March 7, 2017
Crossing the Line: For top rowers, the adjustment to retirement and normal life can be brutal
In the wake of the Rio Olympics many of the world’s top rowers have announced their retirement from the sport. Of course, depending on the circumstances, experiences will be very different. But an element of challenge somewhere along the line seems to be a common factor in the transition to ‘normal’ life.
Martin Cross listened to two powerful and very different testimonies of what it’s like to experience this transition. Cross, who has written about his own experiences in his book Olympic Obsession, spoke to Caroline Lind of the USA and Alex Partridge of Great Britain.
On the surface, the stories that Alex and Caroline tell seem very different. Alex talks from the perspective of having ‘retired’ four years ago. Caroline’s experience of stopping international rowing is much more raw. Understandably, they are at different points on ‘the change curve’. That much is reflected in what they chose to focus on, the level of detail and the particular perspective they tell their stories from. But both tales have a powerful resonance for current rowers, those who have retired, and of course those that run squads.
Caroline Lind was born in 1982. She won her first senior US team vest in 2005. Since then she has won two Olympic gold medals and seven world championship titles, as part of the US women’s eight. In 2014 she was World Rowing’s top-ranked female athlete. Caroline had major back surgery in 2015 and recovered in time to win back her place in the team for 2016. But it was not to be. She decided to retire from the sport in the summer of 2016 and now works in alumni-relations for the Lawrenceville School, NJ.
“When I retired I was like: ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do’. Of course I looked in the athletic departments and there was no immediate opening. Alumni development seemed an interesting avenue to explore. I’d done a lot of networking – but I’d never had the opportunity to explore anything but my rowing. The work in alumni development seemed interesting. I started to do interviews and the whole process was fun. I like my new job a lot. It’s pretty awesome because with the alumni relations you’re trying to get in front of the alumni of the school and work on fundraising, which is a big deal. A lot of time they’re eager to give back to the school. Working with the people in the office is very good.
My decision to retire actually predated the final selection process for the US Olympic team. I had my back surgery done in July 2015. Tom [Tehaar, US W8+ coach] wanted me to be back training after 6 months but the recovery took longer – until Christmas. I’d kept talking to Tom and he said you’ll be fine. You don’t need to do the National Selection Regatta. You’ll get back into shape around Christmas time.
I have a real sense now of feeling free – which feels counter-intuitive as I’m in an office job! In rowing I was so singularly focused. Now I can be a ‘normal’ person.
By then I was starting to get back to how I was when I was training normally. At that time of year, typically part of the US women’s team travelled to San Diego for a camp, while some remained in Princeton. In fact at the beginning of 2016, the whole group went to San Diego but I wasn’t on the list. I didn’t find that out from Tom but from Katelin [Snyder] who asked me: ‘what’s happened? Why aren’t you coming to San Diego?’
I had to figure out what I should do. So I found a place I could train in California Rowing Club, with Bernhard [Stomporowski]. I figured nothing good would come of me being aggressive towards Tom so I never asked: ‘why wasn’t I invited to San Diego?’ Instead both Bernhard and I kept in contact with Tom, so that he knew what I was doing. I was really pleased that I’d got my erg score down to 6:46, and there was more to come.
But when I came back to Princeton it all kind of changed. I just wanted a fair chance for a seat race. I thought that after 15 years on the national team and with 21 international medals to my name it was something I deserved. But Tom told me that he wasn’t going to let me seat race for the Lucerne Regatta. When I asked him what I’d have to do to get a fair seat race, the criteria were very vague: ‘keep on improving’ – all that stuff. The sense that I got was that he was not interested in giving me the seat race or in my being in the boat. I’d also heard from the other girls on the team that results at Lucerne were going to be the main factor in selecting the Olympic crews.
It was at that point that Tom said: ‘You didn’t do National Selection Regatta.’ He talked of some of the other things I’d missed – things that back in the Fall, he’d told me I didn’t need to do. I felt as if I’d been strung along a bit.
Tom told me that I needed to do 40k of rowing a day. That amount of work – especially on the erg – was something I could not do after back surgery. But I thought that with my record on the team I could supplement the erg sessions with running or biking. I was very confident that I could be really effective in a 2k race. I thought if you don’t see me as a credible option for this boat just tell me. I made a commitment to myself to see this Olympiad through. I went to California at my own expense. Rather than telling me: ‘you’ll be fine’ instead you [Tom] could have been more honest. A little communication could have gone a long way.
In the end, the lack of flexibility [from Tom] about how I could train combined with a genuine concern for my health led me to take the decision to retire. At that time, I was pretty unhappy. There was no support for me. I didn’t believe I was going to get a chance to have a fair seat race. In addition, I wondered why I should race for a person who seemingly has lost all respect for me. It seemed to me that Tom sucked all the joy out of rowing. I had to remind myself that there’s a whole world out there.
