to try skydiving.

"I like going on roller-coasters and stuff like that," Osmond said. "That gives me a rush. That's the closest thing I found to getting that nervous butterfly feeling. That's one of the things I miss the most."

Olympic bobsled champion Justin Kripps, who announced his retirement last month, said he's had enough adrenalin "to last a lifetime."

"I've put myself in enough dangerous situations bobsledding," said Kripps, who won gold in the two-man at the 2018 Games, and bronze in four-man this past winter in Beijing.

"What I'll miss … is that feeling of working with your team … It's all happening in a minute or two minutes, the race is so intense and then it's over and you have a huge celebration," said Kripps, 35, who is now a Canadian team coach. "That's going to be very difficult to recreate."

Mandy Bujold, an 11-time national flyweight champion who retired after Tokyo, is pregnant with her second daughter, but remains a regular at her boxing gym.

"Boxing is still something I'm very passionate about … the physical activity side of it. So for me, it's a natural outlet," Bujold said. "And then the camaraderie, I have my teammates and people that I hang out with that have been my social circle for so long, and I still crave that."

The two-time Olympian misses the rush that inevitably hits moments before climbing into a ring.

"There's lots of emotions, whereas right now my life is pretty simple, you don't have those really high highs and really low lows. I definitely miss that," Bujold said.

Canadian athletes also receive $5,500 toward education for every year they're federally funded, up to a maximum of $27,000. It can be used for up to five years after an athlete retires.

Osmond is taking media studies at the University of Alberta. She initially moved to Toronto post-retirement, cutting ties with the skating community, including her teammates, sports psychologist, and longtime coach Ravi Walia.

"I just ran away from it all and was left to figure it out myself — which didn't go very well," she said.

She moved back to Edmonton a year-and-a-half ago, to be closer to her parents and others in her support system. She's found happiness in coaching at her old club, the Ice Palace.

"Watching someone learn something new or understand it a little bit better, is exciting for me," Osmond said. "And then ultimately, I just want to see their joy. If I can see that they're having fun, that gives me a lot of pride.

"I want to skating to be an exciting place to go, because that's what it was for me my whole life was, I loved going into the rink, I loved my friends that I had there. Everything that came from that was just an added bonus."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press