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Rio closing ceremony: So you won an Olympic medal. Now what?

Anna Harris

The Rio Olympics officially ended on Sunday, with the closing ceremony in Maracanã Stadium. For the 11,000 athletes who participated in the Rio Games, the closing ceremony marks the end of an intense two weeks of competition and the media attention that comes with it.

Now they return to their lives away from the spotlight — either to eventually begin training for the Tokyo Games in 2020, or, for athletes who are retiring, to find a new career path.

What is it like to go home after the intensity of the Olympics? We spoke to eight Olympians about that very question. Here’s what they told us.

1) The sting of defeat is especially strong when it’s your last Olympics

When runner Jim Ryun tripped and fell in a qualifying race during the 1972 Munich Olympics, he appealed to the officials to reinstate him so he could run in the finals. Their response? "It's unfortunate what happened to you. Why don't you come back in four years and try again?"

But Ryun couldn’t just come back in four years — he’d already decided that Munich would be his final Olympics: "I didn’t want to put my family through the pressure of having to hold a real job in addition to training all those hours. I wasn't going to do that."

So he had to live with the fact that at his last Olympics, he didn’t even get a chance to compete for gold.

For softball player Jennie Finch, the 2008 Beijing Games were her last Olympics — but not by choice. The International Olympic Committee had voted to discontinue softball and baseball. So when the US team won silver (the first time in team history that it didn’t win gold), Finch was devastated.

"To this day, every time I bring out the silver medal, it still stings," she said.

2) Your mistakes haunt you long after the Olympics are over

Nick Delpopolo, a judoka, failed a drug test at the 2012 Olympics after he ate a pot-laced brownie at a going away party. He had to leave London early, and was faced with a barrage of mocking press coverage, including a column in his home state newspaper that said, "He’ll always be known as the guy who flunked the drug test for pot brownies."

Even after the media attention died down, some of his friends and acquaintances wouldn’t let it go:

I lost many sponsors. One was a local athletic club run by people I’d known almost my whole life. Friends, foes, and internet trolls jeered at me for my stupidity. Fellow judokas spread false rumors about me. One even said they saw me doing hard drugs — crystal meth or heroin — at a party. I was frustrated. How did naysayers have the right to take one mistake and spin it into a bigger lie, a smear campaign?

3) Speaking out on controversial issues is risky for Olympic athletes — but worth it

Runner John Carlos raised his fist in protest on the medals podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, and paid dearly for it in the days and years that followed. He and Tommie Smith, who also raised his fist, were suspended from the US Olympic team and had to leave Mexico City.

It only got worse from there:

A lot of people walked away from me. They weren't walking away because they didn't have love for me or they had disdain for me. They were walking away because they were afraid. What they saw happening to me, they didn't want it to happen to them and theirs.

My wife and kids were tormented. I was strong enough to deal with whatever people threw at me, because this is the life I'd signed up for. But not my family. My marriage crumbled. I got divorced. It was like the Terminator coming and shooting one of his ray guns through my suit of armor.

Four-time gold medal-winning diver Greg Louganis faced condemnation after he told the world he was gay and HIV-positive.

I went into my press tour wanting to debunk myths about gay people with HIV. Instead, my goals were deflected by commentators who focused on a bad dive at the 1988 Olympics, when I hit the 3-meter springboard, cutting my head open; the wound was treated by a physician, and we didn’t have latex gloves on site in those days. My decision to hide my diagnosis after my injury was called "indefensible" and "morally inept."

After years of ostracism from fans and the public at large, both Carlos and Louganis say that the difficulties were worth it. Carlos believes that with so much injustice in the world, people with a public platform must speak out against it.

"If you're famous and you're black, you have to be an activist," he said.

Louganis says that he is gratified to know that his story has inspired other athletes:

Fellow Olympian Ji Wallace, who is gay and HIV-positive, mentioned he went public with his diagnosis after watching one of my interviews with Piers Morgan during the London Olympics. I simply said that HIV doesn’t take over my entire life. It’s just a small part of who I am. I was blown away that my life could give strength to others after all these years.

4) Winning gold in one Olympics isn’t a guarantee you’ll make the team for the next Olympics

Natasha Kai was a key player on the gold medal-winning United States women’s soccer team at the 2008 Beijing Games. But by the 2012 London Games, she was off the national team: "Soccer is a brutally competitive sport. Your place on the national team is always precarious; it's like every day is a new tryout."

Injuries can also turn the next Olympics from a certainty into an impossibility. After winning silver at the 2004 Athens Games, swimmer Maritza McClendon was sure she would be competing for gold in Beijing. But a double shoulder injury dashed those plans. "I retired, not wanting to be that athlete who strained her body past her prime," she said.

5) Finding a new career after the Olympics can be a hustle

Donna de Varona had won two gold medals in swimming by the time she was 17. But she still couldn’t get a scholarship to swim in college. This was 1964, before Title IX. So de Varona retired from swimming — and then had to figure out what to do with the rest of her life.

She decided to talk her way into a job at ABC Sports:

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.

Fellow swimmer McClendon had a harder time finding work after her final Olympics. After Athens, she retired and was faced with the task of finding her first job — at the age of 26.

As a full-time swimmer for more than five years, I’d had no time to take up an odd job during summer breaks. The most intimidating part of entering the real world was putting together a résumé. How could I impress employers with zero bullet points? Sure, people are impressed by Olympic athletes. But waving an Olympic medal in front of the human resources receptionist doesn’t mean you can skip over the experience section on job applications.

It took her a full year to find a job.


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