For many athletes the Olympics is the pinnacle of their career, they base their lives around the four-year cycle, fighting through injury, pain, defeat and failure to make it to one more Olympic Games. Russian figure skater Evengi Plushenko came out of retirement to compete at the Olympics hosted in his country. After winning a gold medal in the team competition, a back injury kept him out of the individual competition where he was likely to medal.

The post-Olympic year often sees a wave of retirement among athletes leaving athletes with a tremendous feeling of loss.

Canadian Olympic rower, Jane Thornton aptly describes this loss. “All of a sudden you’re not an athlete anymore. I knew what to expect, but you realise how much you rely on having a goal and having a vision," says Thornton. "It’s really hard.”

Thornton arrived serendipitously at the World Rowing Federation's (FISA) office in Lausanne, Switzerland recently. A qualified doctor, Thornton was on a medical rotation in Lausanne when she ran past the local rowing club, Lausanne Sport d’Aviron and decided to see if she could go out for a row. This eventually led Thornton to the FISA office located not far from the rowing club.

Thornton agreed to be interviewed about her transition to life after rowing and in the interview she revealed how she managed to do an undergraduate, masters and PhD while rowing and that despite her lofty career goals in medicine, she still struggled immensely with the transition out of rowing.

“I knew that in order to be able to do rowing, I had to be very structured in what I was doing,” says Thornton. She began with an undergraduate degree in kinesiology, hoping to relate her studies to rowing. After finishing undergrad in 2000, where she was only training twice a day, Thornton decided it was 'now or never' to try and make it in rowing.

“I’m a late bloomer and a non-natural athlete. I had to train full-time if I wanted to make a serious attempt,” she admits. Doing her masters degree and training full-time, Thornton finally made the Canadian national team.

Thornton's rowing career evolved from there, taking her to a gold medal in the women’s pair at the 2006 World Rowing Championships in Eton Dorney, Great Britain, followed by a World Rowing Cup silver and bronze medal in 2008 in the women’s eight.

But throughout her nine years on the national team, Thornton never stopped studying. “A lot of people ask about balancing, but I think in some ways either one (sport and study) can be viewed as a safety net. I never felt exceptional at either one.” Thornton seemed to find what many of the best athletes are able to harness: the right balance between self-doubt, which pushed her to work harder, and the self-confidence that told her she could. 

Thornton says the key to it all is loving what you’re doing. “It’s a matter of choices, not sacrifices. If you’re in rowing because you love it and you’re trying to find things that align with what you’re truly about, that’s the best way to make it a little bit easier,” she says.

But it wasn’t always seamless for this full-time athlete and PhD student. “There was stuff I didn’t do well. I remember coming to do an erg test and I just sat there and cried because I was so tired." Thornton tried to use rowing as a vacation from studying and vice versa; one was a mental break, while the other was a physical break.

After a disappointing fourth-place finish at the Beijing Olympic Games, Thornton hung up her oars and decided finally to pursue her career in medicine. Despite being well-prepared with a PhD in hand and an acceptance to medical school, Thornton admits that the transition was far more difficult than she expected.

Despite the feeling of loss, the skills learned through rowing, Thornton believes, have helped propel Thornton’s medical career. “One of the big parts is that you become comfortable with working hard in rowing and you learn that complaining doesn’t help you,” she says. It was the 'relentless pursuit of perfection' that kept Thornton rowing for nine years and has driven her through medical studies. “Of course," adds Thornton, "there is also the teamwork, dedication and commitment. I don’t know why I’m motivated to work for someone else, but I am.”

Many have called rowing the 'ultimate team sport' as it forces athletes not only to the brink of their physical capacity, but also demands that they do so in unison. The intensity with which the athletes must work together and for one another is unparalleled. Thornton has pulled from this stockpile of lessons learned on the water and has used them to her advantage in her professional life.

Thornton plans to stay involved with rowing, calling it a 'common thread' throughout her life. While she might have felt a loss when retiring, it is clear the skills learned through rowing have also helped her in life after rowing.