When the Games Are Over

An Olympic medalist's struggle to find purpose after twenty years as an elite athlete

Photograph by tanner778

The late April morning was so beautiful it could have been a Visit Georgia ad. The greens and blues were over-saturated, and the sky was indistinguishable from the water of Lake Lanier except when the light breeze tickled the lake. It was a perfect day for the 2012 Olympic sprint canoe-kayak trials.

That day was supposed to be the start of my chance to defend, or best, the Olympic bronze I had won four years earlier in Beijing. But halfway through the final, I stopped trying. After twenty years of training and racing, I had had enough. I was tired. Whatever fire had driven me to push my body to its extremes in 2008 had gone out. Suddenly, all I wanted was to be somewhere else. I slowed my rhythm, and, stroke by stroke, my competitors pulled away. I forced myself to paddle over the finish line. For some reason, finishing felt important.

Instead of returning to the dock to face my worried parents, girlfriend, coach and friends, I paddled up a finger of the lake. I’m done, I thought. I wouldn’t be spending the summer travelling to races and training camps to prepare for my second Olympics. I was sad, but I also felt a wave of relief. I didn’t want to fight anymore.

Giving up meant I was free from the pain of racing and training, and from the fear of failure, which are constants in every athlete’s life. I was thirty years old, with an Olympic bronze medal, no debt, a girlfriend, and a nearly finished business degree. I could finally move on.

When I returned to the dock, in seventh place, my coach was waiting. We hugged and I sobbed into the crook in his neck for a moment. Together we had won the bronze in 2008 and for four years we worked on the alchemy needed to turn it into gold: twenty training sessions a week on the water, in the gym, and on the track. The schedule I had lived for almost two decades was over.

That night we drank beer in a hot tub at the sprawling lakeside house we had rented in Lake Lanier and reminisced about the decade we had spent as a team, trading stories and laughing at old jokes. Eventually, he asked what I’d do next. I’ll take it easy, I said. Enjoy myself. Finish my undergrad and then I’ll see.

It wasn’t as much an answer as a deflection. I had no clue what would come next. Until that afternoon my job had been to be the best in the world at something, and I had done everything I could from age fifteen to thirty to make that happen. At any moment during my training I could have written out the next year of my life with near-hourly precision. I knew when and what I’d eat (oatmeal with blueberries and cottage cheese in the morning, wraps for lunch, pasta for dinner), where I would be travelling (Florida, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Croatia), what my training would involve (two to three sessions a day on the water, in the gym, or on a run). I wasn’t paid enough to save much—most years I made about $30,000—but it was enough to get by without help while I did what I loved, which was race canoes.

From seventeen years old, I had been living the quasi-nomadic life of an athlete, spending at most three straight months at home. The rest of the time I was training in Florida or racing in Europe, with a few weeks in Canada during the summer. In Florida, six of us would cram into a two-bedroom apartment for February, March, and April—a camaraderie developed there, between people who are all trying to achieve perfection through the blisters, sweat, and blood that is training camp, and reaching for a common goal. It didn’t matter that we were competitors vying for the same podium. We trained together, cooked together, drank together, watched each other fall in love, and, at every World Cup or world championship, celebrated together. Aside from the forty hours a week of training, it was a blissfully innocent time.

So I hadn’t prepared for life after paddling. I couldn’t. Not only would it mean envisioning a time when I wasn’t able to compete with the world’s most elite—an admission of fallibility I didn’t want to think about while competing—it would also mean confronting a scenario where I wasn’t part of an international group of friends who were living a dream.

I floated through the ensuing fall and winter, relishing the freedom to eat and drink whatever I wanted, to exercise only if I felt like it, and to stay up late and not feel guilty about it. I didn’t get a job so I could focus on finishing school in Montreal, and so lived off my savings. I knew I should’ve had more structure, but I hoped that starting graduate school the next September would force me into a routine.

After another listless summer I moved to Ottawa to study journalism. I began living the life of someone a decade younger. By the end of my first semester I had gained about ten pounds; by the end of the winter it was closer to thirty, my cheeks full and stomach soft. I was drinking too much. I was waking up exhausted and hungover two or three times a week instead of the five times a year I was used to. At first, it felt fun because it was different. By February, I began to feel like I had no purpose. I had just turned thirty-two.

A degree and grades were short-term goals and the stakes were low. There was no “be the best in the world” in journalism—and, even if there was, I didn’t care. It seemed like the years of striving toward perfection had fried the neurons that had once made me a competitor. I swung between feeling exhausted by the prospect of competition and missing it. Nothing excited me or pushed me the way sport did.

