October 11, 2006

Letting Go

A couple of weeks ago, national team rower and Olympic medallist Barney Williams wrote a piece for the Toronto Star about his recent decision to continue competing through the 2008 Olympic Games.

Williams and his wife Buffy (née Alexander) are both Olympic medallists in rowing. Buffy won a bronze medal in the eight in Sydney, to go with five world championship medals over her career. Barney won a silver in the four in Athens and a world championship gold in the same event in 2003.

They were married in the fall of 1999 and spent much of the next five years apart:

From the spring of 2002 until the 2004 Games, we spent less than eight months together as Buffy trained in London, Ont., and I with the men in Victoria. Much of this time together was on training camps or during competition and was therefore hardly quality time given that we were often living in separate hotel rooms and single-mindedly focused on competing.

That single-minded devotion paid off for both Williamses when they made the 2004 Olympic team. Barney describes their time in Athens as "one of the most amazing experiences to date in our marriage … truly a dream come true." The results of the racing were something less than a dream come true, however; Buffy's pair finished fourth, and Barney's four — defending world champions in the event — were nipped at the line for the gold.

After the Olympics the Williamses moved to Oxford to pursue post-graduate education and (in Barney's words) "begin the next chapter of [their] lives … positioning [themselves] for life in the real world." To most people this would imply a certain separation from competitive rowing, but Barney competed at the 2005 and 2006 world championships. He also became captain of the Oxford Crew and won two victories against Cambridge in the world's most famous rowing race. Buffy, in the meantime, has been out of competitive rowing entirely (as far as I can tell) but did win the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity triathlon in 2005. In early 2006 she gave birth to a baby boy (Tavin Alexander Hammersmith Williams).

Now Barney and Buffy have decided that they want to have one more kick at the Olympic can. They're both going back to full-time training with the goal of winning a gold medal or two in Beijing. That means another two years of living apart, delaying their "life in the real world," and relying on others to help share childcare duties.

I find this story both inspiring and unsettling; I feel envious and insulted at the same time.

At the end of my own competitive career — a career in which I reached the Olympic Games, but never matched the achievements of Barney or Buffy Williams — I was twenty-six years old. I got married, finished my Ph.D., and got my first real job at age 29. We now have two children with a third on the way, and all of the run-of-the-mill trappings; dog, debt, and station wagon.

My life since retirement has been pretty similar to the one that Mr. and Mrs. Williams have embarked on and now decided to postpone. I'm not here to question their choices — but am I being too sensitive if I feel like Barney Williams is questioning mine?

I don't mean that personally, of course. Barney Williams doesn't know me and I am sure he did not intend to criticize my life. But he makes it pretty clear that it wouldn't be enough to satisfy him right now. He knows that this pursuit of an Olympic gold medal will be difficult for his young family and for their "life in the real world." He might not admit that the odds are against him, but he knows that many determining factors will be out of his direct control. And still, Barney Williams can't resist the desire to chase that Olympic gold one more time; anything else would be not quite good enough:

Our future appeared bright as we returned to Canada and began the search for a lifestyle that would continue to challenge and inspire us the way that our Olympic pursuit had. We talked about promising career options … and how through triathlons, marathons and even masters mixed rowing we could continue to experience the excitement of training and competing.

However, as the discussion progressed the reality set in that nothing would ever replace the rush of emotions that overcome you when sitting on the starting line for a race that you have focused all your time and energy towards. It is this singular focus that separates Olympians from weekend warriors and makes the transition so difficult for many full-time athletes.

Williams has hit on a great point here. Most adults do not live their lives like high-performance athletes. They cannot point to a moment in the near future and say, "Everything I do today is designed to get me there." Most people do not know the date and time that they will arrive at their moment of truth, and they are not even sure how they will be measured when they get there. That's what makes the transition to regular life so difficult for so many athletes; it's not that the goals are less worthwhile, it's that they are not so simple or so clear.

Since I retired from competition, my dreams and goals have changed to be, well, more like everybody else's. When I succeed, nobody puts me up on a podium and plays the national anthem. In most cases, the finish line is ill-defined and the final result is unmeasurable. But I don't think that ambiguity makes this life — my "life in the real world" — any less worthwhile. Maybe that's just a rationalization from a thirty-something obso-lete that never reached the top of the podium. Maybe the things that have replaced high-level sport in my life are actually much less than what I had before.

I don't really believe that, though. I don't begrudge the Williamses their last shot at their dream; I even envy them a little bit, and I'll definitely be rooting for them. But for my own part, I'm glad that I didn't postpone this life to pursue that one.

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