After the Olympics: The next paths for elite athletes

Story highlights

  • Athletes can face a "comedown" period after the Olympics while they rest from training and competing
  • Programs are in place to help athletes find the next step if they are considering retiring from their sport

(CNN)After the Olympic flame goes out, what happens to the athletes we've come to know and love over the past two weeks?

After upping his gold medal count to 23, swimmer Michael Phelps is retiring (for real this time). Gymnasts Aly Raisman and Simone Biles are enjoying their hard-earned achievements and taking some time off while thinking about the 2020 Games, which understandably seem "far away." And other members of Team USA like Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel and Devon Allen are either starting or returning to college.
    Over the next few months, a few familiar winning faces from Rio will still appear in commercials, interviews and even reality shows. Like the medals they earned, their achievements will shine to motivate others.
    For many, though, the return to a life off the world stage will feel unfamiliar and maybe even unpleasant.
    "There is no better all-access pass than an Olympic medal," said Steven Portenga, performance psychologist for iPerformance Consultants and former director of performance psychology for USATF. "It can get you anywhere or do anything for a very short time while you have it, and then it fades away, and you're out of the limelight.
    "It's amazing how many athletes struggle somewhere after the Games because they realize that being an Olympian or having a medal doesn't change their lives typically in a very significant way."

    Stay or go?

    For many athletes, it means taking time off from the grueling training schedule that helped them reach the Olympics before preparing for the next competition within their respective sport. The four-year cycle to reach the next Olympics is not only a culmination of this preparation, it's a collection of other factors they may not be able to control, like age, injuries or overall health. It's also about funding their training.
    "A big misconception is that every Olympic athlete has big money sponsorship or can make a living through their sport," said Angel Bovee, former boxer and athlete career coach for the US Olympic Committee's Athlete Career and Education Program. "This couldn't be further from the truth. For every athlete that ends up on a cereal box, there are hundreds of others that do not get paid for their sport and have to struggle to make ends meet."
    Bovee knows from experience. As a boxer who was once ranked No. 1 in the United States, she lived out of her car and worked multiple jobs to support her training schedule and chase her dreams.
    An athlete's health and sponsorships could determine the next step, whether it be walking a determined push toward a future as an elite athlete or retiring to begin a second career.
    And then there's the post-Olympics comedown that many athletes will endure. After focusing so closely on such a huge goal for four years -- often sacrificing time with family and friends or other opportunities -- it can be a shock to the system when it's over. And if they didn't achieve what they wanted over the course of one or two Olympics, it can feel like a waste of time, Portenga said.
    "It's not uncommon for a lot of Olympic athletes to come back and go through depression for a little while, because they don't know what's next," he said.
    But this kind of depression can begin during the quest for the Olympics.
    "Want to go to a place with a lot of depressed people? Go to the Olympic trials," former marathoner Ryan Hall said. "Everyone except the top three are going through a very severe and hard emotional moment."
    Hall, who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Games and holds the record for the best American time in the half-marathon, retired from racing in January after a 20-year career. He knows firsthand what the grueling journey to be an Olympian is like.

    Running on faith

    Ryan Hall competing during Day 16 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
    Coming off of being named the first US runner to break the one-hour record for the half-marathon in 2007, Hall had high aspirations for medaling in Beijing. But going into the 2008 Olympics, his form didn't feel right, and his training hadn't clicked the way he wanted it to. He felt frustrated as he ran into the Olympic stadium, placing 10th in the marathon overall and making his mark as the second member of Team USA to cross the finish line.
    But he was able to connect with his faith and realize that the dream he had envisioned since he began running at age 13 was coming true: He was competing in the Olympics and able to wave to his family as he finished his marathon in the Olympic stadium.
    After fighting a downward spiral of disappointment in the weeks after the Games, Hall put his focus on the next marathon, to move forward mentally and physically with his training. He would go on to mark the best American time for a marathon in 2011 before setting his sights on 2012. He qualified during the trials, even while suffering from plantar fasciitis, but had to end his Olympic marathon 11 miles in due to a hamstring injury.
    What followed was a two-year period of injuries, as well as another two years of severe exhaustion and energy fatigue. Though his blood tests didn't reveal an expected cause like low iron levels, Hall has always had low testosterone, and it has been considered as a factor. He often flirted with over-training, running 100 miles a week for 16 years of his life.
    In those difficult two years, he was "a dead man walking."
    After four years of suffering, Hall took a long, hard look at himself and decided it was time to retire ahead of Rio. His faith reassured him that he had fulfilled that purpose of the running "season" of his life. He looked forward to helping pace his wife, fellow marathoner Sara Hall, who still competes, and raise the four girls the couple adopted in 2015.
    "I was scared of retiring for a really long time, because running was everything to me," Hall said. "It was my identity and how I saw myself. That's what keeps people in the sport longer than their body wants to, because it's so rooted in who they are, and it's very difficult for them to move on."
    Even though Hall no longer loved running, like many retired athletes, he still craved a physical challenge in which he could see improvement each day. Rough training days had always been his preference, compared with rest days. To give back to his body in a healthy way, Hall took up weight training and put on 25 pounds. The power and strength he gained have helped balance his energy levels, which once required nine hours of sleep each night in addition to daily naps.
    Now, Hall is rediscovering a love for running and starting to train again. Although he doesn't want to compete professionally anymore, he finds fulfillment in running for charity. In January, Hall will race in seven marathons across seven continents in seven days to raise money for Dream Center, which aims to help homeless people in Los Angeles. He and his wife also run the Hall Steps Foundation, a nonprofit focused on fighting global poverty while increasing health.

    Helping Olympians find the next step

    Hall knows firsthand how easy it is to make quick decisions in the wake of disappointment. As a student at Stanford University, he went through a tough two-year period where he wasn't performing well on the track or in the classroom. Depressed, he left for a quarter and went home, unsure that he would return. But his depression only worsened. He went back to school and kept pushing through.
    Hall said that it's important for athletes to give themselves time to work through it and involve other people, like trusted friends, family and coaches, in the decision process.
    The same qualities that make them elite athletes, like pushing through pain and placing high expectations on their own performance, can also cause them anxiety and depression when trying to support themselves, said Robert Smith, a sports psychologist and former athlete in Waltham, Massachusetts.
    "The US Olympic Training Center has a program in place that aims to point out that all of the goal-setting and planning that brought you to this extraordinary level of your sport might also reflect the same infrastructure for developing yourself in another way outside of your sport," Smith said.
    That's where Bovee, the former boxer, comes in. She helps athletes in a range of circumstances; they might have high school degrees or Ph.D.s. They might be looking for part-time jobs to support their training or a full-time career as they transition out of their sport. She works with athletes to let them know that their complex feelings are entirely normal and that they aren't alone.
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    "Helping them identify transferable skills from sport and putting them into the language of business often helps them gain confidence to go after their next career opportunity," she said. "Elite athletes know how to set goals and be successful; they just need the confidence to apply these skills to the corporate setting."
    And at the end of the day, it comes back to identity. They are incredibly talented athletes, but they're also much more.
    "The way we feel good about ourselves is usually through the different roles we have in our life," Smith said. "What I would recommend is to look for other ways to feel fulfilled. You've got the better part of your life ahead of you. And enjoy some time to celebrate what you do this for.
    "What you're doing it for isn't just the medal but the joy."