Life after London: from green and gold to post-Olympic blues

Suffered ... Olympic rower Dan Noonan.
Suffered ... Olympic rower Dan Noonan.

After the Beijing Games, a teammate warned bronze medallist Dan Noonan of something called "post-Olympics depression". He brushed it off.

"I'm not that type of person," said the 32-year-old, who has been rowing full time since 2007 and won his medal in the 2012 quad sculls.

Two weeks after returning from the London Olympics he called that same friend to tell him: "I think I've got that depression."

"It's such a great thing and it's such a privilege [to be an Olympian] – you don't want to come across as [ungrateful] but you go from the biggest high and the flip side is you come down probably to quite a low point," he says.

"We build up for four years and it's such a regimented lifestyle. It's far and away the biggest event and then you come back to normalcy. It takes a long time to recover from it.

"You're on show a bit and everyone expects you to be in a celebration mood but inside you feel  a bit different. You strive for people not to make a fuss."

The Olympics can be an all-consuming pursuit. Lives are dedicated to and dictated by that one goal. Athletes can make a range of sacrifices, including missing significant events with loved ones and, often, not pausing to consider who they are or want to be outside their sport.

It is all done for the dream of greatness. But that dream often comes to an abrupt halt. For many, life after the fact has not been considered. What happens when the podium has been packed away and the party lights dim?

It's been a little more than two months since the London Games and Australian athletes are settling back into their normal lives after the euphoria of the world's largest sporting event. There are inevitable joys of seeing friends, family and partners the athletes dearly miss. There is also now the freedom to live life as they please.

Some find the transition smooth.

Last week, gold medallist Alicia Coutts returned to her part-time job at an animal welfare shelter in Canberra. "Some people say it's really depressing coming back but I don't feel that way," she says. "I did what I needed to do and it's back to business."

For many others, there is a sense of emptiness. Where once there were training sessions and performance consultations, there is now endless time with nothing to do. And the great goal is gone.

"Whilst everyone else has an established life, you've got a whole bunch of free time," says 32-year-old rower James Chapman, a silver medallist in the coxless four.

"The vacuum that's created by a lack of goals [post-Olympics] is very hard to fill. There's the dizzying height and the crashing lows after. It cannot be re-created by anything."

Arriving home, as many do, without work or a sense of purpose and suddenly having time on your hands is a "double whammy", Chapman says.

"It's important to be able to have something to work towards."

If there is no target the consequences can be devastating.

Shane Gould, the superstar swimmer of the '70s, suffered decades of depression after a five-medal haul at the Munich Games.

More recently, Geoff Huegill revealed he had suffered depression, abused drugs and contemplated suicide after winning silver and bronze in Olympic swimming events.

"It didn't take long for me to hit rock bottom," he wrote in his 2011 book, Be Your Best. "By 2005, my party life had given me a drinking problem, financial worries and I was experiencing depression. I also started having suicidal thoughts.

"If I wasn't catching up on a lifetime of sleep in 2005, I was either drunk or off my face, partying away what little money I had left. I had no direction or goal in life. I was ruining the reputation I had worked for in the pool and was letting down my friends and the few remaining sponsors I had."

Huegill's experience may have been at the extreme end of the spectrum, but he is not alone in the feeling of aimlessness. Partying, as he and others have found, does not fill the void.

"You're so fit and healthy and active and then, at the flick of a switch, you're not eating so well, you're going out and partying," Noonan says. "People think, 'It's party time, it's going to be great'. But it's quite the opposite. You catch up with people on Friday or Saturday night and then you've got the rest of the week . . . there's a lot of time to think and you don't have goals."

While athletes are given access to team psychologists, many do not use these resources, Chapman says, "particularly if you didn't engage with them prior to the Olympics".

Chapman still trains, now for an hour a day instead of six, and has returned to his former job as a banker. But even then, "sitting for 10 hours a day isn't exactly riveting".

Having said that, he says a "huge positive" is that he has time to spend with his friends and two sisters, "who have been a huge support".

Like Chapman, who is in Boston competing at an international regatta, Noonan has relished the chance to spend time with friends and his partner.