When I retired, it was a kind of catharsis to be able to talk to others, get the support of my teammates and know that I wasn’t alone in how I felt.
I gave it a few days and e-mailed Tom [back in June], explaining that I had decided to retire. I told him that I appreciated my time on the team. I’ve had no response. I also copied in Curtis Jordan at USRowing and Tom’s assistant coach, Laurel Korholz. As yet, I’ve not had a response from any of the guys.
That’s something I found hard to believe. I know what I achieved in the 15 years I dedicated to the sport. I know my teammates respect me. But not to have any acknowledgement, or response, hurt. It’s like nobody at USRowing cares. Outside of the medals I’ve won, I feel I’ve really supported the team as well as helped to develop the young women that have joined the team along the way.
What was also hard to understand was that later on some of my teammates told me that they’d been in a meeting with Tom. They said that he had spoken about me in that meeting in a way which was disrespectful. In some ways, I feel bad for Tom, that he seems to be incapable of having a relationship with me. Of course, I appreciate the opportunities he gave me, as well as the coaching. There’s no doubt there were times when he was very supportive. But I have to say that there were also times when his approach felt manipulative and fake.
When I retired, it was a kind of catharsis to be able to talk to others, get the support of my teammates and know that I wasn’t alone in how I felt. The same thread runs through all those people: the experience of being treated with a certain lack of respect. And I’ve spoken to people on the Olympic team, as well as spares, those who were cut and some who’ve retired.
When you work with Tom you realise that he holds the lock and key for a position in the Olympic team. So you need his approval and need to figure out a way of working with him. He wasn’t always like this; it’s developed over time. I was lucky that I was with him when he started coaching.
Now that I have my own job, doing good things and being part of a supportive community, I feel I’m in a position to speak out. I’m not afraid. I now feel like this man has no power over me now.
It was hard not being in Rio but I think that would be the case for any retired athlete. I was really thrilled for the women’s eight when they won gold. It was an amazing achievement. But I do look at the results and think that over a four-year programme the US women’s team should have been able to win medals in boats like the pair and the quad.
I have a real sense now of feeling free – which feels counter-intuitive as I’m in an office job! In rowing I was so singularly focused. Now I can be a ‘normal’ person: go to a bridal shower at a weekend, eat out with friends, even go to the Head of the Charles. So intuitively, I feel I must have made the right decision at the right time. I’m so fortunate in having an incredibly supportive husband, who’s really helped me through the transition. It’s also really helped to go through some therapy. And of course there are also the women I rowed with that have been so helpful too.”
Alex Partridge was born in 1981. He received his first senior cap for Britain at the age of 20. He has won numerous world championship medals, including three golds in the fours. In 2004 he was selected to race in the British four due to race in the Athens Olympics but had to withdraw due to a collapsed lung. Alex won silver and bronze Olympic medals as part of the British eight in 2008 and 2012. He retired after London and now works for Invesco Perpetual.
“Let’s start off with the reality of going to the Olympics. You are all consumed; obsessed, pursuing the most beautiful singular goal there is. Your entire day is about achieving that. Everyone around you is the same. You’re working, living, and breathing that goal along with others that have the same sort of feeling. It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling and its irreplaceable.
You build up and you deliver – or you don’t and that moment in time defines you and what you’ve been doing. Crossing the line can be the most confusing feeling in the world. Either you’re happy with the result or not. And when you retire, you ask questions like: ‘who am I now, what will I do, or who do I talk to?’ Your first thought is to go to the people who you’ve looked to for the last fourteen or so years. But they’re not there anymore. You walk out of Caversham and that gate is shut. They don’t want to know you because they’re on to the next four-year Olympic cycle – which I understand. I would be if I was there. Sometimes it almost feels like you are poison.
When I finished, I at least had the awareness that I didn’t want to go down the whole road of public speaking – being an athlete talking about: ‘how it was for them…’ But you have to go through the process of understanding who you are, what’s next and why everyone doesn’t want to train three times per day. You have to prepare Excel spreadsheets with the same intensity that you did ergo sessions and preparing PowerPoints becomes your new ‘heavy weights sessions’. In that environment, all of the other stuff that you’ve done doesn’t matter.
When I rowed, I was the person that people in the squad would come and ask advice of. Outside the squad it’s quite a shock that you are no longer that person.
When I rowed, I was the best, or one of the best in the world. I was also the person that people in the squad would come and ask advice of. So I advised and helped them look at their life strategically. Outside the squad it’s quite a shock that you are no longer that person. What matters is not your ability to do a 5:48 erg but your ability to be a minion and bang out a single page report based on 50 hours of number crunching that’s going to an executive board. What matters is money.
