For many athletes retirement is a choice. But for others entering life after sport might be a forced transition, for example following an injury, missing out on selection or for other reasons and at different stages during their rowing career.

Chosen or not, experiences of retirement are different depending on personalities and circumstances. But there is an element of challenge which seems to be a common factor in ‘crossing the line’ and making the transition to a life after sport. The Crossing the Line Sport Summit was recently held in Sydney, Australia to discuss this transition time.

We believe preparation for the end of an athletic career should begin as soon as an athlete starts chasing the dream,” says Crossing the Line Sport founder and Irish three-time Olympic rower Gearoid Towey.  

At the Summit athletes and experts came together to share their transitioning experiences with the aim to build the conversation around athlete well-being and life after sport and to break down mental health stigmas.  

“Racehorses are treated better than human elite athletes when they finish their sporting careers”, says Australian co-owner of professional cycling team Cannondale-Drapac, Michael Drapac.  “We only prepare athletes for the ascent in sport, we do not prepare them for the descent.”

Drapac spoke about athletes needing to build resilience through education, which ensured that they have other dimensions to their identities to give them resilience when faced with the end of their careers.  “We need to make our athletes aware that their career will come to an end and it will be painful.  Transition does not begin when you ride your last race.  It begins when you start your career.”

Drapac is known for having created elite cycling teams around the principle of a holistic approach to athletes.  This requires them to gain qualifications for their life after cycling while training and competing in the belief that it will help them to make the transition required when those careers end.

 “Most sporting organisations are doing a great job in making sure that athletes can perform on a high level for a long time, but there are still athletes coming out of the system in their late twenties to late thirties, who are ill-equipped to face the challenges of change,” says Olympic rowing medallist, James Chapman.

Olympic Champion rower Kim Brennan says she is lucky as she’s already had to make one transition in her life – from athletics to rowing. “When I got told that I could not run again my whole world broke down.  I only saw myself as Kim the runner and in rowing I got a second chance.  I saw myself as a person who can row a boat, not as a rower. So I was lucky to have that perspective quite early.”

Brennan adds that sport should make the attitude shift out of self-interest, because studying and working made her a better athlete.  .

Kim Brennan, Australia, Women's single sculls, 2016 World Rowing Cup II, Lucerne, Switzerland © FISA Igor Meijer

“More than anything it helped my performance,’’ Brennan says. “It is challenging going from being the best in the world at something to being really crap at something else and finding you are ten years behind your peers.”

Brennan joined the general consensus calling for performance systems to take the whole life cycle of athletes into account and to educate, develop and prepare elite athletes on the challenges they will face when they retire. 

“There is a lot in place already, but it is poorly used,” says Brennan.  “We also need a cultural change and need to find a way to connect the services with the people who are too scared to say they need it.” 

‘Crossing the Line Sport’ is athlete-centred and run by athletes for anyone “who has chased a sporting or performance dream, no matter what level they attained.  We are assisting athletes of all levels around the world by offering a space where they can share stories confidentially, receive advice from experts and any information relevant to athlete retirement,” says Towey. 

Further information and materials can be found here