It's all downhill after the Olympics: Elite athletes rapidly lose their fitness and conditioning after they stop competing, AlisonKorn reports.
The Ottawa Citizen
Fri 14 Jun 2002
Page: A15
Section: News
Byline: Alison Korn
Source: The Ottawa Citizen

If you've ever admired the sleek, muscular bodies of Olympic athletes and felt a touch of envy, consider this: The fitter they are, the further they fall.

The athlete's physical perfection is a fleeting, temporary state. Body changes happen to everyone -- they're part of the aging process.

But for athletes who retire from sport, the changes can be dramatic. They can occur much more quickly than for the average person. And they can be devastating.

Lubomir Kisiov, who rowed on the Bulgarian national team in the 1980s, went back to Sofia in 1999 for the world junior championships as a coach of the Canadian junior national rowing team.

He had a great time at the regatta, reconnecting with old friends and teammates. But one encounter was not as pleasant as the rest. A woman walked up to him, smiling as if she knew him, but Mr. Kisiov couldn't figure out who she was.

"I looked at this woman, and I thought 'I know this woman,' but I could not picture the body I was seeing at that moment to the body I knew from the past," Mr. Kisiov says.

"She was probably around 100 kilograms. She looked at me smiling, and she said: 'Look what happened to me. I stopped training and, you see, you will never recognize me.' So you see, this is one of the worst parts in our lives when we stop training very hard."

Mr. Kisiov is right. By the time athletes retire, they have spent years, maybe decades, devoting themselves to training up to eight hours a day.

While some of them keep exercising after they retire, others have simply had enough exertion and stop all activity altogether -- with unwelcome results.

"I guess I rebelled against working out," says Sandy Goss, who won Olympic silver for Canada with the swim team in 1984 and 1988. "I did absolutely no physical activity. I said I've run my last mile and I've swum my last lap."

That was 10 years ago. Today, the only evidence that Mr. Goss used to swim 100 kilometres a week is in the photos hanging on the wall of his office as a stockbroker in Toronto.

Now 35 years old, he's gained 40 pounds since he last raced for Canada.

"It's kind of depressing, when you think about it," Mr. Goss says. "You've reached your peak of absolute physical fitness at 22 and you're never, ever going to attain that again."

He laughs. "That's the reality of it."

And the worst part is that the changes seem to happen almost overnight.

Rower Anna van der Kamp won a silver medal in 1996 with the Canadian women's eight. For the first six months after the Games, she says she retained a "wonderfully sculpted" body. Then the changes started to come quickly -- in her hips, thighs and breasts.

"I was starting to get bulges where most normal people have bulges, but where I didn't have bulges for the last five years," she says.

"And that was a little disconcerting."

A few years later, Ms. Van der Kamp's body adjusted itself again. But this time it was the reverse. She lost 20 pounds and her body now looks vaguely like it did before she ever picked up an oar.

Now, instead of complimenting her on her tall, powerful physique, people tell her she's too skinny to be a rower.

"They know you're an Olympian, 'but you sure don't look like it.' You get that comment quite often," she says.

Such dramatic body changes, coupled with the pressure to get a life and move on to a job or education, can be difficult to accept.

Mr. Goss's wife, Dr. Judy Goss, is a sport psychologist who helps athletes make the transition.

"Everyone has to go through a period of loss of what they've been doing," she says. "And, of course, that takes physical and mental energy."

Dr. Goss says becoming suddenly sedentary is hard on former athletes' bodies and minds.

She suggests athletes in transition try a new activity.

"Sometimes it's better to change, to try something that you've never done before because you have no preconceived notions of how good a certain level is," she says.

"Because you're never going to meet the levels that you were at in your particular sport."

Even so, elite athletes may find that, after all those years of training, they have no idea how to exercise as a normal person. They may be convinced that only workouts of a certain length and intensity are acceptable, and they may lack motivation if they're no longer adhering to a goal-oriented training plan.

And exercising merely for the good of one's health is a "very intangible thing," says sport scientist Ed McNeely.

"The difficulty is that a lot of people that are in sport are not doing sport for their health," Mr. McNeely says.

"They're doing it for the sport and, if they don't see a competition on the horizon, they're sort of saying to themselves, well why would I do the training?"

Mr. McNeely suggests newly retired athletes continue to schedule their exercise, just as they did while competing. It's important they learn how to fit exercise into their day, just like anybody else.

"Instead of designing a training program, it becomes a life program," Mr. McNeely says. "It takes time for them to learn how to adjust to a normal lifestyle as far as activity goes. And they need to be able to cut back on their food intake."

Ms. van der Kamp feels fortunate. Now working as an environmental consultant, she's active on a recreational level with yoga, jogging or cross-country skiing three or four times a week.

"I'm very happy with how things have ended up, and quite lucky, probably," she says. "It definitely did affect my mentality for a while."

On the other hand, Mr. Goss -- who says he his not image conscious -- acknowledges he will soon have to start exercises that are more aerobic than the golfing he enjoys now.

"It's not a healthy lifestyle," Mr. Goss says.

"You do want to have the ability to play with your kids and do things much later in life and you can see if things don't change -- it's going to become important over the next couple of years."

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