I was asked a question recently: “What did it feel like coming home from the Olympics?”
This was from a guy who’d spent 37 days in a boat with 3 mates rowing across the Atlantic Ocean unassisted.
He was grappling with his own observation: “I still have to take out the rubbish.”
I gave an initial response on the call, then sent an email the next morning with more detail. I want to expand on it here.
After playing water polo for Australia in Athens in 2004, I had about 3 weeks of contentment.
A week on Santorini Island in Greece. The welcome home parades back in Australia. A week on South Stradbroke Island. Then I started to get restless.
The Olympics was the culmination of an 11 year journey. It left a huge void in my time, focus, energy, commitment, passion, drive. So I filled it. Fast. Seemed simple enough: job interviews or start my first business?
I chose the latter and jumped in.
But I think I missed a key opportunity to integrate the Olympic experience. It took me years to come to appreciate, talk about and actually feel some sense of satisfaction from the work that went into getting there, the experience itself and the lessons I learned.
It seems mad looking back, but I virtually dismissed the Olympics when I returned.
I found it hard, if not impossible, to communicate to others what had happened over there. How on earth do you explain the entirety of an Olympic Games to someone who wasn’t there?
- The insane, near out-of-body high of the opening ceremony after 11 years of chasing my dream. Of seeing my family in the stadium as I marched around. Of jumping up on a speaker next to the running track to raise my arms to them, to connect across the crowd, to attempt, if only for a few seconds, to share that moment with them.
- The adrenaline of lining up to play against Greece in front of 6,000 Greeks going berserk. Then the heart break of missing a shot in that same game that might have given us an edge to stay in the hunt for medals.
- The mundanity and tedium of sitting around waiting for the next training session.
- The disappointment of playing in front of small crowds for most of the tournament.
- The embarrassment of having diarrhoea from the day I arrived. I thought it was a tummy bug but it was nearly certainly a physiological response to the situation. It completely stopped the day I left the Olympic village.
- The shame and fear of a media mistake that nearly had me sent home mid way through the Games.
When I returned, I felt a huge pressure, real or imagined, to share only my highlight reel. I was terrified of people thinking I was big-noting myself or being ungrateful or simply feeling sorry for myself. Often that meant superficial conversations or quickly changing the topic.
I think, in some strange way, I left parts of the 23 yr old Olympian in Greece. It has taken me years to bring him all home. Years to own the ups and the downs. Years to understand the lessons that might be applied in my life, and even more importantly, that might help others.
In hindsight, I’ve seen this void play out for me numbers of times, most obviously after intense experiences like the Olympics, the death of my father or the decision to leave my business.
The uncertainty can feel brutal.
I’ve also spoken to many others about it over the years.
From retiring Olympians and pro athletes to parents moving into the next “stage” of parenting, from execs closing multi-year, multi-billion dollar deals to people leaving jobs, from special forces veterans returning to civilian life after 10 years of service to founders stepping away from their own companies…
The circumstances differ but the theme of transition is the same.
And the question that remains is hard:
I was fortunate. Post Olympics, I transitioned relatively easy. My parents had (thankfully) insisted I study all the way through my water polo career. I didn’t think much, just launched myself into work.
When Dad died though, it was a completely different story. I’d lived my life setting goals and suddenly I couldn’t find a single goal I cared about.
When I resigned from my businesses, I worked hard to deliver the best possible handover. On both occasions I didn’t know what was next. And both times, when I looked at my calendar on that first Monday of the new chapter, it was empty. I felt alone.
We all face the void sooner or later. I have – many times over. It just happened that on this occasion my Olympics were public, visible, branded. There have been plenty of mine that weren’t.
Below are tactics I’ve accumulated that have helped me navigate these kinds of situations. Sometimes all I need is one of them to help me just get clear on the next step. If they’re useful, please take what suits and make it your own.
- Reflecting and writing up private notes about specific elements of these experiences as and when I felt the urge. Sometimes I’ve written down a single statement in my phone. I’ve written articles like this one or whole letters to people. Some I sent, some I didn’t. Other times, to remove the intimidation of a blank page, I’ve followed reflection frameworks to provide more structure and drill into the details to extract lessons.
