August 01, 2006

Has it Been Ten Years Already?

I happened to run across an interview with Donovan Bailey on the National last week, and as I was watching I realized that the whole point of the interview was the tenth anniversary of Bailey's Olympic championship in the 100m. That means that it has also been ten years since I stopped being a competitive athlete.

One of my most vivid memories of the 1996 Olympics is actually of Donovan Bailey winning a gold medal. His win in the 100 m came prior to my own competition, and although I recall watching it on television, the memory is somewhat muted. But his role as the anchor of the 4×100m relay lifted me out of my seat. That event was held on the evening of August 3, 1996, the same day as my own final race. I watched it with the rest of the team at the house we rented near Gainesville during the Olympics.

Photo by Anita Patrick

In a moment of reflection, I dug my old training diary out of the basement. Most of it is of interest only to me, so I'll spare you the details, but one thing struck me as I read through the entries for the last few months. After all the years of training and competition, I was still learning new things, and we were still learning new things as a crew. That continued right through the week of the Olympics — I had post-race notes from the heat that were about things to do differently in the semi-final.

Another thing that comes through in the entries from 1996 is that I was still having a lot of fun in the sport, and in particular I really felt good about that last few months.

So why did I quit when I did? I guess part of the answer is that there's just more to life. Of the sixteen athletes on the flatwater canoe-kayak team in 1996, nine of them retired at the end of the season or soon after. Of those I've kept in touch with even a little bit, one is an orthopedic surgeon, one a firefighter, one a chiropractor, and one an engineer. Of course, there are others who have found that their greatest rewards are still as paddlers; three of my 1996 teammates are still on the national team today.

Mainly, I retired because I wasn't enjoying the grind of training any more. Taking a leave of absence from school and spending four months in warm-weather training camp in Florida, that's fun. Touring around Europe on the World Cup circuit, that's fun too. And the lead-up to the Olympics, yeah, that's a lot of fun. But to get to the fun parts, you've got to put in a lot of slogging. Actually, it shouldn't feel like slogging, and when it does, I think that's a good sign that it's time to move on.

Another thing, which I'd forgotten until I started re-reading my training diary, is that being part of a team is hard work. It took a lot of effort, from all of us, to stay positive and pointed in the same direction. I do think that we had still more to learn, but we would have had to fight for every additional inch. And I know that I'd lost some of the will for that fight.

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