Every time I’ve won a gold medal, a sea of sports reporters has been waiting for me in a corral-like media zone buzzing to ask me the same question: How does it feel?
For track and field athletes like me, the Olympic Games are the pinnacle of our careers in this sport. It is the largest and most watched competition we'll most likely ever participate in during our careers. So of course, winning the games is glorious, right?
Well, it's complicated.
When I'm still in the arena with the American flag hoisted above my head, and I'm running a lap of honor and sharing my victory with those in attendance, I feel incredible, accomplished, and validated—but this feeling only lasts for so long. Once I'm on the podium, standing tall with a medal draped around my neck, I feel, more than anything, relieved. I’m relieved because in every moment of every single day up until that medal ceremony, my focus was on the destination. There's so much commitment and sacrifice that went into that achievement that my entire identity was aligned with it.
So when it was over, when the accomplishment was achieved, I not only felt relieved that all my work wasn’t in vain, but I also felt strangely empty. This feeling came as a shock to me, and it took me almost an entire year to shake the unmoored feeling, the nagging question of constantly asking myself, "What do I do now?"
It didn’t matter that I had a gold medal or a world record. I sank into a depression that I struggled to climb out of for about four years. By the time I made my second Olympic team, I felt more confident about my performance and the aftermath of my success because I had an arsenal of tools and resources to keep me steady and on track.
Here’s how I handled the low that comes after a career high.
I didn’t allow track and field to be the only thing I prioritized in my life. I took up new hobbies and recommitted myself to other things I was passionate about. Whether it was writing a book, practicing my dessert-making skills, or deepening my daily yoga practice, I was able to jump into other interests and areas in my life, which in return made me a stronger athlete and competitor because my personality had many sides, and I made efforts to nurture all of them. As a result I was able to set goals related to my career and personal growth. In the process, I grew happy, healthy, and whole.
Hedge your own happiness.
I started to plan something I could look forward to for AFTER the big event. This is perfect because if things don’t go well, you have something to look forward to, and if they do go well, you won’t experience the inevitable post-high crash because you’re on to a new adventure. After giving a speech at a huge conference in Norway, I hopped a flight to Bali! It helped me better deal with the emotions and highs surrounding the event.
Become a "one-upper."
After taking an appropriate amount of time to celebrate and process your achievement, start asking yourself in what ways you can top your performance. We can always be better and do better. Take some time to brainstorm how you can, what that looks like, and what it will take to accomplish.
I found, after being a professional track and field athlete for 13 years, that the best way to cope with the emptiness that typically follows a career high is to always remember that your best and most important achievements are AHEAD of you.
Want to take control of your career? Try launching a side hustle—there are self-care benefits, too.
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