Life after elite swimming
10 tips for young swimmers and their parents
– Written by Penny Heyns, South Africa
I grew up in South Africa and swam for the larger part of my pre-college career during a time when my country was refused the right to compete internationally due to its then-Apartheid policies. This meant that I did not grow up with the Olympic dream or in fact any aspirations of competing internationally. The perceived ceiling to my swimming success was to be a national champion and possibly national record holder.
This all changed with the release of our beloved Nelson Mandela in 1991, which in turn lead to our re-admission into the Olympic fold and international arena.
I was 17 and in my final year of high school. Up until that point I had never considered swimming beyond 18 – most swimmers at the time were inclined to ‘retire’ before embarking on their tertiary education. This too was the plan I intended to follow.
Much to the surprise of most of South Africa, it was announced that we would indeed send an Olympic team to Barcelona, this is where my international career began. I was the youngest of the entire South African Team and the only school going student. The experience was both daunting and overwhelming and my performances were below par. I finished 33rd and 34th in the 100 metres and 200 metres breaststroke events, respectively. Given my disappointment, this marked the first of the many occasions during my career that I seriously contemplated retirement. After much soul-searching however, I chose to continue and take up a scholarship to the University of Lincoln, Nebraska in the USA.
My career, both collegiate and international progressed steadily from there on, culminating in 1996 during the Atlanta Olympic Games, with unprecedented double gold in both breaststroke events, along with Olympic and world records.
One would think that I should have been ecstatic and for a while I was, but this was followed by thoughts of ‘why me?’, ‘what if I don’t win my next big race?’, ‘what does this all mean?’ and ultimately a sense of fear that I may never reach those heights again. I would imagine that I am not the only swimmer (or athlete) to have experienced those post-success emotions.
My career continued to improve but not without the emotional rollercoaster of trying to define who I was post-Olympics and hence the contemplation of retirement once again.
This lead to a watershed moment where I realised I could either retire or press on for another 2 more years to finish my career at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which I eventually chose to do.
The 1999 season was undoubtedly my best ever, ending with a very unexpected spree of 11 world records over as many weeks, in 5 of the 6 possible breaststroke events and distances, both long and short course. Given these swims, expectations for the Olympics naturally ran very high. If all went as planned, I would have the perfect end to a wonderful and blessed career. To end at the top is every athlete's hope.
For many reasons, the 2000 season was less than stellar for me and ended with only a bronze in the 100 metres breaststroke. Not what I had expected and though I put on a brave face, it hurt to walk away knowing I had made poor decisions in the run-up and thus swam less than my full potential, even though it was the best I could expect under the circumstances.
My last race ever was finished and, as planned, I climbed out of the water at the Sydney Olympic pool never to compete again.
Many may have interpreted my retirement as being the result of this disappointment at the Sydney Games, but it was not. It was planned for more than 2 years and the time was right to move on.
Moving on meant moving back to my native country – I had lived and trained in both the USA and later Canada for the final 8 years of my career and now very much looked forward to returning to South Africa and starting a new chapter in my life. I was ready to dive into ‘real life’ – or so I thought.
Suffice to say this transition was not without its challenges, adjusting to the absence of competition, emotional highs and all that elite swimming allows one to experience. In truth, it took me a period of about a decade to surface at the other end of a long journey of self-discovery, reinvention and finding a renewed passion for things outside swimming.
Had I known then what to expect and what I know today, I believe that transition would have been easier and possibly shorter. It is with this in mind that I share the following tips for both swimmers and parents.
#1: Don’t wait until you are about to retire to plan the next phase of your life. Your swimming success will not carry you indefinitely.
#2: Realise that the greater your achievements in the sporting arena, the greater the adjustment after retirement.
#3: Understand that athletes find much of their identity in their sport; just as many people wrongly define themselves by what they do as a profession.
