The concluding chapter of any athletic career is often the most poignant. Retirement can be a bittersweet pill for any athlete to swallow after all the blood, sweat and tears required to reach the pinnacle of their chosen sport, and even those to whom the years have been kind experience conflicting emotions when the end finally comes.
Lucky athletes are afforded the luxury of choosing the moment to pack away their kit for the last time. For the less fortunate, however, the point of no return is often dictated by the frailties of the body, as injury rather than inclination ultimately decides when their days of competitive sport are over.
Freestyle wrestler Yuri Maier was still a month short of his 27th birthday when he took to the mat for his final bout. That was in March this year and, after two decades of attritional grappling, the young Argentinean had to face the reality that his elite wrestling career was over.
Maier’s premature swansong came at the Pan Am Olympic qualifying event in Texas. A place at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 was the prize for the winner in the men’s 97kg freestyle division, but there was to be no fairy-tale sign-off for Maier. When his hopes of heading to Brazil were dashed in the opening round, he knew that while the spirit was still willing, the body was weak.
“The decision to retire was a very difficult one,” he says. “It was my dream all my life to wrestle at the Olympic Games and to compete on the greatest stage. That is why I took part in the qualifying competition but I have had too many serious injuries in the last two years, especially to my hips, and my body has been punished.
“I thought about quitting but I did not want to give up on my dream without one last try. That would have haunted me for the rest of my life. I am happy to have done it but the time had come for me to do something different with my life and to put the physical pain I was suffering behind me.”
Maier began wrestling in Buenos Aries when he was aged just seven. He underlined his potential with five medals at the Pan American Youth Championships held in Guatemala in 2006, while his first senior Pan Am medals came on home soil five years later. His gold in the freestyle event in 2011 was Argentina’s first wrestling medal at the Games for 20 years, while his 13 national titles make him the country’s most decorated wrestler of all time.
Retirement was a crushing blow, but Maier has refused to dwell on his misfortune and now works for United World Wrestling (UWW), the sport’s global governing body, as well as Argentina’s National Body of High Performance Sport. As part of his embryonic life away from the mat, Maier is also now helping a new generation of competitors prepare for a future beyond sport by working with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on its Athlete Career Programme (ACP). Delivered in cooperation with the Adecco Group, the programme helps elite athletes pursue dual careers and build the skillsets and job networks to successfully transition from sports into their next career.
“I wrestled for the last time in March in Frisco,” he says. “I quickly became involved unofficially with UWW after that but I had no contract with the organisation at first. I was just helping promote the sport in any way that I could. Later I was given the job as the UWW’s development officer for the Pan American region.
“My work with Olympic athletes in Argentina and then the IOC followed from that. I had training from the IOC to help with my presentation skills before I was able to give my first ACP session but I wasn’t nervous because I was talking about topics that were natural to me.
“Being part of the ACP has been like therapy for me,” he says. “To still be around other athletes has helped me come to terms with retirement and it has given me a new way to channel my energy and enthusiasm. For many years I had to fight as a wrestler and now I am fighting for something else, to help educate others.
“The programme is important because I am the proof that a career can come to an end very suddenly. Of course it is sad but you cannot feel sorry for yourself forever; you have to use the spirit that made you a good athlete for other things.”
Created by the IOC in 2005, the ACP focuses on athletes’ education and life skills, as well as potential employment opportunities, to prepare them for the day, hopefully later rather than sooner, when they are no longer competing and ensure they are able to successfully integrate into a new life.
Maier delivered his first ACP presentation this summer in Los Angeles to a group of wrestling’s elite female coaches and the Argentinean is acutely aware of the need to focus athletes on their future as well as their immediate training.
“I know how their minds work,” he says. “All athletes are the same – they are thinking about the next match, the next tournament, the next session in the gym. The furthest ahead they tend to think is maybe a few years but that is only because that is when the next important championships are.
“This is why the ACP exists. We do not try to scare them but sport will not last forever and it is healthy to think about the labour market and what they will do with their life when they cannot compete any more. We stress that because they have been successful in sport they can also be successful in making the transition and doing a different job.
“Coaches play an important role as well because they spend so much time with the athletes and can have a big influence on how they think and what they do to prepare for the future. They can help us create smarter athletes who have a Plan B when their first careers are finished.”
Maier’s wrestling took him all over the world, including stints in Germany, India and Cuba, and he is now treading a similarly global path in his new guise as an ambassador for his sport and an advocate of the ACP.
“I have already been to America, Peru and back home to Argentina to help deliver the programme,” he says. “I also went to the World Junior Wrestling Championships in France in September. I am used to travelling but I find it is a lot less tiring now because my body does not hurt so much! Hotel rooms seem more comfortable if you have not had to do six or seven hours’ training.”
Want to know more about how to make a successful career switch like Yuri Maier? Check out the IOC Athlete Career Programme’s resources on Education, Life Skills and Employment at: https://www.olympic.org/athlete-career-programme