“I asked myself the question, Now what? What do I want to do now? And for the first time in my life, I didn’t have the answer right away.”
Olympic rower Gearoid Towey struggled with a loss of identity after competing for the last time at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
He told us how he came out the other side:
What were your highlights as an athlete and what do you miss most about your time competing on the world stage?
There’s not that much I miss, as I have moved on to other things but there’s a number of elements that I have really fond memories of.
- I loved the feeling of being really fit and sharp, the fittest I could possibly be.
- I loved the travel and training in different places with a bunch of people I got along really well with.
- I enjoyed the buzz of racing at any level and the preparation and build up to those races.
- I liked that fact that I didn’t have to search for motivation to get out and train – I just did it. That kind of disappeared when I retired from rowing!
The thing I am most proud of is winning world medals and competing at 3 Olympics in all three rowing disciplines – sculling, bow-side and stroke-side; that’s pretty rare. Maybe if I had stuck to one I might have won an Olympic medal.
Could you tell us about your retirement, specifically when you knew it was time to ‘hang up’ the oar?
I retired at the Beijing Olympics and I knew without a doubt that I would be retiring there. I knew it was time to move on to other things in life. I am someone who needs a lot of plates spinning in my life at the same time with lots of different projects happening.
I got to the point where I couldn’t handle the one-dimensional aspect of sport any more. It was great while it lasted, but I wanted to do something else other than rowing at that point in my life. I guess I wasn’t enjoying it to a level where I felt comfortable letting it dominate my existence any longer.
Two years earlier, I had competed in the Trans-Atlantic Rowing Race and nearly lost my life several times (a whole other story) – so I came back from that with a slightly different view of the world and my place in it. Rowing didn’t seem as important any more.
I think your view changes as you get older as an athlete – you tend to look more holistically at your life. If your sporting career can tick all the boxes in terms of enjoyment, fulfilment, community, growth, health, learning etc – then it is easier to stay involved.
When less than half of those boxes are being ticked you have to examine what you are doing. And that’s when I decided to stop. When I was a younger rower, all those boxes were being ticked for sure.
What emotional challenges did you experience in retirement and how did you overcome them?
When I retired, I was determined not to be one of those people who repeatedly came back to the sport for “one more go” – purely because I knew I could, with a few months of training.
My instincts told me it was over and I didn’t want my head to overrule that.
As a measure against that I completely flipped my life upside down, to get as far away from sport as possible to get myself to the point of no return. I auditioned for drama school in London and got in; I started that about one month after Beijing 2008.
Acting life was similar in terms of discipline and focus and doing a performance in a play did feel like competing in a race – meticulous preparation, build up, nervous energy, adrenaline, performance etc but it also came with a night life culture that I embraced very easily and I had great fun that year.
After one year I didn’t feel anything like an athlete anymore and that was part of my plan.
However, I decided after 18 months that acting at that level was going to require a lot of focus and graft, and at that point I wasn’t up for it. The other factor was money – stage actors don’t get paid a lot and I needed to survive!
I am someone who doesn’t believe in over planning, so that was when I asked myself the question, Now what? What do I want to do now? And for the first time in my life, I didn’t have the answer right away.
That affected me way more than I ever imagined it would. And that’s the loss of identity piece that we talk about in our work with athletes.
I felt destabilised for the first time in my life, a little bit directionless and realised that finding something else as satisfying as rowing was going to be a longer process than I imagined.
Were you adequately prepared to deal with retirement? Can you remember what the most powerful piece of advice you were given was?
On paper yes, I was very well prepared. I had a degree from University, lots of interests outside of the sport, I wanted to retire and chose when to do it. Pretty ideal really.
The thing I underestimated was the process of finding that next purpose. Having a degree wasn’t enough.
The best piece of advice I got was to imagine your retirement from sport is like doing a bungee jump:
At the beginning, it might seem like you are stretching the bungee cord extremely at either end – lots of major changes and feelings but gradually you come to a balanced spot when your future life makes a bit more sense.
Just ride the extremes for a while and hopefully you finish the bungee jump with a smile on your face!
Having successfully navigated through your own transition, is there anything you would change or wish you knew at the time?
I probably would have spoken to more ex-athletes while I was still competing. Just to get a flavour for what might be in store. Some warning signs of potential pitfalls, things that went well for people, things that didn’t.
We all have our own journey to take but learning from others who have walked the path is always useful.
That’s the cornerstone of what Crossing the Line is all about now. It’s run by athletes for athletes. People sharing their experiences for others to learn from. Spending time really knowing what you value in life is very important. I had an idea of what they were but mainly in the sporting context.
I probably would have spent more time getting to know Gearoid the person as well as Gearoid the rower. Because when you finish sport, the person is all that’s remaining – it would be good to know that person a bit better before embarking on the next adventure.
Gearoid presents our brand-new course, ‘Career Transition: Life After Sport’. Click HERE to get started.