It was famous U.S. fashionista Derek Zoolander who said “Who Am I?” as he peered poignantly into a puddle that bore his own reflection in the 2001 cult hit classic Zoolander, only moments after losing the Male Model of the Year award to Hansel.
In defeat, he lost his identity. If he wasn’t the best model on the planet anymore, then who the hell was he? Now I know the movie jests, but I have seriously asked myself the same question several times in the last 12 months during ‘the transition’.
The transition I speak of is the well-travelled journey of elite sportspeople from a fast-moving lifestyle that encompasses plenty of new and exciting, twists, turns and challenges, to a life of…well…not those things.
Long after the bright lights fade, and the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of the feverish crowds extinguish, and the body finally relents to the years of wear and tear, the mind still flickers…
“Who am I now?” It asks.
And it’s in the quieter moments, usually after retiring or being dropped from something you have worked your whole life to obtain, that the pressures and struggles of establishing your new identity gain momentum.
All of a sudden, a huge chunk of your identity, purpose and sense of belonging has been removed. A life that took not moments, not days, not weeks, but years of effort and devotion is gone, with nothing but a set of ‘guidelines’ and a good luck email left to help you overcome the slippery slopes of ‘the transition’.
Normal, everyday questions for sports people become obsolete. How much rest time do we have today? Where is today’s recovery session? I wonder if the game debrief will involve me? Why did I let that ball go? Who is talking about my performance, and on what social media platform? Seriously though, rest time is a thing. I still need rest time, and the ‘boyfriend chair’ at David Jones has become a serious enabler for me over this last year.
And the questions posed above usually, and stupidly, arise before we even get started on the intricacies and important issues of family life, work dilemmas, study clashes, health problems and everything else life can muster.
Lauren Jackson revealed earlier this year on SBS's Insight and the ABC's Four Corners the impact retirement had on her mental health. She admitted the sudden change in people's attitudes towards her while moving from being an elite athlete one day to a retired sports star the next took a toll on her. She said it felt like she had been "put out to pasture". I echo her sentiment and wonder what Basketball Australia is doing now that the cameras are turned off and Jackson has retreated to her new life.
It is a year since I last played hockey for Australia, yet I still deal with issues that arose during my time with the program.
I played at the top level with severe and chronic achilles tendonitis in the latter stages of my career. I was administered cortisone injection after cortisone injection in order to play and represent Australia where needed, but away from the televised events, I limped around the training ground for 18 months struggling from contest to contest.
I found the cortisone worked for a few weeks at a time, until the pain finally returned. It wasn’t a happy place to exist. I was also diagnosed with a generalised anxiety around the same time I was dealing with the achilles issue, something that can’t be attributed to my injury, but is well and truly related now.
I still wake up every morning and walk down my hallway in pain; I struggle to chase my 6-month old puppy around; I haven’t been able to play basketball, a love of my life, for over a year; and couldn’t wear Havaianas, Nikes or boots for the entire year Olympic preparation.
These might seem like trivial things to some, but one day it’s not unforeseeable that I could replace ‘dog’ with kids. ‘Basketball’ with walking. And ‘Entire Olympic preparation’ with entire life. I was receiving treatment and guidance for my ailment, but largely from a very helpful friend and ex-team physio.
Now that I’ve joined the ‘real’ world I expect those ‘mates-rates’ favours eventually to run out. Services that were supplemented before now cost money, and the reality is I have to earn a living somehow.
At the moment, I work casually doing brand development work for my hockey equipment sponsor Voodoo. I teach hockey to kids at Guildford Grammar School. I am at university two days a week (I graduate at the end of this year), I recently finished an internship at the Western Force, and I freelance write a bit.
Thankfully, money has never been a decisive or driving factor in my life. I’ve volunteered or worked unpaid at numerous places around Perth, always chasing an experience over a pay cheque.
I returned to competitive sport in June of this year, playing first grade club hockey for Fremantle in the Perth Hockey Competition.
Why? Because nothing can replace or replicate the joy that sport (and in particular, hockey with Freo) brings to my life. A sense of belonging, a family environment, a brotherhood of mates, a physical and mental challenge each and every week, and a home away from home.
I am still met with comments about looking ‘laboured’ or ‘sluggish’ at times. Another clip of the confidence, and more strain on the body and mind. Lucky I was quite fast before my injury, so now I just run at more of a regular pace.
I can’t understand or accept a world where this is normal. Where those types of experiences are deemed acceptable because they adhere to the sports ‘guidelines’. And there are many others who have bravely attempted to navigate their way through the transition before, mostly without help, and without the acceptable level of care from their respective sporting bodies.
Unfortunately, and as we’ve seen publicly in the last 12 months, some won’t transition. Former Wallaby and family man Dan Vickerman took his own life earlier this year, after a long battle with what we can only assume was his own mind.
Vickerman was a poster boy for professional sportspeople who had successfully transitioned into life after sport, or so we all thought.
He chaired a joint Australian Rugby Union and Rugby Union Players Association committee, and had successfully carved out a career in property development with promotion to a role of funds manager.
Dan had arguably got through the worst of it. He has navigated his trickiest assignment, the initial few years post-retirement where you attempt to carve out a new life. And not a mediocre life either, one that hopefully resembles the remarkable and extraordinary sporting life you lived only years earlier.
The life that teaches you to reach for the stars; to push the boundaries of what you deem possible; to fight and grind your way through numerous ailments and setbacks; to endure the heartache of defeat; appreciate the fruits of victory; and be thankful, not bitter, about the sacrifices you made to get create those moments. Dan, seemingly, had done it.
And then the unthinkable happened. Dan committed suicide, aged 37. Dan, who “always had a plan”, was gone.
So who am I? At the very least, I’m a guy who doesn’t want this to happen to anyone else. I’m a guy that speaks openly and candidly, not only about my own struggles, but the struggles of others, in the hope a more balanced and well-rounded support program can be developed and introduced by the nations sporting bodies.
I’m a guy trying to educate, inform and engage people on the serious issues and challenges being posed to an industry that not only brings us some of the most inspiring and uplifting stories of our time, but some of the darkest and most disturbing as well.