As a retired figure skater myself, I have struggled with many of the same issues as the skaters I spoke to for this story. Conversing with them helped me realize I am certainly not alone and that these struggles are, in fact, perfectly normal.
Elite athletes are conditioned to believe if we buckle down and really focus, we can push through any obstacle in our path. Feelings of insecurity are seen as a weakness. While this may have helped us achieve our goals in skating, it often creates obstacles to finding peace away from the ice.
With hard work, dedication and a lot of sacrifices, each of the athletes I spoke to achieved their childhood dreams of becoming Olympians, but after retiring in their mid-20s to early 30s, all were left to face the same question: ‘What comes next?’
The fortunate ones move on to a second career and throw themselves into it with the same passion and voraciousness they did when pursuing their sporting goals. But there are others who find themselves feeling lost, without a goal or a purpose. For many athletes, transitioning out of the competitive world is more challenging than any struggle they faced on the field of play. Frequently, they endure this transition in silence, afraid to speak out, which can lead to depression and, in rare cases, suicide.
In a 2019 study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, psychologists examined roughly 1,600 retired elite athletes. They found 26 percent of their subjects exhibited symptoms of anxiety and depression.
From the age of 6, the dream for Ashley Wagner was to go to an Olympic Winter Games.
Ashley Wagner, a World silver medalist, has encountered a few difficulties finding her identity outside of skating. When she felt a little lost early in her transition from the sport, she turned to many of her former teammates for support, including Tanith (Belbin) White, Brooke Castile and Meryl Davis.
“Meryl told me how hard her transition was, and I remember thinking ‘you have an Olympic gold medal and you are still going through something.’ It made me realize how real and how difficult this transition is for everybody,” Wagner recalled. “It is really easy to feel alienated and separated from your old life, but as you get further away from your old life, you realize you are moving with a group of people who have been through the exact same thing.”
Two years down the road, Wagner has finally settled on a new goal of becoming a psychologist and began classes at Northeastern University in Boston this fall. “I tried, but skating and school at the same time was overwhelming for me and I could not manage it,” she explained. “I have always been drawn to psychology and, as much as I love what this sport has given me, I am ready for a life outside of it. I would love to at least become a counselor or have my own private practice and work with victims of sexual assault and abuse.”
Her best advice to those making the transition to life outside of sport is to reach out and talk to as many people as possible. “It is definitely tough, but lean on your community because people understand what you are going through more than you might realize.”
All Dylan Moscovitch ever wanted was to be a figure skater.
Dylan Moscovitch, a former Canadian champion and 2014 Olympian, recalled his mother asking him when he was 5 years old if he wanted to go to the Olympics and he replied, “No, I want to win the Olympics.”
Despite what might appear to many to have been a very successful transition, Moscovitch said he has struggled with finding and achieving new goals outside of the sport. “With skating we only compete a certain number of times per year and we are always working to give the best performance at those events, but life isn’t always like that,” he said. “I came out of skating armed with this mentality that I can will myself through anything. There is a huge amount of power in that and it is true to an extent, but it is not as black and white as it is in sports. There is a lot of grey.”
Turning to many of his former team and training mates, who were going through this transition at the same time, helped Moscovitch navigate his new world. “Having my peers, Eric Radford and Andrew Poje, go through this with me, we kind of rode the wave together and that has really helped,” Moscovitch explained.
While many of his projects have been skating related, most notably the Netflix series “Spinning Out” and CBC’s “That Figure Skating Show,” he is hoping to expand his horizons beyond the world of skating. He is, however, grateful to have the opportunity to hone his new craft in familiar surroundings.
He cites his love of performing and storytelling, which he fostered for almost three decades on the ice, as the inspiration to try his hand at acting. “I love moving people and that is what I was drawn to with acting and I also really love storytelling,” Moscovitch said. “Story telling is human kind’s oldest method of communication. It is something everyone connects to.”
Danielle O’Brien aspired to become a lawyer but listed “Olympic ice skater” as her dream job on a primary school questionnaire.
Six-time Australian ice dance champion Danielle O’Brien has also found a balance in her life through juggling her work as a business analyst at a major Australian bank with coaching, which she does part time alongside her former ice dance partner, Gregory Merriman. “We thought we could really try to make a difference in Australian skating,” O’Brien said. “We had such a positive experience with so many of our coaches and I felt that they played such a massive part in my life in terms of making me grow as a person, that I want to be able to give that to the skaters here.”
