Ice Network

What's next? Skaters detail coping with retirement

End of career can leave void after years devoted to training, competing
  • Ice Network on Facebook
  • Ice Network on Twitter
Former world champion Kimmie Meissner said that, to this day, it is still difficult for her to watch competitive figure skating. -Sarah S. Brannen

They start when they're little, sometimes still in diapers. Many are introduced to the sport at a birthday party or a learn-to-skate class. They become inspired by watching the Olympics. Figure skating grabs hold of them, and the next thing they know, they're skating for hours every day, moving across the country to find the best coach, seeing their parents mortgage their houses to pay for coaching and ice time and costumes and choreography. Regionals. Sectionals. Junior championships. National championships. Internationals. Grand Prix. Worlds.

And then it's over.

One thing all competitive skaters have in common is the eventual end of their competitive careers, when they have to transition into the next phase of their lives. Whether it happens at 18 or 28, someday they all have to figure out what to do next.

"It kind of feels like the worst break-up ever," said 2010 U.S. champion Rachael Flatt, who retired in 2014. "It's your first love and passion, and it's like you're divorcing it. You still see updates on Facebook from your friends about their competitions, and you get those constant reminders, and it can be challenging.

"I do wish that there was a better community for elite athletes," Flatt continued. "It would be great to have a support group and kind of talk about it. A lot of athletes suffer in silence."

For 2006 world champion Kimmie Meissner, a right knee injury forced her out of the 2009 U.S. Championships. More withdrawals followed.

"I don't think I ever made the decision (to stop competing)," Meissner said. "I think in the last year or two, I really accepted where I was and how everything happened. For a while, I thought I would get better and come back. I still miss competing. It's still hard to just sit and watch skating, to this day."

Without training, the normally grounded Meissner felt directionless.

"The injury wasn't devastating, but things in my personal life all happened at the same time. I had plans to attend school, but I wasn't ready at the moment," she said. "I felt extremely lost. I felt betrayed by my own body. I was very depressed, which was surprising because I'm pretty easygoing and happy most of the time. I wasn't who I thought I was, and I didn't even know who that was."

Gayle Davis is a clinical psychologist who has experience in sports psychology. She has worked with several figure skaters over the past 30 years.

"Some of these kids start skating when they're 4 or 5 years old," Davis said. "And then, at some point, they get up the next day and there's nothing there. So people become helpless, hopeless, because they didn't develop anything outside of skating. For 12 years, they've known exactly what they were doing -- and then that's gone. They just don't fit anymore. It's just brutal."

Some skaters plan ahead, giving a lot of thought to what they'll do when their competitive years are over. Others stay in the moment, not thinking about anything much past the season in front of them.

"You're going to have to have a career, and connections with people and life experiences," Davis said. "If you haven't done anything to prepare for that, you're kind of lost. Prepare yourself for what phases of your life you're going to be experiencing after skating, no matter how far you go."

Show skating

A lucky few are able to turn from competitive skaters into show skaters with great success. As the 1984 Olympic champion, Scott Hamilton had plenty of opportunities to stay on the ice for the second act of his skating career.

"The next part is so new -- I can be anybody I want, yearly, daily," Hamilton said. "For someone with ability, now, all of a sudden, those shackles fall off. Suddenly, you can explode into creativity and touch the audience in a new way. I went from first steps on the ice to last competition in 16 years, and then I toured for 20. Tell me which is more fun? What you get to be is anything you want."

Jimmie Santee, the executive director of the Professional Skaters Association (PSA), had always had a plan for his post-competitive days.

"From the time I was really little, I wanted to be a comedian in an ice show," Santee said. "So, as I kept competing, my plan was to go with Ice Capades or Holiday on Ice."

In Santee's case, the shock of facing life after skating happened when his show-skating years ended abruptly.

"I had broken my leg pretty badly, so that was the end of my career," he said. "My skating was completely over. I struggled for a long time. A sports psychologist, Caroline Silbey, said, 'You're grieving. A big part of your identity is over now, and you're going through those phases of grieving.' It was pretty eye opening."

School

Flatt had her next step planned out for years: She would go to college and then to medical school, with the goal of becoming a doctor.

