Despite enjoying a successful swimming career and competing in four Paralympic Games, Canada’s Chelsey Gotell found it hard transitioning into working life after retiring from the pool. She is now on the IOC Athletes’ Commission and is determined to improve the situation for athletes in the future.

  • Chelsey Gotell obtained a degree in psychology from a Canadian university while competing
  • Chelsey struggled with the transition into working life initially but got a job working for the Toronto 2015 PanAm and Para PanAm Games
  • She now sits on the IOC Athletes’ Commission and the Canadian Athlete Council

I grew up with a visual impairment and my parents put me into sport at a very young age. I played every sport under the sun: basketball, baseball, anything that involved having good vision. At the age of eight, I found swimming and absolutely fell in love with the sport and everything about it. I discovered the Paralympic Games when I was 13 years old and competed in my first Games at 14. I then went on to compete in three more Games after that.

Being an athlete can be a big deal; you identify as a Paralympian or an Olympian, and when you move beyond that sometimes you can really struggle with being able to figure out who you are outside of your athlete life. I was lucky that I got to go to a great university in Canada and get a degree in psychology. I had a great coach and team around me to help build me into a human being, not just an athlete, and that has helped me excel and develop into who I am today.

Life outside the pool
Being able to pursue an education while also competing in swimming has allowed me to discover all these skills that I have, and I am now on the IOC Athletes’ Commission as the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) representative, as well as the IPC Governing Board.

As athletes, we have great time management skills – why not use that to excel in an area that will propel us to be great community or business leaders

As athletes, we have great time management skills – why not use that to excel in an area that will propel us to be great community or business leaders, or whatever we want to be outside of sport? We also have a responsibility to be role models in life and show kids that outside of being an athlete we can offer a lot more. We can give back to society in the same way that they rallied around us as athletes.

Helping athletes through retirement
When I was in the process of retiring from sport, I went through a pretty big back injury, so I had a great team around me who helped support me through the transition. I ended up getting a job on the same day of my graduation from university, working for the Toronto 2015 Pan American and Para Pan American Games.

That was a great opportunity for me to get into sport management and learn how a Games runs because as an athlete you come in and everything is so seamless. But the transition wasn’t easy for me. I had a lot of issues and some mental health problems to deal with. I managed to overcome them, which was excellent, but it also helped me identify a huge gap in the Canadian system.

As a successful international athlete who was entering sporting retirement, I felt there wasn’t enough support for athletes, and that we were just put to one side when we were done with our sport. So I clawed my way up and wanted to create a voice for these athletes.

Advocating for positive change
Working at the Toronto 2015 PanAm and Para PanAm Games and talking to other athletes around the country and within the Americas showed me what they were missing in order to be successful outside of sport. It helped awaken the athlete-advocate in me, which is something I’m very passionate about.

Because of this, I oversaw athlete relations at Toronto 2015, which led to me joining the board of the Canadian Athlete Council. Eventually, I went on to join the IPC Athlete Council at Rio in 2016, where I was elected Chair.

The reason I’m in this position today is all because of the fact I didn’t have the support I needed to help me during my transition into working life. I want to ensure that other athletes have that support and that they’re able to excel in a way that I couldn’t when I first stopped competing.

The IOC Athletes’ Commission will be hosting more than 300 athlete representatives at the 2019 International Athletes’ Forum, taking place on 13-15 April in Lausanne. To find out more about the Forum and how you can join the discussion, click here.

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