How to be a ‘real person’

Lizzie Simmonds Crossing the Line

Retiring at age 27 is a very strange concept, especially when my current job is the only one I’ve ever really known. As an elite athlete, every decision you make—eating the last cupcake, drinking a milkshake, climbing a flight of stairs, or running through the rain—everything we do is subconsciously analysed and organised in relation to the consequences on our bodies and the subsequent impact on training or performance.

Since I was a tiny tot on my first British Swimming ‘Smart-track’ program (identifying kids with notable talent and providing considerable opportunities to develop this talent), it has been drummed into me to make the ‘right choices’. This involves the obvious: training hard, focus, determination and dedication—qualities that act as the nucleus of the sporting world atom, driving an athlete forward and determining their outcome and success. It also involves the slightly less important electrons, whizzing around with less force but still consequential to the overall movement of the atom. These are areas such as correct nutrition, psychology, strength and conditioning, as well as injury prevention strategies, and of course perfecting the art of napping.

All of this, when done correctly, equates to the perfect athlete. I know how to push my body past the point of pain and into the realms of self-inflicted torture. I know how to lift a dumbbell in a way that will benefit my backstroke catch phase but will avoid irritating the muscles in the front my shoulder, muscles that have daily tantrums in objection to my continuous paddling. I know how to avoid eating butter, or McDonald’s, or at least how to feel ample guilt if I do indulge and commit a culinary sin. I know that for the majority of the year the only alcohol I see will be contained in a tiny bottle and used to sanitise my hands after a particularly unpleasant gym session, and also that the ache felt whilst walking up a flight of stairs is not a sign of being unfit, but rather a burning reminder that I spent a good 50% of my last training session kicking underwater. I’ve spent years looking for those marginal gains, that 0.01 of a second that differentiates me from my competitors.

And now it’s time for me to open a new chapter of the book, one that (hopefully) involves slightly less wet hair and slightly more gin and tonics. But after knowing this sporting world so well, I’m at a notorious set of crossroads, with signs pointing every way you can imagine, wondering which way to turn. I’ve had a clearly defined, single purpose for so long, and now I have hundreds of diverse options. I’ve represented my country at the Olympic Games, and yet I’ve never had a job interview. The world, quite literally, is my oyster, although I’m hoping that whatever comes next is significantly more exciting than a mouthful of slimy shellfish…

Lots of athletes get into trouble when they leave elite sport, and it’s not too difficult to understand why. After being identified as ‘Lizzie the swimmer’ for so long, I’ve just morphed into ‘Lizzie the normal person’, (I’m kidding myself a little bit there—I don’t think I’ll ever be referred to as normal). But my identity is changing and if, like me, an athlete has often defined themselves by their successes in sport, then it can be difficult to surrender their hard-won identity in the search for a new one.

Despite challenging funding allowances, there is progressive work being done by sporting organisations to help current professional athletes construct an identity that centres around their human qualities, as opposed to their sporting statistics. The English Institute of Sport (plus their Scottish and Welsh counterparts) have Performance Lifestyle Managers who are at the forefront of personalised athlete development; on site to assist and direct with a huge range of educational and vocational pursuits. During my time within the system these advisors were invaluable to me—from helping me gain an education in the early days, to advice on setting up a business in more recent times. It’s also great to see nationwide ‘Athlete Futures’ events (run by both UK Sport and EIS staff members) being held. These are exclusive events that offer workshops and career development seminars, and act as a unique opportunity for current and ex athletes to connect and network with a range of potential employers from different industries.

A significant challenge for UK Sport and the EIS is changing the stigma around preparing for transition—traditionally it has been seen as a distraction from sporting focus to think about the future whilst still competing, whereas the reality is that proactive preparation can actually alleviate sporting stresses and be greatly beneficial to the wellbeing of an athlete. Cultural shifts take time to evolve but I know that the athletes who utilise the current support benefit greatly from the efforts being made.

