Steve Mesler is a three-time Olympian and the president and chief executive of Classroom Champions.
As Sochi’s Olympic Villages empty out, the Olympic hangovers will be setting in.
Mine hit soon after I left the podium in Vancouver. My teammates and I had just become the first American men in 62 years to win bobsled gold. During the flower ceremony, my left arm around my buddy Curt Tomasevicz, my right arm thrusting a bouquet of green chrysanthemums in the air, I screamed myself hoarse over the cowbells in the stands. Then I hopped the railing, swam through the crowd to my parents and cried with my mom in my arms.
I’d never been more exhilarated. I’d also never felt more queasy.
At 31, after a decade of singularly focused training and three Olympics, having been recognized as among the best in the world at my sport and accomplishing everything I’d dreamed of, I knew I was done. “But now what?” went running through my head. Being strong and fast and able to use perfect push technique to move an object on ice isn’t especially useful outside the Olympics. Unless a friend’s car is stuck in the snow.
The hangover grabs hold of nearly all Olympic athletes. For those continuing to train, it can make refocusing difficult. Following the 2006 Turin Games, where my sled was expected to medal but finished a disappointing 7th, I needed a good six months until I was ready to really care about training again.
Even those who bring home medals find that Olympic glory tends to be fleeting. It may get you on magazine covers or TV commercials. But a few months later, you’re back to a life of relative solitude. And recalling the intensity of the high may deepen the low.
Surely, though, the most debilitating hangover comes when athletes retire at the end of the Games, whether on their own terms or because they pushed themselves too far for too long and have no choice.
It’s scary to suddenly be out there on your own. In my case, retiring meant detaching myself from the cohesive unit I’d been part of. The guys in my sled were all continuing on — they’ve been competing in Sochi — and I missed our mutually encouraging effort. I also had to learn to find my way without coaches, physical therapists, sled technicians, a bobsled federation and an Olympic committee in my corner — an entire team assembled for the sole goal of my success on the track.
It’s equally scary to realize that the physical skills you’ve so carefully crafted don’t transfer to the real world. I think that’s partly why a lot of athletes stay involved as coaches or administrators. It’s tough to give up your expertise in something and start all over again. And it gets tougher the older you get.
Intertwined with all this is the fear of losing your identity and sense of purpose. I’d spent my life trying to be a better athlete — in track before bobsled. Retiring left me with a void I desperately needed to fill.
For some athletes, the transition can be so disorienting that it leads to, or exacerbates, depression. In the summer of 2011, skier Jaret “Speedy” Peterson, an old friend and teammate, took his life barely more than a year after winning a silver medal in men’s aerials in Vancouver. The 29-year-old called the police as he entered the hills between Salt Lake and Park City, Utah, to report where they would find his body. Peterson battled more demons than most Olympic athletes do. But a lot of us could identify with what he used to say about feeling more comfortable upside down five stories in the air than right side up with his feet on the ground. Outside of our sports, it’s not so obvious what the goal should be.
The U.S. Olympic team and the national organizations for each sport do offer programs designed to help athletes plan their transitions. But those programs aren’t especially visible or accessible. And many athletes are so focused on training that they aren’t receptive to the idea that they should be thinking about what comes next.
I certainly wasn’t. In fact, I kind of backed my way into a new career. Inspired by my parents, both teachers, and my sister, who was getting her PhD in education policy, I had a sense that I wanted to work with kids. And I wanted to be engaged in a way that would have more impact than the photo-op-level involvement that Olympic activism too often takes. When I started mentoring, however, I had no idea that it would become my new passion, my obsession, my identity.
Now in its third official year, the nonprofit organization my sister and I founded, Classroom Champions, has connected 41 Olympic and Paralympic athletes from three countries with more than 3,500 students, supported 142 teachers in 115 high-needs schools, and donated more than $50,000 in technology to enable the athletes and students to interact throughout the year.
Among those involved are Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who just won the United States’ first gold medal in ice dancing. They’ve put together monthly video lessons and hosted Google Hangouts with their six classrooms, even as they train and compete. (Their New York class also got to see them in person when Davis and White skated on the “Today” show.) Luge athlete Erin Hamlin mentored five classrooms across the country this season as she made her way to Sochi and the United States’ first individual luge medal. And sled hockey Paralympian Joshua Sweeney, who lost his legs serving as a Marine in Afghanistan, has shown his kids what it means to persevere.
As for me, the energy that was once selfishly focused on making myself a better athlete is now directed outward. I wish I’d gotten involved in something like Classroom Champions earlier and been able to step outside my bubble more when I was training and competing.
Sadly, the United States is one of the only countries that doesn’t make a concerted effort to get its Olympic athletes into schools to teach and inspire. The U.S. Olympic Committee let go its education outreach staffer years ago. It maintains that its mission is to support athletes in winning Olympic medals (“achieving sustained competitive excellence”) and that athletic performances should be sufficient to inspire. No need to get directly involved in public education.
I disagree. I’ve seen how much more impact direct engagement can have on kids. And it can be beneficial to our athletes, too. For one thing, greater connection to the world may make their eventual transitions to retirement easier.
I’ll admit that the Sochi Games briefly revived my hangover. I was in New York ahead of an Olympic Committee sponsor event and watched the Opening Ceremonies from a hotel lounge, eating sushi and drinking a beer, by myself. Seeing my good friends march, I remembered the euphoria of being surrounded by people living their dreams and entering a stadium that is pure electricity. But remembering without experiencing the sensation left me feeling far removed.
Overall, though, Sochi has been therapeutic for me. I’ve enjoyed watching the competitions from my new vantage point. During the bobsled races this past week, rather than critiquing push technique or evaluating drives, I’ve been fascinated by the athletes’ body language as they exited their sleds and by their post-race interviews — how they are able to tell the story in the moment and how someone who is looking up to them might interpret that story.
The newly crowned Olympic silver medalists in women’s bobsled, Elana Meyers and Lauryn Williams, gave two of the most gracious “acceptance” speeches I’ve ever seen from people who finished just shy of gold. (They fell from first place in the last of four heats and by a margin of 0.1 second.) “It’s an upgrade,” Meyers said, framing it in reference to her bronze medal in Vancouver. “I’m hoping that it’s going to bring a lot of attention to bobsled and it’s going to get other people wanting to be involved,” Williams offered. They were humble, genuine and appreciative. And I was inspired.