The torch is out, the 2002 Winter Games are history, and a new crop of Olympians is trading skates, skis and sleds for something far more intimidating: a real job. Getting one is no small feat, especially in the current economy, but it is an even more daunting task for someone fresh off an athletic career. Believe it or not, retiring from sport and entering the "real" world can be more terrifying than hurtling oneself down a mountain at 80 miles per hour. This is not to say that sports aren't real. Raw competition is as real as it gets. But with its instant feedback of success or failure, sport has a black-and-white simplicity that isn't replicated in other pursuits.
"The overwhelming majority of Olympians fear the moment of 'What next?'" explains Sean McCann, head of sports psychology for the U.S. Olympic Committee. Though his job is to help the athletes perform at their best, McCann does a fair share of career counseling to help athletes come to grips with the challenges of moving on to their next phase of life. "There is a safety in the focus on sports. Some athletes go back to sports because they don't know what to do with themselves," he says. The routine of training, competition and results¿however demanding¿is also comforting and decadently self-centered. A career in sports consumes and defines your physical, emotional and spiritual self. Athletes retiring from competition are leaving much more than a career¿they are leaving the core of their identity.
That helps explain the Michael Jordan syndrome. Here's a guy who will never want for money or fame, has nothing to prove to himself or the world, and yet he still can't walk away from his sport. Though they may not have our sympathies, athletes who enjoy the most commercial success have an equally hard time finding a follow-up career. Financial reward only delays the inevitable fact that, even if you play well and earn big into your 30s, you have the rest of your life to fill with doing something.
Finding that something is the first step of a journey for which most athletes have no map. We go in to a sports career full of specific goals, encouraged by coaches, motivated by heroes and inspired by role models. But we leave with little more than good memories, fun stories and whatever is in our backpacks. After a lifetime following a clear path, all our support and direction disappears in an instant.
I guess I had it easy. If I'd performed any better I might still be searching for a career. But because of injuries, I had enough chunks of time to squeeze in two years worth of college while still competing. And thanks to my lack of celebrity, I had enough spare time to cultivate an interest in writing. That gave me at least an inkling of a career possibility. That's more than most retiring ski racers enjoy, due in part to the longstanding KFC philosophy of the national ski federation. The U.S. Ski Team believes athletes can only be successful if they do one thing and do it right, and it has historically discouraged outside career and educational pursuits. That philosophy ignores the reality that the vast majority of people perform best when they feel happy and relaxed.
"As athletes mature, they can't help but feel behind their peers," McCann says. Athletes who have not pursued other interests while competing know they will be faced with a whole lot of hunting and pecking at a stage of life when they need to be earning a living. "Helping them prepare for careers after sport takes away worry and can help performance," McCann adds.
That's the idea behind Team USAnet, a venture between Monster.com and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Launched last summer, TeamUSAnet (log on to usolympicteam.org) offers Olympians job-search help, career-building tools, listings of resources available through the USOC, job openings and a sympathetic network of fellow Olympians. Normally, when we do hear about athletes post-retirement, it's a tragic tale or a success storry. Either way, it is well after the transformation. Getting insights and even the simplest advice on the process from someone who has gone through it can be enormously helpful.
Jimmy Pedro is an Olympic medalist in judo and the manager of Monster.com's Olympic sponsorship. He knows firsthand the challenge that retiring athletes face. "They end up with a big gap on their résumé," Pedro explains. The world of amateur sports is not created equal, and judo makes ski racing look like the NBA. After Sydney, with his Olympic career over, the 1996 bronze medalist and 1999 World Champion was suddenly in unfamiliar territory. "I was lost," he admits. So when Pedro was approached by Monster.com he jumped at the opportunity. They needed a real athlete and he needed a real job.
The message from Pedro and others in the mentor network is that many such win-win relationships exist. With the right approach, an athlete's next career can be as focused and fulfilling as the first. What athletes may lack on their résumé is more than compensated for in other skills: extraordinary self-motivation, discipline, a strong work ethic, and, yes, humility. To be coachable is to know that you have much to learn. That awareness, along with confidence and the ability to handle pressure, is a valuable combination in the work place. In fact, many employers seek out athletes to vitalize their businesses.
Thomas Weisel, founder and CEO of the merchant bank Thomas Weisel Partners, is one example. His firm recruits from the top classes at all the major business schools. But, says Weisel, "I'm always trying to think out of the box, and I look for that hungry guy who might not have the polished education. I'm always interested in people who have shown excellence in one thing."
Athletes often fit that description. A longtime supporter of both the competitive skiing and cycling worlds, Weisel has managed to collect a veritable stable of elite athletes in his business. His recruits include Olympic skiers Otto Tschudi and Matt Grosjean and Olympic cyclists Jim Ochowicz, Mike McCarthy and Ken Carpenter.
Weisel is quick to point out that a great athlete is not a slam-dunk as a great hire. In fact, athletes often live in an isolated world. So along with intelligence and leadership skills, Weisel puts a premium on communication skills. Tim Itin, an NCAA all-American and U.S. Pro Tour racer, was hired in 1984 by Montgomery Securities (where Weisel then presided). Itin believes an athlete's advantage comes into play when the pressure heats up in what is already an extremely competitive work environment.
"As an athlete, you can't let all the noise in the starting gate get to you," Itin says. To be sure, all those athletes make for a high-octane mix. But, Itin points out, "You know they have balance in their lives and a way to blow off steam." Indeed, those are two key elements for longevity in a high-stress environment. Furthermore, the client entertainment possibilities are hard to ignore. You can't beat cycling and skiing trips¿with the finest athletes in the finest locations¿as a way to get to know your clients (and to get to love your job).
To be sure, the job market is tough for everyone now. In this environment, how will the athletes with unconventional resumes fare? "It'll help them stand out from the rest," offers Pedro. And at the very least, they won't be afraid of the competition.