Despite this invaluable attention from sporting organisations, athlete transition remains a bit of a grey area, essentially because it requires support and investment to be given to an athlete after they have left the performance world (and are no longer contributing to team rankings or medal counts). It can be especially difficult for athletes who are not on a funded World Class Pathway at the end of their careers, as they don’t have the same access to the 6-month ‘shoulder’ period of support that athletes within the performance system will be offered. I am one of these athletes outside the system, although I’ve built up a great relationship with both of the PL advisors I’ve worked with, so they won’t be getting rid of me that easily…

I was relatively prepared for my own retirement from sport and I’d been considering different options for a couple years, but it’s very hard to adequately prepare for the reality of life without an unyielding training routine. In some respects, parallels can be drawn between being an elite athlete and serving in the military. The stakes are obviously very different, and I don’t mean to imply that spinning my arms backwards matches risking life and limb for your country. But the regimented lifestyle is very similar: instructions on when we will and won’t be training, what time we must get up, when we can and can’t take time off; weekly, monthly, yearly. What we should and shouldn’t eat. Everyday our focus is undivided, the motivation for the task is clear, the application is absolute and indisputable: practise is institutionalised. I’ve been out of the water for around three months now and it’s still very strange for me to have days that are free! Since the age of 12 I’ve only had a handful of Saturdays that haven’t involved training, and the only bank holiday benefit for us athletes is that the roads are usually a bit quieter on the way to training!

What I do know is that, after hanging up my goggles for good, it’s super weird to hang out with people and not be asked how training is going, and to not have an unyielding exercise routine for 48 weeks of the year. To be able to say yes to a spontaneous holiday or social engagement will be a novelty to say the least! In theory the idea of freedom sounds exciting—in reality it’s all a bit daunting. I can understand why some athletes in this position can find themselves at the edge of a metaphorical cliff and, unfortunately, sometimes at the edge of a real cliff.

So, I’ve decided to start this blog. Partly because it gives me something to do whilst I’m figuring out what to do. Partly because writing will hopefully allow me to process the journey so far, like some kind of cathartic therapy, cleansing the chlorine from me. And lastly because I think it’s important for people (public and other athletes) to know what happens when we leave the elite bubble. There are too many sportsmen and women struggling with the transition, and often a lack of helping hands available to guide them through the rocks and into the harbour of the normal world.

We sacrifice a lot to stand on that podium, beaming with pride, mumbling incoherently about God saving the Queen. We don’t live like the rest of the world, and we often don’t have the same accolades, substituting hours in the library for hours of training. We have a different skillset, excelling in focused goal application, perseverance, commitment to a task, and a tenacious desire to learn and improve. My CV doesn’t look the same as everyone else’s (partly because I dropped it in the pool so it’s a bit soggy), but I’m hoping the unique experiences I’ve had still allow me to thrive in new pursuits.

I hope, as a bi-product of me putting pen to paper, I manage to provide a little insight into the world I’ve been a part of since my teenage years. I’ve been around long enough to have experienced the good, the bad, the ugly, and the often-hilarious sides of this profession. After all, which other job on this planet includes routinely being visited, at your house, at an unspecified time, by someone you don’t know, so they can watch you pee into a pot? Which other jobs can (legally) take away your entire income if you fall over and twist your ankle? Which other pursuit involves a performance of a few seconds, or minutes, every four years, a performance that can determine your entire future. Sport is unique, as are the people who choose to do it for a living.

Being an athlete is an interesting existence and there are not many people who can truly relate, unless they’re also part of that world. Unfortunately, having ‘only’ finished fourth at an Olympics, I’m not quite famous enough to write an autobiography (and get it published), though I’d hope my ponderings show a different perspective—the experience of the 99% of athletes whose story isn’t on the shelves of Waterstones. The guys and gals who are still training hard, still motivated, still putting in the hours, still competing at Olympic Games and World Championships. Who are still tested—for fitness, for fat, for strength, for illicit substances. Who are also the followers of dreams, committing themselves entirely to the pursuit of excellence. We too, will have a life after sport, even if that doesn’t involve doing a Cha Cha on Strictly Come Dancing, or being knighted at Buckingham Palace. We have a story too. Welcome to mine.


This story was originally published on Lizzie’s blog. Thanks to Lizzie for giving us permission to share it.