They were only four years apart as the icons of two Winter Olympics, but the speedskater Eric Heiden and downhill racer Bill Johnson could not be any more different.
In 1980, Heiden, covered toe to head in a gold skintight suit, dominated the speed skating track at Lake Placid. He had declared he would win five gold medals in a single Olympics—an unprecedented event—and did just that, sweeping events from the 500 and 1000 meter sprints to the 10,000 meter marathon, setting four Olympic and one World Record in the process.
Likewise, at the subsequent 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Johnson captured the hearts and attention of Americans, becoming the first American man to win gold in alpine skiing, beating out Europeans in their own backyard. Raised in Sandy, Oregon, he was known to hellcat on the slopes at Mt Hood, and also for running afoul of the law. At the age of 17, he was caught stealing cars. The judge gave him a choice: Serve six months in juve, or attend a ski camp to learn some discipline. He chose the later, and emerged as a prospect for the US Ski Team. After a promising debut in 1983 on the World Cup circuit, he correctly predicted his gold medal in 1984.
But how each athlete individually left their sport tells a very different story about the virtues and vices of loving a sport—and about how love can cut both ways.
That same year that Eric Heiden swept the Olympic events, he was edged out at the World Championships, bumping him from the top of the podium. It was his last professional speed skating race. He returned to college and then enrolled in medical school at Stanford. During those years, he continued to compete, but transforming the explosive strength of his legs to cycling, competing in the 1985 Tour du France, crashing five stages before the finish and, soon after, leaving professional cycling as well, and turning his full-time attention on his career as an orthopedic surgeon.
Johnson, on the other hand, did not go gracefully into the next chapter of his life. Like many athletes, in the years after his big victory, he routinely tried to rekindle the glory. After failing to make the 1988 Olympic team, Johnson continued to hover at the edges of the sport for years, eventually making a heralded comeback attempt at the age of 40 in 2001. At the time, he was living in a mobile home, and his marriage had recently ended. As he left for the Olympic trials, he told his ex-wife he would win a medal and win her back, and with a new tattoo declaring "Ski To Die," Johnson, indeed, made an improbable run at a bold comeback. At the final race of the season, and his last chance to qualify for the US Olympic team, Johnson blasted out of the start gate at Montana's Big Mountain Resort. He was moving more than 50 mph when he hit a bump, lost control and splatted face-first into the rock-hard snow. Moments later, he slipped into a coma. (Although he eventually regained consciousness, Johnson severely damaged his brain and currently lives in assisted living in Gresham.) When Johnson's friend came to retrieve his Ford 250 pickup truck from the mountain later that evening—the very same truck he had been awarded after his victory—the friend discovered a small bag in the cab. It contained the skier's gold medal from 17 years earlier.
My neighbors all won gold medals
I grew up in Wisconsin a few blocks from Eric Heiden, and, in the way other boys know about the cool older kid down the street, I knew about Eric Heiden—that he "duck-walked" for hours each afternoon, holding a squatting position in an effort to build stamina in his thighs; that he ran in the snow without boots to toughen up; and that from a young age, he had claimed he would win five gold medals.
In particular, the 1980 Winter Olympics were something special for an 11-year old boy in Madison, with Eric Heiden cleaning up the gold medals at the speed skating track and the US "Miracle on Ice" hockey team beating the Soviets, with two of the four goals scored by Mark Johnson, a University of Wisconsin player who also lived down the street from my family. It felt as if the Olympics were happening in my backyard. That winter, I entered—and won—my first major cross-country ski race.
By the next Olympics, as I entered my teenage years and when Bill Johnson was storming the European slopes, my love for cross-country skiing—like love from a teenager boy often will do—had turned from something like a fanciful pastime to obsession. Alongside cutouts of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, I posted pictures of Gunde Svan, an affable, six-foot-two Swede, who, at the 1984 Olympics, had won two gold medals—one in the 15 kilometer race, leaving the Finnish team far in his wake, and a second as the anchor man, sealing the deal against the seemingly unbeatable Russians.