She retired after the 2014 U.S. Championships and headed straight back to class that Monday. Nevertheless, Flatt found herself unexpectedly emotional on the the flight from Boston to San Francisco, unable to sleep after all the excitement and watching TV on the seatback in front of her.

"All of a sudden, they started showing highlights from the 2010 Olympics," Flatt said. "They showed a section of my program, and it was instantaneous tears. I didn't expect to feel like I was losing something, but it was a realization that, 'This is it. I'm not going to be stepping on the ice in front of tens of thousands of people and performing my heart out anymore.' It did feel like a punch to the gut."

Friends and family can help. Flatt got tremendous support from her Stanford roommate, Jasmine Camp, a basketball player who planned to retire the following year. Camp helped Flatt in 2014, and the next year Flatt was able to return the favor.

In the end, Flatt decided not to go to medical school. She is working in a mental health research lab and is preparing to apply to graduate school, to potentially pursue a degree in public health and an MBA.

"Part of the reason I'm working on these projects is because of all the mental health issues in skating, and in sports more broadly, both while you're an athlete and after you retire," Flatt said. "I didn't necessarily deal with these issues, but there's a huge problem of eating disorders in skating, and a lot of athletes deal with severe anxiety when competition rolls around. In addition to that, many athletes struggle with depression after their retirement, because there is a huge void without the daily training and obligations to your sport and career. As athletes, we are supposed to be strong mentally and physically, so it's difficult to admit when we're struggling."

Davis says that one problem she sees a lot is athletes having unrealistic expectations for what the future will hold.

"They build their entire identity around being a skater, and it's all about training," Davis said. "There are some people who don't even go to school -- they don't develop friendships and life skills in the same way -- so when they're not skating, they have nothing to fall back on, and some people just shrivel."

Parents and coaches

It's not just skaters who struggle with the end of a competitive career: Parents also have to cope with losing the focus that has dominated their lives for years.

"My parents were kind of mourning the loss of something, too," Meissner said. "I wish I could have helped them a bit, but I couldn't even help myself."

In certain instances, the end of a professional relationship can be very difficult on coaches.

"It's just as stressful for the coaches, because they had such an emotional connection with the skaters," Santee said. "All of a sudden, the skater feels like their relationship with the coach has changed. I've witnessed it, when coaches turn their back on skaters when they've decided to go to college."

Support

Both Meissner and Flatt said it was important for them to be able to tell someone what they were going through.

"I've always been very close to my family, and they were incredible throughout this whole thing," Meissner said. "It would have been nice to talk to other skaters about it. When I did finally open the door and let other skaters know how I was feeling, I received a lot of support."

Meissner found comfort in a couple of her contemporaries: Ryan Bradley, who had to cope with the disappointment of never making an Olympic team, and a legend whose career also ended in injury, and not on her own terms.

"Sochi was the first Olympics I had gone to (as a spectator)," Meissner said. "I was sitting with Michelle Kwan during practice, and she told me she still misses competing and it's not going to go away, and it shouldn't. It was a big part of who we were, and we should embrace it."

"Talking about it was the best thing I ever did," Flatt said. "I'm so independent, and I want to do everything on my own. But just in the past year, I've come to realize how important it is to just talk to someone else, having people in your corner who are supportive of you and will sit there and listen to you and provide a helping hand if you need it. I really hope everyone has someone like that in their lives."

Moving on

Not everyone has a hard time leaving competition. Since retiring after the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Douglas Razzano has made a natural transition to coaching and choreography, and he has also done a bit of show skating.

"It was clearly the right time. I knew going into Greensboro in 2015 that it might be my last (U.S. championships)," Razzano said. "I had a darn good career. I got to see the world doing what I love, which many people don't get to do. I met amazing people and had fantastic experiences, and I was completely OK with [retiring]."

Beginning the post-competitive phase of one's career may be different for everyone, and harder for some than others -- but like it or not, it's going to happen.

"I saw something that really touched me, on the wall of a hockey rink," Hamilton said. "It said that no journey truly begins until you can no longer see dry land. So as long as you have one foot on the boat and one on the land, you ain't going nowhere."

Communication, Davis believes, is key to bringing about change.

"If some people would talk more about it, it would come out of hiding," Davis said. "We owe it to our athletes to talk about it: 'You will have a life after skating.'"