Again, I’m prefacing with a warning:
If you are one of those people who would lick Ian Thorpe’s toes in adulation and your most blissful moment was when he confessed that he was going to have a shot at the London Olympic Games through carefully scripted responses to inane media questions, please do not read on. I have recently experienced the wrath of those with differing opinions to mine and I really don’t want to upset anyone, I just want to put some ideas out there that may not have been considered in all the recent comeback-mania. That’s all.
I have no intention of criticising The Thorpedo personally – let’s make this clear from the outset. In fact, I can vouch for the fact that he’s a really nice bloke behind the media face and I would have no trouble offering him my first-born in return for a bit of his hair gel… actually that might just be me trying to get rid of LL for a few hours of peace… whatever, Thorpie rocks, okay?
And while I’m at it, Skippy Huegill and Lumpy Klim rock too. Libby Tricket I don’t know personally, but with a grin like hers, how could she not rock, so I’m going with that. Ok?
What does not rock, in my humble and biased opinion, is the whole notion of a comeback.
“WHAAAAAT?” you cry.
What could be more heroic, more remarkable, more inspirational than someone returning to conquer the world after a hiatus in the land of the average, the easy, the mundane, right? Who, but a hero, would choose the sacrifice, the pain, the regimented, tedious, cloistered existence of a swimmer, right?
Not a hero I’m afraid, but an ex-swimmer.
You see, when an elite athlete retires from their sport there is an inevitable period of aimless drifting as they come to terms with life on the other side. During this period, swimmers will often fall into one of three categories 1) Those who will never touch chlorine water again, never ever ever ever so help them God; 2) Those who love the scene so much that they become swimming teachers, coaches, sports administrators, sports reporters, sports writers, anything to keep them involved in some capacity (they are often the ones who go on to compete in Masters Swimming, Ocean Races, etc); 3) Those who struggle to find a way to fill the void left by something that completely shaped and defined their entire existence and, as a consequence, are tortured by thoughts of going back to the life they knew, the life that made them feel whole, worthwhile, capable and, well, alive.
I was one of those in category 3, and if recent research is correct, there are more people who flounder in this category than many would like to admit. You see, one of the downsides of being so intensely driven and experiencing such extremes of euphoria as many elite athletes do (especially the likes of our recent returnees) is that nothing in “the normal world” can ever match those adrenalin-charged highs. Life-long passions are extremely hard to replace as well. So if you consider for a moment, somebody in this situation, dissatisfied with the apparent dreariness of every-day existence, searching for something extraordinary and then realising that what is missing is once again within their reach, would they not go after it? I mean, all they need do is go back to doing what they have always done; live the life they have always lived and they will recapture that fire they so badly crave. And there you have the birth of a comeback.
Now, I’m not so naive to say that this is the only motivation for a comeback, but going back to an athletes life requires a certain level of yearning and that yearning doesn’t come from a life outside the pool that is full, satisfied, challenging and rewarding. For some it may be the nagging of “unfinished business” due to a premature injury-related retirement or similar, or it may be a financial decision where lucrative sponsorships lure the athlete back, but whatever the motivation, the athlete is doing nothing more remarkable than returning to what he/she has always known best.
You may argue that reputations are on the line, that the bravery involved in putting their metaphoric necks on the block is worthy of admiration. I think not. Because from my experience, it requires more grit to stare your dissatisfaction in the face than to turn to a tried-and-true panacea. It is harder to seek out the source of your restlessness, to resist the part driving you to step back and to find a way forward that will fill your soul with song again. Living in “the real world” with all the anonymity and ordinariness in it is the hardest thing a person can do because it requires self-love, self-appreciation, self-fulfilment with not a scrap of external reward, feedback or adulation. In my opinion, the comeback is the easy option.
And the irony is that, in the long run, these comebackers will have to face every one of the challenges of the retiree anyway. Putting off facing the demons, finding peace and moving on to real life is not going to make it any easier. If anything, it may even become harder, especially if they do not enjoy the kind of glorious success they once did. Believe me, retiring on a low sucks big apples. From my experience, the heart knows when it is time to move on and unless they were forced out by circumstances beyond their control, the first retirement announcement was the right time.
Besides, what of the poor kid who had one shot at the relay team, but will now get bumped out because the old guard wants another bite of the pie? (… remember Craig Stevens who “gave up” his spot in the 400 FS in 2004 so Thorpie could swim the event despite being disqualified for a false start at the trials, despite never actually earning his spot in that event?)
You might argue that it’s the nature of sport; it’s a competition and if the young hopeful is not good enough to beat the other competitors (old or new guard), then they don’t deserve to go to Olympics anyway. And you’d probably be right. But I choose to hold onto an idea of sportsmanship that is
juvenile naive rose-coloured fantasy idealistic – it involves humility, grace and the capacity to hand over the baton when your time is up (even if with great reluctance and many subsequent tantrums behind closed doors).
But that’s just my opinion.
And it’s offensive, isn’t it?