That was my freshman year in high school, the same year that my childhood recreational sport of cross-country skiing transformed into a day-in, day-out compulsion. During the winter months, at 7 pm sharp, with my headlamp carving out a small cone of light, I would ski 3.5 km loops for two hours at a nearby golf course that was tracked during the snowy months. When those workouts weren't enough, I'd spend an additional hour, strapping ten-pound weights to each ankle and bounding up a sledding hill across the street.
At 18, I deferred my first semester at Middlebury College, instead loading a bag with three pairs of skis and poles and roller skis, and traveled to Switzerland where the Italian, Austrian and Swedish national teams—and, most important, Gunde Svan—were training on a glacier near the southern border. I rented a hovel of a room at the base of the Alps and each morning, woke early, hiked four hours to the top of the mountain and there, would join the European skiers logging kilometers for the upcoming Calgary Olympics.
For several weeks, I chased Gunde Svan each weekday, pacing his workouts as long as I could. When he relocated to another ski camp in Austria, I followed. And, when he returned to Sweden for the Christmas holidays, I went north as well.
When I finally arrived at college in Vermont in late January, I was in the best shape of my life, shooting across ski trails like a lightning bolt and bounding hills in what felt like a single leap. But, I'm not the first to say that love can be blind, and in my blind spots other wellsprings were bursting opening. After living for the past several months laser-beaming on Gunde Svan and ski training obsessively, I had ignored much of a social life. Nature, of course, abhors a vacuum—and in my first week at college, I took to partying with my new college friends with the same vigor I had been ski training.
The night before my first big race in college, I stayed up until 2 am and, when Saturday arrived, I was still visibly drunk on tequila when I arrived at the team's white van. Two hours later, my brain was still foggy when I lined up with other spandex-dressed skiers in New Hampshire. It was my ideal type of course—rolling hills that I could sprint up and bomb down. But, on the first downhill, I tumbled hard enough to bruise my ribs and, several kilometers later, finished mid-pack. I rode back to campus in the far back of the van. On Monday, I quit the ski team, and never raced again.
Breaking up is hard to do
"It does depend on how you arrive at that last day of competition," explains Brad Cardinal, an Oregon State professor who researches sports' psychological and social impacts. Leaving a sport is a vexing question that has plagued any athlete forced to split from an activity he or she has poured years into, from Brett Favre's infamous hemming and hawing about whether he should retire from quarterbacking, to the high school competitor who recognizes he may never win a gold medal, to a question that is probably disturbing 37-year old Peyton Manning after winning the NFL's MVP only to stumble into a bumbling performance at the most visible game of his career; the body often gives out before the spirit. "Ending on your own terms is helpful," assures Cardinal.
Interestingly, Cardinal explains that leaving major league professional sports, in spite of the public scrutiny, may actually be easier. For starters, he explains, professional athletes learn to approach their sport as a profession, with that emotional distance necessary to succeed at what is essentially a job. Secondly, there are often more opportunities for athletes in major sports to stay actively connected to their sports at the same high level (note the number of former NFL stars who put themselves out to pasture on Fox Sports), while those competing in lesser known sports, like skiing and speed skating, simply don't have the same venues to continue that same sort of high-powered relationship with their sport. "These folks gave as much of themselves," he says, "but with less available (after 'retirement'), they are more vulnerable."
Cardinal adds that the psychological impact of leaving a sport—of breaking up from an activity that has defined daily regiments as much as an overall identity—can be disorienting. "It is hard," he explains. "Often athletes feel young and invincible." He goes on to explain that it often is not in an athlete's mind to consider that the end will come, and that leaving a sport can create what he calls "voids." "Being part of something larger, or something (you have) completely built an identity around," he specifies.
Although the spotlight is on the medal winners this Winter Olympics, in actuality there are more stories unfolding in Sochi about heartbreak, about those athletes confronting whether to stay with their sport or to leave it, and storylines that may take years to unfold from here.
But Cardinal also hastens to add that those same strengths that made an athlete successful can be the same to navigate out of a relationship with a sport. "Many times the skills learned in sports—focus, drive, commitment—are the very things we need (in the rest of our lives), and what can help make the transfer easier," he says.