DERVAL O'ROURKE: Retirement is inevitable though not always imminent

At 32, I’m considered to be in the prime of my professional life.

The people I went to college with have worked their way up the career ladder and are coming into their own in their chosen fields.

The only problem is the career I chose involves sprinting 100 metres while jumping over ten hurdles as fast as possible. Being 32 means I am in the twilight years of my running career and perhaps even considered finished by some people. I was out for lunch recently when a stranger turned to ask me: “Are you retired now?”. I was left wondering why that question always stings and in my head it sounds like “are you really bad at running now?”

The first time I was asked if I was going to retire was at the ripe old age of 22. I had just trailed home in the Athens Olympics, coming last in my heat and my career path wasn’t looking very promising to the untrained eye.

Thankfully, picking up a few medals and breaking Irish records during the following few years kept the topic at bay for a while. Despite the good results, the inevitability of getting older meant that the subject was never far away. The subject was relatively dormant until five years ago when it started to rumble again. Since then, at some point every year, people have asked me when I will stop running.

Just to clarify, I’m not retired from athletics! My plan is to recover from achilles tendon surgery and race at the European Outdoor Championships in Zurich next summer. After that I will re-evaluate. In elite sports, the window of opportunity for success is small and there’s always the next big talent waiting in the wings.

I have always understood competing internationally has an expiration date and all sports people must accept a level of disposability, without taking it personally. I know it might seem hard to feel sympathy for sport stars who have lived the dream for years and been part of the less than 1% who ever manage to carve out a career at an elite level. At the same time I think it’s important to broach the subject with a level of understanding.

I see three main reasons people choose to retire: performance, injury and desire. Sportsmen and women must be able to compete at a certain standard to justify their career choice and, if their performance standard has dropped significantly, it’s time to go. In athletics there is no hiding from the clock and a couple of tenths of a second can signify the end. The majority of professional sportspeople deal with injuries and at some point the body says ‘no more’. Lastly, after years of living the life of a professional sportsperson, the desire to compete may not be as high. In athletics, desire is hugely important and if this dips then it’s almost impossible to stay.

These reasons to retire from sport are much harsher than from most jobs.

I have always known hanging up my spikes at some point is inevitable. I saw many of my competitors’ careers cut short through injury and others who just never lived up to expectations. The temptation to immerse myself in the bubble of just being an athlete was never that big, meaning that I always wanted to be more than an athlete. It’s a long day to fill if you only spend three to four hours a day training and I was aware that I would need a career after competing. I knew I needed to have eggs in a couple of baskets for that day. I always tried to balance my sporting career with off-track development. I studied for my degree and masters whilst competing at a high level. At one point I was editing a 15,000-word thesis whilst sitting on a plane flying to a Diamond League race. I’ve had various day jobs and tried to make sure the day the spikes get put away for the last time I will have enough options to transition in a smooth way. Despite all this why does it sting when the subject of retirement is brought up?

No matter how big the sports star, there seems to be a fascination about age and the end. This year two of the biggest tennis stars had very contrasting years. Serena Williams has had a sensational season. The tennis superstar fought back from blood clots in her lungs that left her sidelined for 11 months to play the best tennis of her career. Roger Federer struggled with his form and slipped down the world rankings. In both cases there is a constant guessing game about how long more they will stay on the courts. Both players are 32 and state a love of the game as their driving force. Closer to home, there was much speculation about Brian O’Driscoll’s career until he announced this is his last season.

Rather than staying in the moment and appreciating what an immense talent he is, there seemed to be a greater need to know how long more he would be playing. It makes me wonder why we cannot just admire remarkable resilience and longevity in sports stars. When I wake up in the morning and go to my job as a runner, it is genuinely my dream job. Yes, there are tough times: letting a surgeon cut into my achilles tendon a few weeks ago was a pretty low day. Yet there have never been enough low days for me to decide it wasn’t worth continuing. For the few perfect moments I’ve had on the track, every single bad day is worth it. I get to spend my days training hard and getting ready to race in championships. I’ve raced in stadiums with almost 100,000 people watching. Racing is a massive part of who I am. I have carved out an identity as an elite athlete and I’m quite happy with that.

The only issue is that one day, that identity will be gone. I will never fall out of love with running but one day it will fall out of love with me. That’s a reality that is sad for sports stars.

Noted sports author John Feinstein said to understand the impact of retirement on elite sports people you must think that athletes die twice — once when they retire from sport because life as they know it will ~completely change and a second time when they shuffle off the mortal coil. I hope he was over-dramatising the end of sports careers but until then I plan to live in the moment.


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