The last of the fireworks had died down, the stands were emptying and my teammates and I were walking back to the athletes village. It was quicker than trying to fight the other 4000 or so athletes trying to get onto the buses.
The quietness was pierced by our shrieking laughter and loud cheering. The excitement felt like it would last forever. What a party the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games had been. And what an ending to a seven year long career, winning a bronze and a silver medal in my home country.
This high lasted all of a month, but then, with retirement from my sport came a horrid realisation that that high might never come again. In the year or so after retirement from sport I didn’t become depressed, exactly, but I started to feel empty of purpose. I found that I would feel like crying for no apparent reason and I had no idea who I was without swimming.
At a loss…
This emptiness and feeling of loss, loss of identity and purpose can happen to anyone, not just elite athletes. This feeling can lead to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. In the sporting world it has become such an issue that in Australia elite athletes are now receiving counselling, help and advice on how to cope after they leave their sport.
This support and guidance should be there for anyone. Whether a student about to leave the safety and routine of university for the ‘real world’; a military serviceman about to leave the structure of the army, navy, or airforce; or even a person who has worked for years in a particular company or sector who finds themselves out of a job or having to change roles.
Ultimately it is about purpose and change and how we cope with this over the course of our lives.
I spent two years feeling absolutely lost. I worked in a newsagents for most of that time. It was a seeming fall from grace in my eyes, to go from winning Paralympic medals to working in the local shop. It seemed such a step backwards. As my mum kept telling me, I made up for lost teenage time by going out partying every weekend.
But that lack of purpose niggled at me. Those feelings of wanting to cry for no apparent reason became stronger and stronger and I still had no idea what to do….
After two years of going nowhere, it was mum who suggested I look at going to uni to study fine art. Art had always been a passion of mine, one that bubbled away behind the veneer of a sports-mad Aussie teen.
Off to uni I went. Through a completely different endeavour, I discovered that I was more than a swimmer, that I was more than a Paralympian. In fact, I could embrace the journey of change without fear and learn to live from a point of curiosity and confidence in my purpose.
And so my structure has shifted and changed over the years, but my purpose has melded into a drive – a drive to help others achieve their dreams and goals. This has led me to what I do now: helping teachers and pupils find their purpose and sense of wellbeing.
So what did I learn on this journey of change, loss, and reflection?
Here are three things to consider:
You have more than one identity, one purpose
It is so easy to feel so comfortable in a role that you have had for years. To have that role threatened can feel scary, can trigger feelings of fear, loss, and uncertainty.
You are not that role, you are not just a worker, spouse, mother, father, child, friend, etc. You are all of these things and can be many more. Be playful with your life, explore, and maintain a curiosity towards change. What has happened in the past doesn’t define your future.
Moving forward only requires one step
That fear you feel, whilst in some cases it is there to help you (like running away from the axe murderer in the forest). Fear doesn’t help you when you live your day-to-day life.
The only way you can bring yourself back to your purpose, or find your purpose again, is to take one step forward at a time. If you feel stuck today just think of one thing (big or small) that you can do, right now, and your fear will abate. Taking action is taking part in your journey.
Be inherently curious
Sometimes we are so defined by our roles in life that we lose our sense of curiosity about the world, about opportunities, about adventures we can take. Try to bring some of that curiosity back.
Explore the feelings that you have without judgement, consider where they have come from, and whether they define you. Really think about who you are. Write down a list of ALL of your interests, no matter how small, write about interests you would like to develop and grow.
Be open to experiencing life and saying yes more. By being more open and curious you start to see the opportunities around you that are yours for the taking.
Embrace the change!
My journey has taken me to places I could not have imagined being ten years ago (or even five years ago…. or even a year ago!). I have learnt that you can’t fight the journey, all you can do is embrace it with a fluidity and joy, taking each change, each detour, as it comes, and knowing that where you are today is where you are today – next year, who knows!
Elizabeth is a retired Paralympian turned Character Development specialist and Disability Awareness activist. Read more about Elizabeth on her website.
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