I have worked for years to make a dream come true, and that dream, minute by minute, has become less important. Maybe because this isn’t my dream anymore.
My dream of ‘making it’ as a Professional cyclist has been fulfilled, the cherry on top, an Olympian, unfortunately has not. I have just finished reading the Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. A novel about a young shepherd boy in search for a treasure. The main theme, realising one’s destiny in life. “When you want something with all your heart, that’s when you are closest to the soul of the world. It’s always a positive force”. Returning to cycling in 2013, I felt was my destiny. I was determined to achieve the dream I had as a teenager, to live my life as a professional athlete, and to become an Olympian. But when your dreams don’t come to fruition, it’s hard to swallow.
I have finally accepted the fact that this dream of mine is no longer my dream. Because my heart has told me so. Now it’s time to move on to my next chapter in life.
But why is it so hard for professional athletes to move on?
Retiring is a weird process; this disconnection you feel from the life you are leaving to the life you are moving towards feels far too alike. It’s like you’re floating in mid-air, not knowing where to land, all whilst dealing with feelings of grief from a life you once had, a person you use to be. Probably not the best way to deal with these feelings is devouring a litre of gelato, but the thing is, I can now. And with the click of a button, I have my delicious Piccolina Gelato delivered to my couch. Coconut, hazelnut and Passionfruit in check. The restrictive life you lead as a professional athlete isn’t heathy (eating a litre of gelato in one sitting isn’t either), but retraining your brain to think like a ‘normal’ citizen with kindness and compassion to one’s self is something I’m working on. Athlete’s perception of things are skewed. Or is that just my perception?
This is the second time I have experienced retirement. First at the age of 20 years old. Back then it didn’t end so well, finding myself in ER after an overdose. Now almost 15 years on, my emotional maturity has allowed me deal with this process in a much more healthy and positive way. But it hasn’t been perfect.
I have watched myself disappear from a world I was knee deep in for 4 years. Almost at the same speed I entered the professional cycling world. For me, I have had trouble really ‘owning’ my retirement. Mainly because I can only focus on what I ‘didn’t’ achieve. When really, I should be god damn proud of what I have managed to accomplish over these past 4 years, dedicating my entire life to my dream. Instead, I have been overwhelmed by feelings of failure, hence my disappearing act over these past few months. Avoidance has always been my main coping strategy in life to deal with uncomfortable feelings and situations. ‘Avoidant personality disorder AvPD- Those affected display a pattern of severe social anxiety, social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, extreme sensitivity to negative evaluation, and avoidance of social interaction despite a strong desire for intimacy’. So, in true ‘Lizzie’ style I have avoided people, places, and all things that have related me back to my cyclist identity. Avoiding conversations about my old life, too painful to talk about, but also avoiding confronting my current reality, where I have developed an intense relationship with my couch. Thankfully, my small network of loved ones that are aware of my challenges have been there when I have asked for help. Something we all aren’t very good at doing. Why is this? Why do we suffer alone and in silence? Arrrrgh! Slowly my identity associated around being a professional athlete is fading and my confidence in who I am without that label is growing.
The mind is such a powerful tool. Personally, my mind has brought me opportunities and experiences that only a few are given throughout their lifespan. But on the flipside, my mind has also made me endure times of torment and suffering. Being stubborn to the point of unreasonable measures has facilitated my success but hindered my personal and emotional growth. My main limitation, the inability to deal with my own negative emotions.
The realisation that I didn’t want to continue professional cycling came to me in October last year upon arriving home from a season in the US with Hagens Berman Supermint. I had just signed for 2018 with the US based team Tibco, cementing a lucrative deal with the opportunity to enter back onto the World Tour Circuit in a leading role. I had landed a dream contract that ticked all my boxes. As I unpacked my suitcase at my parents place in Melbourne, a process that was becoming tiresome and unenjoyable, I asked myself, ‘do I still want this life? can I truly find balance being a professional athlete?’ The answer was no.
My life consisted of being away from my partner for 6-8 months of the year, and when I was home, I wasn’t really 'home' because I was living in my parents place at the age of 34. Reason being, I had no money. Then there is the constant sacrificing of normal life stuff as an athlete. Missing out on family/friend milestones, or attending them physically but not mentally because I was either too buckled from the days training or anxious about what I hadn’t achieved in the session. My social life was next to none or limited to other cyclists due to our same ‘work schedules’. An aspect that really challenged me as I craved diversity in my social circle. Experiencing new things were limited due to my energy levels and need for recovery, and restricting all the fun things like tasty food and booze at social outings always heightened my anxiety. The memories of the unique life I experienced living abroad as an elite sports person will always be with me. Those experiences have provided me with a broad skillset but it has also stunted my growth in the ‘real world’. Commonly referred as the ‘athlete bubble’ or being ‘in the system’. This controlled environment encapsulates you in a very small world where you must only worry about 3 things, training, eating and sleeping. Unfortunately, this only works in the real world if you’re a new born baby. I realised that ‘Lizzie the athlete’ must be shelved so I can grow and discover new areas of my life.
For now, I have transported myself back in time to 2009, working as a Personal Trainer and casual Teacher. Except its 2018. But I am content, mainly because I live without that heavy cloud of anxiety hovering over me. The constant pressure and worry of ‘ticking all the boxes’ is no longer there. And probably what I’m most happy about is, I can finally turn my focus outward to help others achieve their goals, no matter how small or big they may be.