A Sportsbet.io News special feature
Speaking about your personal life isn't that easy when you are a world-renowned athlete. Everybody wants to know about your success, the records you've broken, the medals you've won. But how do you explain when you're not feeling so good any more, that your body and mind are 'far from the goal' for different reasons, or you have to share something intimate?
Some of them faced these feelings at the end of their career, when they decided to retire or even when they reached the top. Few of them found the strength to ask for help, while others, unfortunately, didn't.
"No one knew I was gay and so they wouldn't know why I'd killed myself. They'd think: 'Have I done something wrong?' I didn't want to pass my guilt on to them - even in my darkest hour." Keegan Hirst, professional rugby league player for Wakefield Trinity in the Super League, just turned 30 and in 2015 he came out as gay. It was a long road to this decision, which made him the first pro rugby football player in England to come out.
Batley Bulldog's Keegan Hirst during the Championship Shield Super 8's match at The Fox's Biscuits Stadium, Batley.
Before this the UK had almost no openly gay professionals. Welsh Rugby Union star Gareth Thomas came out in December 2009, aged 35. He switched to Rugby League the following year. In 1995, Australian Rugby League player Ian Roberts, 30, became the first high-profile player in the world to publicly reveal he was gay. Coming back to Hirst, at that time he was married to Sarah and a father of two children. First he spoke with his teammates and his 60-year-old coach, who told him: "You're a rugby player and you're my captain. Whatever else you are is OK by me," in an interview. Hirst found the same attitude from his fans and followers on social media, who are still by his side.
Another tough personal moment for an athlete can come at the end of their professional career. What do you do when you stop training for the next championship, or the Olympics? This thought even came to Sasha Coen's mind when she was 25. She won a silver medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin and four years later she retired. But after that first period of rest, sleep and travel just for fun, she felt 'flat'. "Without the ready-made purpose of training for the next season, I was lost. I missed the highs - and the lows - that made me feel alive when I was a competitive athlete," she wrote in an article.
Like other Olympians, she was home-schooled and started going to college at 26. Her first summer internship was when she was 29 and, "the other interns were a decade younger." Now she is a financial analyst and she helped with a documentary project, The Weight of Gold, that spoke about 'life after' for pro athletes. Brett Rapkin, the director, spoke with Michael Phelps, Bode Miller and Jeremy Bloom. amongst others.
Everything started with the death of Steven Holcomb. Last year, the three-time Olympian and gold medallist in bob-sled was found dead of an apparent drug and alcohol overdose in Lake Placid. He was 37. Days before his death, he'd said in an interview that he couldn't imagine what he would do with his life after the Olympics. He'd been competing for the US since 1998, and after Sochi he didn't know what he was going to do next. 'The Weight of gold' also spoke about his story. Rapkin did an interview with US men's Olympic bob-sled captain in late April 2017, just twelve days before he died.
The dark side of the pro life continues with the young Sochi Olympics gold medallist in figure skating, Yulia Lipnitskaya, 19. She retired just few months before the last Olympics in Pyeongchang because of anorexia. "The disease of the 21st century is quite common. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to cope with it," she said on the Russian skating federation website. Her last international competition was in November, when she finished 12th after leaving the ice in tears. Now she's recovering in a clinic and she told Russian media that she has no intention of returning to a professional life in the sport.
Michael Phelps arrives with Nicole Johnson at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Sports Awards 2017
For a few comforting words, she could speak with another Olympic medallist, the most decorated ever, Michael Phelps. After his retirement in 2016, the 'Cannibal' had the strength to open up about himself and his mental and psychological problem, a problem which often almost pushed him to suicide after big events had ended. He started struggling with depression in 2004, followed by drugs and alcohol abuse.
Now, Phelps is married with two children and he recently said his new mission is to talk about his struggles in the hopes of encouraging others to do the same and get help when they need it most. 'Those moments, those feelings and those emotions for me are light-years better than ever winning an Olympic gold medal. You have the chance to save a life, and that's way more powerful."
Words: Cecilia Mussi
Images: Brian Cassella / Sthanlee B. Mirador