The sense of purposelessness gnawed deeper. On nights I wasn’t out drinking with friends, I lay awake wrestling with emotions I didn’t understand and couldn’t control. I hated what I had become. I had gone from an Olympian—confident, gifted, and fit—to an overweight insomniac with no direction. I would jolt awake covered in sweat, panicking about how I was failing and how I was trapped. I tried to exhaust myself by running, my favourite workout when I had been training. My 5-kilometre runs grew to ten, then fifteen, and then twenty, frustrated tears pulled from my eyes by the wind. But no matter how hard or far I ran, I would wake up after an hour or two with the same thoughts whirring through my head. On the worst days I began to rely on a cocktail of cough syrup and Advil, on top of the few drinks I’d inevitably had with my roommates, to knock myself out soundly enough that I could sleep through the night.

Outwardly, I was still functional. I did well at school and went out with friends. But increasingly these moments were undermined by waves of anxiety and jealousy at others’ seemingly complete lives. I began to tug on my beard and moustache, plucking out hairs until bald patches appeared.

My family was supportive and so was my girlfriend, but no one could help me because I didn’t know what was wrong. My relationship ended after six years. On my summer break, when the anxiety became too much, I would roll my old motorcycle out of the garage and ride it into the Gatineau hills north of Ottawa for hours. I pushed myself to take corners faster and faster, launching around them lost in adrenaline. It was stupid. It felt good.

“Live your dream,” I used tell kids at schools I would visit when I was an Olympian. “If you want something you just have to work for it, live for it and take it.”

I see now that my problem was that I had lived my dream at twenty-six and I had never considered what I’d live for next. Three years after I stopped paddling, that question caught up to me. After celebrating the marriage of two friends, I finally broke. I walked away from the light and laughter of the big white wedding tent and lay down in the red earth on Prince Edward Island. I sobbed for hours under a star-filled fall sky until a friend found me and brought me home.

I looked in the mirror that night and saw a man I didn’t want to be: grey in his beard, lines on his bloated face and eyes ringed with sadness and fatigue, searching for answers where only a few years earlier there weren’t even questions. That night, I wished I had never become an athlete. I’d never felt regret before, at least not that acutely. I wanted a house, a family, and a career—everything a man my age was supposed to have. I craved an identity.

The next morning, I felt clearer than I had in years. I can’t remember what I said to my friend, but throughout the day the threads of what had been haunting me began to coalesce into narrative that made sense. I hadn’t properly exorcized the ghosts of my previous life. I was still grieving for it.

It had been eight years since I stood on the Olympic podium and four since my last race. I had quit paddling because it was time. I was tired, but though I never expected it, I missed the simplicity it brought my life. From my first paddle strokes at ten years old, I had something that motivated me. I never had to search for a goal; it was always clear. I had to be better, to win the next competition.

After that wedding I began to drink less and exercise regularly. I began to see that the things I had accomplished in sport aren’t my high-water mark; I’m not stuck in the achievements of my twenty-six-year-old self. I still struggle, but I’m finally accepting that I haven’t failed. I have a career, a girlfriend, good friends and a great family. I’m lucky, and I can finally begin to appreciate that my accomplishments outside of sports are meaningful too. Some days that’s enough. Other days, I crave the simplicity, fun, and passion of my old life.

My “live your dream” speech to students has evolved. I tell them now that I have learned that though having a goal is important, having multiple things that excite you, multiple goals, is crucial for happiness. If I could, I’d offer the same advice to most athletes I know.

As the Games in Rio end, athletes will decide whether to go for another quad or to retire. For many, the transition will be seamless. They already have careers or plans that will keep whatever embers drove them to become Olympians burning. But many others will struggle. And, for them, I worry.

Six weeks ago, for the first time in two years, I knelt in a sprint canoe, adjusted my knee and pushed off a dock. Friends were visiting Ottawa and had cajoled me into showing them what I used to do. They wanted to try to stay upright in the notoriously tippy vessel. Even I was unsure if after two years I’d still be able to paddle.

After a few shaky strokes, my muscles took over. I was surprised at how good it felt. I knew that four years earlier I would have shuddered at how poor my technique was, but as I paddled on, I felt a strange sensation. I know this, my muscles were saying. This is what we do. I felt a burst of happiness—a strange high I’ll never forget. I knew I missed paddling, but I had never admitted how much. Missing it, I thought, meant that I had made the wrong choice, that I should have kept going that day in Georgia.

Back at the dock, I stepped out of the boat and handed my paddle to a friend and helped him kneel down in the boat. I miss this, I thought. And that’s okay.

Thomas Hall
Thomas Hall (@tomhallca) contributes to Canadian Geographic, the Toronto Star, and various Postmedia outlets. He won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.