Coaching provides a good balance with the other side of O’Brien’s professional life in the business world, which she appreciates for its rationality. She credits attending university as a reason her transition out of skating was more coherent, but despite the relative ease of that move, she acknowledged it was not all smooth sailing. “I had always thought about finishing school,” she said. “When we moved back to Australia, having university to go back to and the goal of graduation in mind made my transition a lot easier in terms of no longer having competitions or training for a goal every day.
“However, there was an element of darkness that came with it. I don’t have that sense of belonging to any group. I have found good friends through work, but at the same time I don’t feel like they are ‘my people.’ I don’t connect with them on the same level, as I did with my training mates.”
O’Brien also struggled with feeling left behind by her former classmates, who were well into their careers by the time she returned to Australia to finish her studies. “When you get into that dark place you feel like you have almost missed out,” O’Brien recalled. “I was seeing my friends who had jobs, and people were talking about their careers and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I missed out on so much.’”
Gregory Merriman, O’Brien’s long-time ice dance partner, shared her Olympic dreams, but was afraid that if he wrote it down, it would never come true. Instead, he told people he wanted to be an “international figure skater.”
While his transition out of skating was fairly seamless on some levels, Merriman struggled with no longer experiencing the extreme ups and downs that are a regular part of life as an elite athlete. He likened the experience to being a drug addict who quits cold turkey. “You have gone from doing something so regularly that gives you this amazing sensation, to nothing,” he said.
For a while Merriman attempted to fill that void through drift racing, a sport he had become interested in as a child after an older skater at his rink took him to a track.
“When we came back to Australia I got really involved with cars,” Merriman said. “That was sort of my outlet, and things were probably taken a little to the extreme. I still feel like my biggest struggle is finding something that I have to work toward. I think not having properly structured personal goals is the hardest.”
But Merriman is now embracing the opportunity to pass on what he learned during his competitive career, which saw him work with coaches both in Australia and in other parts of the world. “When we came home, there were so many stories and ideas we had learned from some amazing coaches overseas that people here are never going to learn unless we are the ones to pass it on.”
Growing up, Polina Edmunds also thought about becoming a lawyer, but she knew from an early age that she also wanted to pursue her true passion of figure skating at the highest level possible.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Polina Edmunds had been all set to continue her career, despite placing a disappointing fifth at sectionals last year and failing to qualify for the 2020 U.S. Championships. Though she skated well in practice, Edmunds was unable to perform the way she had hoped in competition due to nerves.
She planned to use the early part of the off-season to compete in as many local events as possible to practice dealing with her nerves. When the pandemic upset that plan, Edmunds took time to reflect on her career and decided it was time to step away from competition. “I went through a long period of trying to decide what was most important for me in the next year and a half. I realized that I didn’t want to put any opportunities that were coming my way on the back burner,” Edmunds said. “I had already reached so many goals and for me, at this point, if I were to continue skating, it would not matter what the results were because I have already accomplished those things.”
Just a few months into her transition to life off the ice, Edmunds already feels a sense of satisfaction, and believes pursuing a university degree has helped make the path relatively smooth. She does, however, acknowledge a sense of loss surrounding the end of her competitive career. “I think with a lot of skaters who stop, they are left with this black hole feeling,” Edmunds said. “Nothing really feels as fulfilling as when I was training and competing and winning.”
What has helped Edmunds process these feelings is reaching out and talking to former teammates, including Max Aaron and Elliana Pogrebinsky.
Edmunds, who announced her retirement in mid-July after graduating from California’s Santa Clara University, is one of the lucky ones. She has found a new passion in sports broadcasting. During her career, she enjoyed the process of creating programs that told a story and feels sports broadcasting will give her the opportunity to continue doing that. “I realized through my years in skating and being in the media, that I really wanted to stay involved with the media, particularly with sports,” she said. “I love the interview process and creating stories.”
She hopes to remain connected to the sport through performing in shows and hosting clinics and seminars.
As a child, the only thing Jeremy Abbott dreamed about becoming was an Olympic figure skater.
Jeremy Abbott, a four-time U.S. champion, has not had an easy time in retirement and has struggled to discover who he is away from the ice. “I didn’t think it would be as difficult as it was. I didn’t expect to have to face depression,” he admitted. “There is a lot of existential crisis that comes with retiring. It’s like from the time you are a child to the time you are an adult, you know who you are and you know what your purpose is, and then suddenly you don’t have that purpose anymore and you question everything.