The pace of life is so different. You’re no longer in a four-year cycle of Olympic regattas; you’re in a 40-year cycle – the rest of your life. And the challenge is to understand how you break that down into small achievable chunks. It’s very difficult to navigate. To use a rowing analogy, it’s like going out in the single, trying not to fall in and then getting back out on the water for another session.
I think any athlete in the same position might find themselves desperately trying to recreate that simplicity of focus, process and goal that they have been used to. You’re lucky if you find your work colleagues as motivated and passionate as your former teammates. Somehow, you try to create the same intensity of life that you once had.
On top of that you have your family and life commitments – for me a family – one child and another on the way. Then there’s the pressure of your financial obligations. You’ve got to make an income for your family – and when you finish in the squad, you know you’ll have to do that just three months down the line.
The first thing you do is go to the former international rowers who have been through the same stuff that you are experiencing. They’ve been through the exact same process and survived. Then you have to be patient with yourself and realise it’s OK to not be good at other things.
I think I’m in a good place now. I realise that for me to be happy, it’s really important to find a good work-life balance. Somehow, I need to achieve the endorphin release that I could get every day in the squad. Likewise, I need to have that same buzz of working with others with a good feedback loop. Then, I’m able to understand where I need to go and what I need to do to be able to improve. I feel I’m very honest and open with my management. To achieve that I have to bring myself to the table because that’s what you did every day when you were an international rower.
So things are now coming into line. I’m starting to recognise where my strengths and weaknesses are. Getting that self-awareness is so important – as is recognising who you are. I realise that I want to be the best in what I’m doing. To do that you have to build up the knowledge base, the skill set – just like you did in rowing. In rowing terms, it would be like I’ve been a novice and now I’m at senior one, just banging on through to elite.
My personality has been analysed as an ‘ESFP’, according to the Myers-Briggs personality types ? “Extrovert, Sensing, Feeling, Perception.” I like inspiring others. I enjoy getting caught up in the excitement of the moment and want everyone else to feel that too. That awareness helps me to understand what was important to me when I rowed and how I can create a better place for myself out of the sport.
You can imagine how challenging that might be for your partner. I’m incredibly fortunate that Gina stayed with me during a very difficult time. Even now when I look back, I’m incredibly surprised that she had the patience to do that.
Rowing with the ‘Molesey Leg-Ends’ – a group of ex-international rowers – is probably one of the most important things I do in my week: checking in, letting off some steam, see that I’m still struggling along. It’s about being able to experience that and realise that now you’re actually rowing for the purity of the sport. People ask me: ‘why do you row now? It can’t be the same as when you were in the squad?’ In trying to answer that question, I realised I had to go and do it again; to realise what it was like to row without being ‘in the system’.
In the squad you become institutionalised. I’m not sure how much athletes in the GB squad realise that. These days it’s more of a challenge because they don’t have to do anything for themselves. The reality is that Jürgen [Grobler] was almost a second father figure for me. He decided what I wanted to do, what was good and what was bad. You walk out that door and it’s: ‘see you later mate…’ In fact, it’s only this year that I started talking to Jürgen again. We had a good chat and I asked him to talk to the team at Invesco to explain how he does it.
Crossing the line can be the most confusing feeling in the world. Either you’re happy with the result or not.
My message to anyone experiencing challenges of retiring from sport would be to go to the people who have gone through it already. Recognise that you don’t have the answers and that the first thing you do may not be the right thing. Realise that you are allowed to change and do something different. You don’t have to do a 20k erg anymore. Recognise that rowing has become a fundamental part of your life. Just because you used to do it at international level for the British team it doesn’t mean you have to stop doing it. Understand that pushing yourself to the limit is a fundamental part of your life and you have to find a way to replace that.
I had thoughts of carrying on after 2012. I guess now many of the boys have come back from Rio with gold medals it’s fair for me to ask myself the question: ‘was I right to stop when I did?’ As a rower, I used to be a ‘big player’ and the year after London, I was in fantastic shape. So I did question whether I should have carried on? But then I reflect on the journey that I’ve made over the last four years and I come back to the question: what would be different now if I’d have carried on and got a gold medal? The guys will be having a great time, getting invited to lots of dinners and so on. But then the reality of what comes next will dawn. So I’m happy with my decision to stop. It was a very special time of my life. I realise now that I did what I did for me. And that nobody else will really understand that, except the guy who rowed behind and in front of me. The friendships you create in rowing are unique and probably never be the same outside the sport.”
If you want support with any of the issues raised here the website www.crossingthelinesport.com could provide some helpful ideas and pointers.
Words: Martin Cross // Photography: © Tom Speduto (Caroline Lind) + © Robert Treherne Jones (Alex Partridge) // This article first appeared in Issue 14 of Row360.