After finishing my last race at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, I went back to the arena and climbed the highest tower overlooking the pool. I sat there and looked out at all those empty seats, thinking, "What’s next?"
I was 17. I’d already competed in two Olympic Games, winning two gold medals. Over the course of my career I’d set 18 fastest times and world records. And I was about to quit.
Adjusting to my post-sports life wasn’t easy, but ultimately retiring so young proved to be a blessing. I became a sports commentator on national television, which opened up a world of opportunity, including the chance to promote women’s equality in the political arena. The result: I’ve had a wonderful life full of amazing memories.
Discrimination forced me to cut my swimming career short
I have always wondered how much more I could have accomplished if I’d been able to continue to train into my 20s. But it was 1964. Back then, male athletes were offered sports scholarships. But women were not rewarded in the same way for our achievements — even if we won multiple gold medals.
And athletes were required to be amateurs. I would have been banned from competition as a professional the moment I accepted endorsement money from a sponsor.
So if I wanted to go to college, I had to stop swimming. I enrolled at UCLA, I got hired to represent the Speedo swimsuit company, and I began working for ABC as a commentator.
Relationships I developed during my time as an athlete proved valuable in my post-Olympics career. During the prime of my swimming career, ABC’s Wide World of Sports featured my races, my interviews, and my rivalry with fellow swimmer Sharon Finneran. I made friends with the ABC production crew and often gave them advice about which races should be covered.
So when I started thinking about my post-Olympics future, I picked up the phone and called ABC producer Chuck Howard. I said, "I really can’t imagine quitting my sport, but if you let me work as an expert it would make this decision easier."
A few months later, at the age of 17, I became the youngest commentator on sports television, and one of the first women to hold that position. I went on to have a rich and varied career covering some 18 Olympic Games.
But I never forgot how the lack of scholarships forced me to cut my swimming career short. It made me a passionate advocate for gender equality in college sports. I worked as a consultant to the US Senate and helped to protect and promote the Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This landmark legislation required colleges to provide equal access to athletic opportunities for men and women, ensuring that future generations of talented female athletes would have the same opportunities as male athletes — the opportunities that I was denied.
Retiring from swimming was an emotional roller coaster
When I retired, I was excited and frightened at the same time. The day an athlete retires, she leaves behind a whole way of life. It's a triple threat: physically, psychologically, and economically.
Overnight, I went from training some four and a half to six hours a day, six days a week, to trying to balance my time between personal appearances, speeches, swimming clinics, TV assignments, college activities, and my studies. I couldn’t find enough time to work out.
When I was in training, a typical breakfast after a morning workout often consisted of two eggs, steak, pancakes, coffee, toast, and fruit. Months after leaving competitive swimming I still had a voracious appetite. But I was no longer putting in 6,000 or 7,000 meters in the pool, so I began to gain weight. I had so much pent-up energy that it became difficult to get a decent night’s sleep.
I have always wondered how much more I could have accomplished if I’d been able to continue to train into my 20s. But it was 1964.
Then came the unexpected psychological challenges. From the ages of 10 to 17, my days were organized, planned, and efficient. Every day I knew what was expected of me and what I expected of myself. I felt safe with a coach who had my best interests at heart. My goals were long-term and measurable. I could look forward to international travel and the opportunity to find new, like-minded friends in athletes from many parts of the world.
My teammates had become my family. With retirement from competition, an entire way of life was gone — all at once.
And then there were the financial pressures. In the first years after retirement, my work was glamorous but not well-paid. I had to worry about making rent.
Athletes often struggle after retirement
Speaking with other former elite athletes, I’ve found that we’ve shared many of the same experiences, both the good and the bad. All of us lived in a bubble in our rather small, sports-specific world. We are observed by the public, and the choices we make are noticed.
When I decided to participate in a high school play ahead of the 1964 Olympics, many parents and coaches criticized me for taking time out of training. But I did it anyway. Acting in the school play helped me deal with the pressure of being one of the most famous athletes in the world and feel like a normal kid.
Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps is struggling with the same kind of issues. As one of the most recognizable people on the planet, he has had to deal with enormous pressures and demands on his time and personal life. After the 2012 London Olympics he announced he was retiring, but he’s back to competing. He checked himself into rehab because he needed help adapting to life as a rich and famous individual.
Money and fame cannot compensate for finding peace in one’s life. I believe everyone has to face a time when it becomes necessary to look inside and decide what your value is to yourself as well as the world.
For all athletes, the economics of moving from competitive sports to civilian life can be intimidating. A lot of accomplished athletes don't come from wealthy families and never learned how to manage the financial rewards that come with fame. They don't always understand that their earning power could diminish quickly and they need to prepare.
Too often we read about athletes who have gone bankrupt. Basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar found himself $9 million in debt and had to rebuild his wealth at a time when his fame was fading.
Now I find myself in a position to help athletes make the transition from active sports to productive careers. This is what I tell them: Your gold medals are not for sale. Don’t work with people you don’t believe in. Don’t endorse products you don’t use. When you work with a company, be totally engaged. And finally, know that America has an insatiable appetite for new stars — fame really is fleeting.
I believe athletes who view sports as an end in itself have a more difficult time with transitioning out of competition than athletes who understand there's going to be a final event.
Donna de Varona is a two-time Olympic swimming champion and Emmy Award–winning broadcaster. As an advocate for athletes, she has been a consultant to the United States Senate on two legislative initiatives: upholding and protecting Title IX and the passage of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Paralympic Sports Act; chaired the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup; and served as the first president of the Women's Sports Foundation.
Currently she is on the executive board of the Special Olympics and the IOC Women in Sport Commission, and is lead adviser for the EY Women Athletes Business Network, which mentors athletes transitioning from competitive sports to productive careers.