“My whole identity, from the time I was 5 years old, was skating. You have to come to terms with your identity and you have to come to terms with who you are outside of the sport and outside of being an athlete and performer. It is really hard to tackle and undergo.”
Though Abbott now feels he has finally come to terms with the end of his competitive career, he dreads facing the inevitable finish line as a show skater. Although he enjoys choreographing for both young skaters and stars of the sport, including Gracie Gold, Abbott is uncertain if that is the next path he wants to follow. “As skaters, we are conditioned to be goal oriented and forward moving — and suddenly it is like we are still moving, but there is no goal or direction,” Abbott explained. “You get past the point of the Olympics and there is nothing on the other side and then you are like, ‘What do I do now?’”
Abbott is grateful for the support of his friends and former team and training mates during these challenging times. He said he does not know what he would do without the invaluable guidance of his long-time coach and mentor, Yuka Sato.
Jenna McCorkell knew she wanted to compete on an Olympic stage but was also fairly confident that one day she would open her own business.
Jenna McCorkell, an 11-time British champion, had the advantage of watching her husband, former Belgian champion Kevin van der Perren, navigate the path away from the world of competition. She attributes the relative ease of her own retirement to watching and supporting him during that time. “Kevin had a hard time transitioning. He finished too early due to injury and it took him a very long time to accept that was it,” McCorkell said. “I could see what it was doing to him and that was why I was even more determined to have something in place for when I retired.”
True to her word, McCorkell began investigating a way to blend her two childhood passions: figure skating and business. In 2013, while she was still competing, McCorkell began making plans for what would eventually become Chique Sport, her line of skate and active wear, which launched in 2017.
“My family is very business oriented and I always wanted to have my own business. When I was training I was obsessed with Lululemon and other active wear brands and I felt there was a huge gap in the market,” McCorkell explained. “It seemed like a logical thing to do because there weren’t any skaters out there designing skating wear — and who knows more about skating apparel than skaters.”
In addition, McCorkell and van der Perren also coach and conduct training seminars throughout Europe.
In August 2019, McCorkell added full time mother to her growing list of roles. “Skating taught me patience. Life throws things at you every day and skating teaches you how to cope with the ups and downs in life, and especially with the business and being a mum,” she explained.
McCorkell said she would encourage skaters to go with their gut instinct when making the decision to retire. “If you are still hesitating, then you aren’t ready. In 2014, people were saying to me, ‘Oh, you’ll do another season,’ but I could tell them with no hesitation that I was done.”
In Canada, assistance is available through Game Plan, a program created by the Canadian Olympic Committee and Deloitte Management to help prepare athletes for life after sport. The program provided Moscovitch with the opportunity to work with a career counselor and attend networking events. Through these resources, he was able to foster his developing acting career.
Wagner had hoped to be able to turn to her national Olympic committee for support during her difficult transition, but she found it lacking. She has been pushing U.S. Figure Skating to encourage athletes to have a life outside of sport, “as it will make for better, well-rounded people when they move on.”
“The U.S. Olympic Committee has something called the ACE (Athlete Career and Education) Program in place, but it just isn’t enough. I don’t think it prepares athletes as much as it should or opens up enough doors for them.”
As someone who was always encouraged by my parents to maintain a wide variety of interests, despite my Olympic figure skating ambitions, I would agree with Wagner. Although I am only 18 months out of my competitive career, those other interests have buoyed me through this transition phase. That being said, my retirement has not been all sunshine and roses.
Like my former teammates O’Brien and Merriman, I find it challenging to truly connect with people outside of skating and I, too, have grappled with feeling left behind by my former classmates, who are now well established in their professional and adult lives. Like Edmunds, I often wonder if I will ever find something I love as much as I loved skating. And like Abbott, I am uncertain of who I am if I am not a skater.
If I learned anything from my conversations with these athletes, it is that who you surround yourself with during any major life transition can make a huge difference. And, it makes no difference whether someone was a World or Olympic champion or came 20th at a World Championships. Every athlete experiences a loss of direction when they retire and that experience is different for everyone.
The best advice from all of us is not to hesitate to reach out for support. As we have all learned, there is a good chance that a fellow athlete has gone through the exact same thing and will be more than willing to help guide you through the maze of life beyond the boards.
(This article was originally published in the IFS October 2020 issue)