By Candice Lingam-Willgoss
We are now well into the Sochi games and alongside the usual commentary focusing on execution, speed and results there has been the expected comments on how this will, for many, be their final shot at an Olympic medal, as they plan to announce their retirement after the games. This led me to think about my retirement from my passion which was ski racing.
The title of Roland Huntford’s 2008 book Two Planks and a Passion sums up skiing for me, it’s a pure sport not given over to too many gimmicks, but also a sport that allows a certain harmony with nature, a sport driven by the environment, in fact the very development of skiing began as a means of survival. Skiing is my passion and has been for as long as I can remember, I love the juxtaposition of control and vulnerability, something shared with other high risk winter sports – I love the emotion I feel when I ski, and I miss it almost every day, I miss being a ski racer.
Retirement from any area of our lives can leave a massive void, whether it is work or sport. A large reason for this is the identity that we lose when we can no longer categorise ourselves as a teacher, doctor, skier or footballer. We suddenly have to slot ‘retired’ or ‘former’ before our title. We have often spent so much time developing this positive identity that we are very proud of that it is something we strive to cling onto. Identity is an area that dominates so many of our personal esteem issues, our confidence and our sense of self. Loss of identity is frequently cited as a key psychological issue for athletes who both choose to retire or are forced to, and its why I firmly believe we should always view our sporting self as a smaller part of the complete person, it is not who we are it is part of the bigger picture.
Deciding to retire from competitive ski racing at the age of 17 wasn’t a difficult decision at the time – at the time it was the right one for me, and looking back now I believe I made the right choices. Despite that, I have been left with a void in my life, a gap that only skiing can fill. This void is somewhat heightened at this “winter” sports time of year. Sochi for me will be a chance for some vicarious living for a few weeks – my heart still speeds up slightly when I watch the ski racing and I catch myself swaying as the skiers turn around the gates and I must admit to feeling a touch of envy for what I am missing.
Filling the Void
I have tried to fill the void left by skiing, interestingly more so in recent years when I began to crave something to challenge me physically that would tick some of the same boxes as skiing. As skiing is often termed a High Risk sport and as Pinchbeck (2014) has already mentioned one chosen by a certain personality type, I sought out something I felt could fill the gap. I imagine this is similar for many Winter Sports athletes as many of the sports competed in at Sochi are high risk in nature – I chose Triathlon, it seemed to tick the boxes! What I didn’t account for was something quite simple really, I wasn’t ever going to be as good at it as I was at skiing. Skiing to me is like walking, second nature – swimming, biking and running are certainly not! The other thing I very stupidly missed was that I am in essence a thrill seeking sprint athlete not a safer endurance one, even a shorter distance triathlon is significantly longer than a ski race. As such this means the feeling I get when I train and compete doesn’t come close to skiing and only very recently did I admit to myself that I don’t really enjoy triathlon very much at all. It doesn’t excite me and if anything makes me miss skiing even more. Don’t get me wrong I love the sense of accomplishment after a good training session and that I am maintaining some form of athletic identity, but does it elicit the same emotional response – simply No.
The Gift of Sport
Reflecting on my sporting life, in particular my retirement from skiing, clarifies to me that perspective is very important. I think with age comes an acceptance that my time as a ski racer was a gift, a time to treasure, but it’s not all of who I am, the gap left will always be there and no other sport will give me that thrill. In many ways I am very lucky – I still get to ski, albeit at a recreational level, although I can’t deny I still get a buzz from checking my top speed at the end of the day or visualising some gates as I race down a black run. So even though the thrill seeking racer identity is no more, I still have glimpses of this when it’s just me two planks and my passion.
Huntford, R. (2008) Two Planks and a Passion. London, Continuum