I was 24 years old when I entered my first karate tournament. By the time I retired from active competition in 1974 as the undefeated six-time World Professional Middleweight Karate Champion, I was 34. According to my Winter Olympic metrics, that would make me twice the age of current American snowboarding champion Chloe Kim, the youngest female gold medalist at a Winter Games. I would also be twice the age of Red Gerard, who is also 17 and of the first athletes born after Jan. 1, 2000 to win Winter Olympics gold.
According to data compiled a couple of years ago, athletes start to see physical declines at age 26. For swimmers that age is 21. For setting world records in a given athletic discipline, the mean age is 26.1.
That makes 35-year-old Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway’s best-loved and most successful winter athlete, practically ancient. He made history at the Games by becoming the oldest alpine skier to win Olympic gold in the downhill.
For many of those over-30 athletes calling the 2018 Winter Olympics as their last hurrah, that first step away from sports can be the most difficult one. While some will ease into retirement, others will leave their days of rigorous training and the pressure of competition highly susceptible to depression.
Many experts believe biology will be a factor. Serotonin is the body’s natural mood stabilizer. Researchers believe that an imbalance in serotonin levels can influence mood in a way that leads to depression. Athletes are exposed to regular surging doses of serotonin throughout their careers. When suddenly decreased or stopped, it upsets the chemistry of the body and bouts of depression can be triggered.
On its website, the International Olympic Committee’s Athlete Career Program cautions athletes on what are the biggest challenges athletes face when they retire. They include: the loss of structure, a loss of focus, loss of identity as an athlete, and lack of feedback on their performance.
Many athletes will have the same surprise waiting for them back home – a feeling that life suddenly seems ordinary, sports psychologist Scott Goldman and the director of the Performance Psychology Center at the University of Michigan tells John Florio of The Atlantic.
“If they find something else that they love, then they can transfer all of that passion and work ethic, grit, and resilience and creativity and adaptability into their next phase of interest,” Goldman says.
The process of retirement is a time when social support and communication can be a critical factor if an athlete is to avoid the dreaded post-retirement blues – or something worse, a clinical condition called “Post Olympic Stress Disorder.”
It is important to note that elite athletes are not alone when it comes to negative health consequences related to retirement. In a Health and Retirement Study conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, among 5,422 individuals in the study, those who had retired were 40 percent more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than those who were still working. The increase was most pronounced during the first year after retirement.
Even the greatest of reigning champions, regardless of age, are not immune to “Post Olympic Stress Disorder.” Over the past two years, Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, has gone public with his battle with depression and anxiety. He has struggled for much of his life with this issue. It drove him to consider suicide after his success at the 2012 Olympics.
Speaking at a mental-health conference in Chicago in January, the Olympic gold medal winner said candidly, “You do contemplate suicide.” Phelps said his depression and anxiety problems have plagued his life for the past 17 years.
American freestyle skier Nick Goepper’s personal struggles with depression have been a prominent story during the 2018 Winter Games. A bronze medal-winner in Sochi, for two years he roamed the country trying to find himself, contemplating suicide, entering a rehabilitation facility, alienating, then winning back, the trust of friends and family. Eventually, Goepper’s parents talked him in to entering a rehab center in Texas, where recovery finally kicked in and he rediscovered his passion for skiing. Goepper won a silver medal in the men’s ski slopestyle event in the 2018 Games.
America’s skiing superstar Lindsey Vonn has talked openly about how knee injuries sent her into a deep depression. Her recovery included adopting dogs. Her three rescue dogs, Lucy, Leo and Bear have been given star status in Pyeongchang. They are her constant companions and are much more than her mascots. In a recent survey by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute, 74 percent of pet owners said having a pet improved their mental health. Studies show that activities with animals help with symptoms of depression.
We think of our star athletes as being superhuman, yet they are not that different than us in some respects. More than 16 million adults aged 18 years or older in the U.S. had experienced the most commonly diagnosed form of depression with at least one major depressive episode a year. Less than half have received treatment for it.
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