It happens to many of us: We hang up our competitive uniform and swear we won’t step back into it, but then there’s a comeback …
There are many reasons why an athlete makes a comeback, and they are different for every person. Jordan retired as #23, but came back as #45. And now Michael Phelps has “left the door open” by returning to the U.S. Olympic Drug Testing pool, whereas Barry Sanders left at the height of his NFL career, leaving us all wanting more, but he never stepped foot on that field again.Why? That’s the question … why does an athlete choose to come back? The only person I can speak for is myself, so I will, and maybe it will fuel a conversation amongst other retired athletes that will help those dealing with the word “retirement” at such a young age.
I retired in December of 1993 during my senior year at Stanford. For the first time in the history of my swimming career, I asked myself why I was pushing myself so hard and I didn’t have an answer. I was in the middle of a morning workout, the sun had yet to come up, and it was a tough set. I’d reached that critical point in the middle of the 50 meter pool where I had to self-motivate, to dig deeper like I had done about a million times before. And I questioned it. Why was I doing this? And that’s when I knew I was done. In my sport, like many others, you cannot be wishy-washy when it comes to training. You have to be tough every moment of every practice because it’s that fostered toughness you call upon when you need it most and your race is on the line.
So I came back from that practice and I made a list. It was your standard list of pros and cons. I knew in my heart I was done; I just needed to see it written down on paper. And that was it. From that moment, a whole new world opened up to me. I remember being overwhelmed by the knowledge that life could actually go on without swimming. I was nervous, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. But I knew I was happy with the decision, and most importantly, I was relieved.
And from there my life cruised on. After Stanford, I moved to LA and landed my first big show — a sports competition show on MTV called Sandblast. I was traveling the country with Ocean Spray speaking to high school girls about the importance of taking part in sports. I had sponsorship deals. I was running with my girlfriends. I was busy, and life was pretty good. But something was missing. I was working out, but not training for anything, and that was the HUGE difference. I knew I was headed in a great direction with my TV career, but I also knew there was a door about to close forever and this part of me that wasn’t being filled by anything else.
It was a big decision for me to go back to swimming. I had a serious boyfriend, work commitments, and a life in LA that I would have to leave behind. I wasn’t sure what MTV would say, or if my other sponsors would penalize me. But I knew that in order to make a comeback, I could not fulfill my obligations (days on the road), and that I would have to give it all up and focus on my training. Thankfully, everyone I spoke to had once had a dream like mine and basically said, “I would never want to stand in your way. Go for it.” So I was out of my contracts, and ready to get back in the pool.
I packed up my life, stuffing it all in my Chevy suburban, and relocated to Colorado Springs. I had 10 months to see if I could get my body ready for the biggest stage of my sport, which was no small feat considering I had not seen a competitive swim pool in quite some time. Never once during my training did I question if my decision to come back was correct. It was only after my last race at Olympic Trials that I realized why I was really attempting the comeback at all.
It took me a little under four years, a whole lot of life disruption, and 10 months of training to fully appreciate my Olympic experience in 1992. I came back with the goal of making the 1996 Olympic Team, or at least that is what I told everyone. And truthfully, that is what I thought. It wasn’t until I was laying on the massage table before my final event at trials and one of the wonderful USA Swimming staff members came over to me and said, “We all wanted to come tell you this but we voted on just one of us, so here I am. We believe in you. We know you can make this team. You can do it.” I loved all of them so much for caring about me enough to shed some tears for my journey. I said, “Thank you.” But in that moment, in my heart I knew I wasn’t at all the same swimmer I was four years earlier. I took my place on the blocks for the 200 Butterfly Final, and I gave it everything I had. I finished 8th, 8 out of 8. I didn’t have the drive to be great in Atlanta that I’d had for Barcelona. That was reserved for someone else, and I wasn’t sad and I didn’t feel defeated.
About 5 minutes later NBC asked for an interview, and I agreed, and that’s when it hit me. My comeback was for closure. It was MY opportunity to appreciate every single detail from my Barcelona experience from training camps and my teammates, to medals ceremonies and my gold medal victory. I had been moving at such a blazing pace in life for so long, always focused on “what’s next”, that I had never allowed myself to really soak it all in. And at the point when my thoughts could have focused on failure, I knew it was a huge personal, emotional victory. I could now REALLY move on from my sport, loving it and everything it provided me.
So why does an athlete come back? I think it’s different for all of us. Pat Forde recently wrote in an article for Yahoo! that “If Michael Phelps decides to return, it’ll be fueled by competitive fire, not Olympic legacy.” And that could be. But he also might not even know yet why he wants to return.
For most of us, our sport wasn’t just something we spent time doing. It was our life’s goal. It shaped our daily routine, and it sustained us like eating and drinking. How do you survive without it?
That “door that’s left open” sometimes just needs a little comeback to be officially closed, so that we know we can survive. And that’s okay.