Olympian Clinton Hill took part in the Gotcha Wheels Tour in 2018. Picture: Gotcha4Life
Olympian Clinton Hill took part in the Gotcha Wheels Tour in 2018. Picture: Gotcha4Life

Secret cost of being an athlete

WHEN an athlete crouches down at the starting blocks of an Olympic Games event, every aspect of their diet and training has been finely tuned to achieve one aim: to win.

Even when it comes to their minds, they can allow no doubt and no loss of focus.

If an athlete is competing on the world stage, they've developed resilience over many, many events. From an early age, many would have spent a lot of time training on their own, travelling to events on their own and competing on their own.

Adapting to this lifestyle and thriving in it, is one of the challenges they must overcome for their success.

"It's a hard one to explain but elite athletes do have to be selfish and self-centred," Olympian Clinton Hill told news.com.au.

"As an individual athlete, it's always about me as an individual and you tend to become resilient as one person."

Sadly, this self-reliance is precisely what makes it so hard for athletes to let down their guard - something they need to do to foster friendships and adapt to life after competition.

"The hardest thing to do is to drop the facade and let others come into your life," Hill said.

"You are trained not to show fear, not to show weakness."

The runner won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics as part of the 4 x 400m relay team and the team also went on to win a gold medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

"At a starting line when millions of people are watching, if you start to show fear and vulnerability you're not going to win, and if others see it, they will also think you're not going to win," he said.

"It's a big challenge afterwards to let your guard down and be vulnerable."

It's been a challenge for Hill to shift away from that self-centred focus and allow himself time to talk to other people and not see them as rivals. It's also hard to adjust to life in the real world.

The 38-year-old said life as an athlete was like living in a "fantasy world" where you meet famous people like the prime minister or the queen.

"I was part of that … then you come back and come crashing down back to earth," he said.

"Too many athletes don't speak about it."

In recent years there have been some high-profile cases of athletes revealing mental health battles after retiring, including swimmer Ian Thorpe, who has discussed his struggles with depression, and Grant Hackett, who had a public meltdown in 2017.

While Hackett denied his breakdowns had anything to do with adapting to life after sport, former Olympian Stephanie Rice has acknowledged how tough she found life after swimming.

She said one of the toughest challenges for a sportsperson to face once they stop competing is where to find a sense of self-worth, which used to come from others appreciating their performances.

"Asking yourself the tough questions like, 'What is my purpose? What's my worth? What do I value?' can be confronting and make you feel vulnerable, but once you can look at those demons of insecurity head on and dig deep within yourself, it opens up a whole new world," she said.

Hill believes more needs to be done to help athletes adjust to life after sport, not only those who achieve success but those who don't quite get there.

"I have something to show for my time but I'm in the minority of Australian elite athletes," Hill said.

It can be an even harder landing for those whose careers end prematurely because of injury or before they've been able to achieve success.

"No one cares because no one knows them but they've still put in the same time and effort," he said.

Hill now wants to highlight the mental challenges of dealing with life after sport and encourage people to ask for help. This year he helped organise the first Gotcha Wheels Tour that saw him bike ride more than 400km with about 25 people and raise more than $11,000 for men's mental health organisation Gotcha4Life.

"Everyone is busy, everyone is trying to survive and put food on the table, but we need to take time to make sure we're OK," he said.


The Gotcha Wheels Tour in 2018. Picture: Gotcha4Life
The Gotcha Wheels Tour in 2018. Picture: Gotcha4Life

"We need to spend time investing in ourselves rather just making sure everyone else is OK."

Gotcha4Life aims to get men to identify a friend they can talk to when going through challenging situations and Hill said friendships were very important.

"Once you have a family - I've got four kids - the time I have for myself disappears.

"The older you get the more isolated you can definitely get, especially if you don't have many friends outside work or your social life is quite rigid because you don't have time.

"It's easy to feel you are on your own."

When you don't have someone to talk to issues can also seem more intractable than they really are because you don't have someone to compare notes with, Hill noted.

Unsurprisingly, he suggests sport as a great way to make friends but says people should find any activity they are interested in and perhaps even organise a few people from work to join them.

"Get that time away from work where you can have lifestyle conversations rather than it just being about work."

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