Each to their own and all that.
There is no right or wrong way to spend the days, weeks, and months after an experience as all-consuming as the Olympics or Paralympics. Humans being humans, prescriptions that soothe one person run the risk of aggravating others. It just isn’t an exact science.
Yet post-Olympic depression is very much a thing. Like sportspeople who retire and struggle with issues such as identity and self-worth, those coming down from the high of major events can wrestle with life for months and even years after such defining experiences.
Win or lose, there is no immunity.
Billy Walsh has spoken many times about how it took him over a decade to rinse the toxins of defeat at the Seoul Games from his system and athletes as diverse as Kenny Egan and Mark Spitz have endured turbulent times after the highs they enjoyed in Montreal and Beijing respectively.
In many ways, coping with success can actually be harder. Michael Phelps has returned to the pool again and again, unable to replicate that winning feeling out of the water, and Victoria Pendleton turned to ballroom dancing and jumps racing after a decorated career on the bike in the colours of Team GB.
“You have all this build-up for one day and when it’s over it’s: ‘oh, is that it?’ You’re relieved but kind of sad and numb,” she explained once. “It’s over.” Pendleton managed two Olympic cycles before calling time on herself and her disillusionment makes the longevity of others all the more remarkable.
Jason Smyth flew home with dozens of other Irish Paralympians earlier this week with a fifth gold from a third Games to add to his collection and hang around his infant daughter’s neck. He has already served notice of an intention to go again in Tokyo in 2020 though he has had to look beyond himself for motivation.
“It is difficult. For me I still feel like there are things I want to achieve. You can help the sport grow and Paralympic sport and Paralympic athletes have to overcome great challenges and it is about trying to inspire other people as they overcome other challenges in their life. I feel if I have success I can show that anything is possible.”
Strange then that failure, perceived or real, can be a help in one way.
Colin Lynch went to the London Paralympics as a reigning world time trial champion and fell less than a second short of a medal at the Velodrome in the English capital. Rather than sink into a funk, Lynch used it as the springboard for Rio where he claimed a silver medal four years later.
Paul Pollock tells a similar story.
Though the first Irish finisher in the men’s marathon, the Co. Down athlete was disappointed with his 32nd-place. It was limited reward for all those 100-140-mile training weeks and the year taken off work as a doctor, but Pollock has stored his experience in the box marked ‘disappointment’ rather than ‘disenchantment’.
“I didn’t do as well, personally, as I had hoped so there is definitely an incentive to push on and do better in my next races,” he explained yesterday. “It feels as if this journey hasn’t really ended yet. I haven’t hit the peak that I wanted to hit although you do want to take that mental break after the Olympics before you go at it again.”
Go again? He would love to.
The European Cross Country and World Athletic Championships have already been ringed in red biro and he shakes his legs properly for the first time since Brazil when he takes in a 10k in Bangor tomorrow. Yet, for Pollock and so many others, it isn’t simply a question of just picking up where they left off.
Making an Olympics demands ridiculous sacrifices. Pollock has spoken of how his obsession has cost him time with friends and any number of memorable experiences, but there comes a time when the scales tip away from such self-centred ambitions.
Now 30, he is at that age when priorities tend to change. Athletes tend to look around at their friends and relatives, contemplate families and whether it is the time to start one, as well as careers and whether the time is right to stop stalling them.
Pollock is home a month now and, with holiday over, he will return to the A&E ward of the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast this weekend and, after that, to others across London where he worked as a locum doctor before clocking out for over a year in the run up to the 2016 Games.
The question now, for him and so many others, is what to do next? “That’s the thing. It’s getting to that stage where I have to reassess things: does the running come first or should it come first? That’s a difficult question to answer at the minute. I feel as if I haven’t really reached my potential in the running and I feel as though I want to keep it going for another year or two.”
Back to life, back to reality.
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