The former plumber, now head rowing coach at Sydney's St Ignatius' Riverview, has set up house with his girlfriend after years of living out of a suitcase and sharing rooms with his rowing crew.

"Seeing your family and friends and your girlfriend, they're the things you miss quite a lot. I believe it's the first two months that are the worst. It's starting to get better."

Noonan has committed to the nationals in March next year. "I'm quite excited to do that."

After that, he's "leaning towards Rio". In the meantime, "I need a year where I don't go overseas – I want to give the girlfriend a year. She's been nothing but supportive".

For others, the antidote to a post-Olympic comedown is to crack on with training. World 2009 and 2010 triathlon champion and bronze medallist in Beijing, Emma Moffatt, crashed in the cycle leg at London.

"I have a few scars – they're my Olympic rings," she jokes. "I hadn't really crashed in a race before, so I was a bit shocked. But there was a wet, oily road and I was going around it probably a bit too fast and slid out . . . it all happened quite slowly but there was nothing I could do about it, so it was quite unfortunate that it was at London.

"I was pretty upset for maybe two hours after the race – going through my head 'what if I did this or what if I did that' . . . it was a bit sad knowing I hadn't gone and achieved what I wanted to."

Moffatt, 27, who works with sponsors such as Metamucil and has trained full time for the past six years, is already back in training. "I had a week off in the village [and took] a bit more of a relaxed approach – I still did two or three sessions every day . . . I'm quite enjoying it – I didn't think I would."

This weekend she will compete in the finals of the world triathlon series in Auckland.

"Obviously, I didn't finish the race [in London], so I don't want to finish my season," she says.

"For me it's about having a few more races and . . . seeing what I'm capable of."

After an equally disappointing Olympics, 22-year-old Belinda Hocking also wants to see what she is capable of.

A silver medallist in the 200 metres backstroke at the 2011 world championships, she was devastated not to make the finals of the event in London.

"I've never trained so hard in my life," she says. "Mentally, I was great . . . and physically, I was in the best shape of my life. Then I didn't make the final in my pet event and thought: 'Is it even worth it?' You feel like you didn't get anything out of it."

Struck with tonsillitis days before the race, she gave it everything she had, but her body was ravaged.

"I just needed eight days of not being sick or getting injured . . . but you can't control the outside environment," she says.

After the race, apart from being physically exhausted, she had her tonsils and wisdom teeth removed. "You're pushing your body to its absolute limits. When you do have a break your body does crash down," she says. She spent an entire month confined to bed.

It was a time for the athlete, who began swimming seriously at 12 and who has spent close to 14,000 hours in the water, to recover and reflect.

"After the race I wrote everything I could remember down and then kept adding to it," she says.

"When I was in bed, I pulled it out and went over it and realised that it was out of my control. I was looking for something to be wrong so I could fix it. But sometimes shit happens."

That knowledge didn't diminish the pain, however.

"Mum and dad found it quite hard," she says. "When we got back I was starting to feel everything and they were shocked at how upset I was. I felt they'd flown all that way and I didn't do well. But, for them to still be proud of me meant the world to me.

"I did everything I could and I am proud of myself. You always want what you can't have but . . . I go to sleep at night knowing I did everything I could."

Since recovering, she has worked part time in childcare and has spent time with family and friends.

"I visited my brother in Tamworth and that was really special to me," she says. "It's also nice to see how the other side lives. But, it makes you realise how much you want to keep doing it."

She will start training again next week.

"Honestly, before the 2008 Games I thought I wouldn't swim until Rio. But I didn't get what I wanted out of London, so I owe it to myself to see how far I can go."

It is in seeing how far she can go and enduring the natural pain of a big, disappointing comedown, that she tests her mettle and discovers who she wants to be, in and out of the pool.

"Life goes on. There are still other chances," she says. "It's one of the reasons I do it – the life lessons.

"Layer upon layer, it makes you the person you want to be. The biggest life lessons are after things don't go your way. You wouldn't have realised how to get back on the horse.

"[I have] determination and resilience . . . I think swimming has taught me the person I want to become after I retire, someone who can say 'I gave it my all and stood up for myself.' '

This story Life after London: from green and gold to post-Olympic blues first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.