From Olympic glory to self doubt

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Seven years ago reader Kate Johnson won an Olympic silver medal. Her memoir for Stylist reveals the highs and lows of being a world-class athlete in the real-life world…

Recently I came across a photograph of myself reading a book while sitting up to my shoulders in a freezing ice bath at the US Olympic Training Centre in California. The book is titled What Should I Do With My Life? and the year was 2004, four months before I would go on to win a silver medal as part of the USA women’s eight-oared crew at the Athens Olympic Games. Amid the anticipation of achieving the most important goal of my life, the picture shows a seldom discussed fear for athletes training for the Olympics: when you’ve been the best in the world at something, how do you go back to just being you?

When we crossed the finish line my first thought was, ‘It’s over.’ I just cried – we all did – out of relief, pain and euphoria. I remember digging my nails into my hands as I stood on the podium as I didn’t feel like I was actually there.

But the reality of what was to come next began to weigh on me almost as soon as they hung the medal around my neck. The day after my final race, while waiting for my family on the streets of Athens, I felt suddenly gripped by the unknown. My coach – who had guided every decision in my life for the last four years – had flown home. Suddenly the structure of my day was left to me for the first time in a decade

Reality Bites

Over the years my teammates and my coach had become my family. We had shared a common dream that had bound us for life. I was 25 yet I couldn’t eat an ice cream without thinking how it would affect the whole team. But the race of our lives was now over and it was just me again.

I was 15 years old when I wrote my dream of becoming an Olympic rower in my journal. For the next nine years I traded half-term for training trips, university graduation for the National Championships and missed countless family holidays and friends’ weddings. When most of my university classmates were rolling into bed at 5am I was rolling out of bed headed for practice. For years my meals were calculated according to my workouts. My coach constantly reminded us that we were building Olympian bodies. Protein and complex carbohydrates were the cornerstones of my diet and when I look back on some of my quirky energy recipes (such as a wholegrain bagel covered with peanut butter, banana and granola), I’m reminded of just how different my eating habits were.

A typical day began with a 40-minute warm-up run at 7am, followed by two hours of high intensity or long-distance training on the water. From noon until 4pm most of us went to part-time jobs, only to return for a gym session of heavy weight training and workouts on the stationary rowing machine. By 8pm I was back at home, eating the last of my five meals for the day, and in bed by 10pm.

The moment we crossed the Olympic finish line the need for this structure ceased to exist. For many athletes this drastic change almost certainly drives them right back into training for the next Olympics. But I began to question whether I wanted to devote another four years of life to training for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Although I never regretted any of the sacrifices I’d made, I had reached a point where I just wanted to be a normal 25 year old again. For the first time in nine years I decided to take a year off. I dedicated my post-Olympic year to trying all the things I hadn’t had the chance to before – I took graphic design classes, moved house three times, ran a marathon, slept in and ate what I wanted.

But I felt empty. My routine had been replaced with free time. I filled this hole with food. I was terrified of getting fat. Food was an obsession when I was training – making sure I put exactly the right fuel into my body. When I stopped training, it flipped, and I was suddenly terrified of getting it wrong. I found it really hard to enjoy food – I was in danger of developing disordered eating patterns..

Out of Control

Another feeling soon began to surface. For years I had been a natural leader but now my confidence was shaken. It sounds silly but I had grown used to being different and I didn’t like just being ‘normal’. It hit home when I took a job with a sports clothing company and had to work the call centre phones as part of the training. As I took countless sports bra and yoga pant orders I wanted to shout into the phone, “I’m an Olympic medalist!”

Fifteen months after my race in Athens, I officially retired from elite rowing and moved my life to New York to work for global sports marketing firm IMG. I soon found a role for myself within our Olympic consulting division, where I continue to work alongside sponsors of the Olympic Games bringing a first-hand perspective to marketing programmes.

Last summer my company moved me to London for the 2012 Olympic Games. Suddenly I have a new reason to feel proud of myself – a job which allows me to travel and have a life. Much of my job involves working with various British athletes, many of whom ask me for advice on how to make the transition. A favourite Chinese proverb goes, “You must sacrifice what you are for what you could become.” I quickly learned that shedding one identity to discover another requires as much bravery and determination as sitting on the Olympic start line.

Kate Johnson was photographed for Stylist by reader Amanda Bond, marketing executive and mother


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