- Story telling publicly – in speeches, written, on podcasts – and over time getting more and more real with what it was like: the good, the bad and the ugly. Now I try to drop the filter altogether and focus on highlighting lessons and actionable insights.
- Discussing experiences privately with others from similar situations but different contexts – business, sport, life, military, relationships, etc. I’ve found comfort in sharing some of the intensity of each other’s experiences, even if I can’t ever fully comprehend the details.
- Philosophy – Stoicism, Taoism, Zen, The Bible, The Quran and others. Without a doubt, this process of change and transition is universal and has been going as long as humans have been able to write about it. For me, it’s about reading these books and content from the standpoint of seeking wisdom.
- Connecting to my values. Two questions I often reflect on have been particularly useful when navigating uncertainty: What are my values? [Answer: Love, Gratitude, Humility, Exploration, Contribution.] How can I bring them to life today? [Answer: a specific action related to a conversation, an interaction at home, a business decision, my health, nearly anything. Specificity is critical here.]
- Clarifying importance. Three questions I like to reflect on for this: Who is important in this situation? What is important in this situation? How can I make a decision or take action that moves me towards these?
- Mindfulness. It doesn’t require a lotus position on a mountain top. Eyes open or closed, at my desk or on a bus, I breathe in for a 4 count, hold that breath for a 7 count, then breathe out for an 8 count. I most often do this 3 times but even once will make a material difference.
- Acceptance. I now find myself talking about the uncertainty of a void (and the associated anxiety, loneliness etc) as “the price of entry” to the change I’m working through.
- Doubling down on my energy. Two more questions I find useful here: What energises me? [I plan and action ways to do more of these.] What drains me? [I plan and action ways to do less of these.]
Whether it was from a deep sense of loss or the high of accomplishment, from all of the conversations I’ve had with people over the years and my own experience, the resounding theme is to look inwards.
Suffering is a shared condition of humanity regardless of anyone’s “success” or otherwise. There is an immense beauty in how it connects us all.
I’ve known for a long time the privilege of becoming an Olympian, of being able to fulfil my dream, of being supported by so many along that path who didn’t get the accolade but without whom I would never have made it.
With privilege comes responsibility. And that responsibility, as I see it, is to own and share the lessons from all of my stories – good and bad – not just the highlight reel.
I’ve seen enough highlight reels.
10 thoughts on “What Now? Filling The Olympic Void – 18 Years Later.”
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I’ve hit this void several times in my life, Toby. Never quite as famously as participating in the Olympics. (Awesome adventure!! My step son just finished shepherding skateboarding into Olympic competition. Your article makes me think I will check in with him. There is a letdown after reaching a goal especially after a long and challenging road to that goal.)
The first time I had a clearly defined goal when I went to NYC as a young dancer: get into a company and tour to Europe. (I didn’t have funds to go on my own so going as part of a dance company filled 2 goals, being a professional dancer and touring in Europe.) I did that and at 24-25, I was at a loss. I hadn’t made any secondary goals.
The most recent time was when my “dream” teaching job at my alma mater ended the same week that my mom when into hospice care. My brother and I were able to stay with her for 6 months until she passed away but after settling the estate I was at another crossroads with a big – “what next?” It was pretty challenging because I had intended that “dream” job to carry me into retirement.
So here I am now, having the best time of my life. I’m teaching people to move out of pain through a similar route that you are taking yourself through – awareness, mindfulness, Stoicism – clarifying what I can and cannot change, acceptance of what is — all of these lead to healing and what I call body-brain balance.
I’ve found your blog twice now through links in Adam’s newsletter. Thank you for sharing your journey and your thoughts!
Hi Laura. I find it interesting how voids seem so apparent in hindsight! Glad to hear you’ve navigated the ups and downs and are continuing on your own path. Congrats to your son too – must have been an exciting moment for him to see skateboarding in Tokyo! Thanks so much for sharing.
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