As the London Games come to an end, some 30-odd retiring Olympians face the daunting question — what's next?
For world-class athletes who have focused their lives on training, their next Olympian task has no direct path: Readjusting to a routine outside competitive sports and creating a new life that may or may not involve the limelight.
The challenges have given rise to a small field of advisers who specialize in helping retiring athletes cope with what can be an abrupt change.
"These people have a strong Olympic identity; they see themselves only as athletes. Unless they have good friendships and connections outside of sport, it can be quite painful," says Misha Botting, a sports psychologist at the SportScotland Institute. "Most experience a low-mood state after the games because it's such an exciting event."
As gold medallists , Phelps, Pendleton and May-Treanor have endorsement and coaching possibilities far beyond most top-level athletes, thousands of whom will be leaving London without a medal to gild their careers.
Some retiring athletes can suffer depression, according to retired Olympic gymnast Craig Heap, although he told The Associated Press that he was "quite pleased" when he stopped competing at 29.
"I was looking forward to my retirement. I had achieved my best and was looking to start another chapter of my life," said Heap, now 39.
Going back to a normal life may run more smoothly for athletes with a day job. But for those who have never worked, the task might be more challenging. It's here that self-described "performance lifestyle advisers" can help them develop careers outside the sporting world.
"We go through their future plan of career, their skills," said Gary Penn, an adviser with the English Institute of Sport. "We look at their CVs (resumes), help them apply for work. Sometimes we do mock interviews for potential jobs."
All these practical tips can help sportsmen or sportswomen find a new career, but Penn said careful preparation and realistic planning are essential.
"Athletes tend to neglect that part," he said. "My biggest fear is that they only focus on the Olympics goals and don't think about what comes after. When they do, it's too late."
As awareness about the challenges of the transition spreads, initiatives to support retiring athletes are growing. Heap is a mentor for the DKH legacy trust set by British Olympian Kelly Holmes, which provides guidance to elite athletes as they move on to another career.
When Heap quit, he said, there was nowhere to turn for help like this.
"I had to find my own way," he said. The ex-champion stayed in the sporting world by organizing gymnastics workshops in schools.
Academics can be key. Penn said well-educated athletes can often end up in management, business or banking.
But sometimes, no matter what their background, Olympians have failed to adapt to their new life as retired athletes. Others have come out of retirement, like Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe. And a debate is currently raging over whether or not Phelps will stop competing for good.
But coming out of retirement is a move that never tempted Heap.
"It's great fun competing for the Olympics," he said. "But the public in front of the TV doesn't see the six hours of training a day, the pain, (and) the injuries."
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