This is a common struggle for almost all swimmers. If you have been very successful then the world around you may have defined you as ‘the swimmer’, ‘the Olympic medalist', 'world champion', 'world record holder' etc. You no longer know who you are, you no longer know who to trust and the implications that this may have on your relationships are huge. I’ve often thought of this as the ‘trauma of success’.
I believe that the biggest challenge elite swimmers face post-retirement is not ‘what to do next’, but rather discovering who they are and finding purpose in what they choose to do. Thus career placement is not always an answer to the inner turmoil. Realise that you are more than what you do both in the pool and life in general.
#4: Don’t compare yourself to others and/or their expectations. Allow yourself time to adjust and don’t give in to the pressure of feeling you must have answers when others ask you what’s next.
The world expects that if you are a champion in sport then you must achieve the same in life, but success is a process and just as you had to climb the ladder in sport, so too you have to in life.
#5: Learn to understand yourself better, your strengths, your neurological wiring, your aptitudes, interests beyond swimming and what things give you a sense of purpose.
For many swimmers, their careers have been very purpose-driven and once they retire it sometimes becomes a struggle to find purpose in ordinary life.
#6: Swimming instils an addiction to improvement, so search for something that ignites passion and a desire to improve.
#7: Learn to manage and adjust to the lack of structure and routine that swimming once offered. Continue to do some form of exercise regularly which will give you a sense of control and discipline.
#8: Understand the chemical implications of retirement. Many athletes have, of late, opened up regarding their struggles with depression. It is apparent that many high-level athletes do indeed suffer from clinical depression, which has perhaps gone unnoticed or undiagnosed given that some symptoms of depression are similar to those of overtraining, such as mood swings and constant tiredness. It is often only once the swimmer retires and these symptoms continue, that some are correctly referred to the appropriate doctors for help.
Further to this point, it must also be said that the elite swimmer is exposed to unusually high doses of dopamine and serotonin while competing and, in a sense, once retired, this flood of chemicals subsides, leaving the swimmer feeling down and often depressed.
Understanding these potential challenges, one can prepare and if need be, seek the appropriate help so as to lead a successful and fulfilled post-retirement career.
Elite swimmers tend to prolong their suffering unnecessarily due to the (perceived) stigma attached to one requiring the help of a psychiatrist. The world sees athletes as the example of good health and especially if one has been successful at the highest level, enjoying the spoils of athletic success, it may feel unreasonable to admit a problem. ‘Athletes are not supposed to be depressed’. ‘What do you have to be unhappy about?’
It is common practice for athletes to seek physical medical assistance or the support of a sport psychologist, but anything beyond that may imply a mental illness and for most people this is uncomfortable, even more so for elite athletes.
#9: Your last swim does not define your career.
Some may not retire ‘at the top’. Sadly there are those who have not ended with their best swims and look back to judge their careers based on one swim. You may only remember your disappointment, but the world remembers your successes. Be proud of your efforts and career. Enjoy the memories and find value in your career that goes deeper than the pool. Sport has a lot to offer and teach us so embrace your memories and journey.
#10: Talk to others who have retired and learn from their experiences. I believe it would be greatly beneficial if athletes nearing the end of their careers could experience a form of retirement mentorship. I believe that given the nature of our sport in particular, most swimmers tend to be individualists, find it difficult to take advice from others and believe their retirement struggles are unique.
Depending on the severity of the emotions and issues some may become withdrawn and distanced from those closest to them. It would be helpful for both the swimmer and their parents to understand that these emotions are normal. Mentorship or simply talking to other elite athletes who have retired and transitioned – both those who have done so smoothly and those who have experienced more emotional difficulties – could perhaps speed the process and alleviate much anxiety, allowing the swimmer to become the success he/she can be in the next phase of their life.
Penny Heyns is a retired South African swimmer and double Olympic gold medalist, widely regarded as one of the greatest breaststroke swimmers of all time.
Since her retirement from swimming in 2001, she has become a member of FINA’s Athlete Commission, as well as an author, businesswoman and motivational speaker.
Image by Voxsports Voxer