The Worst Breakup: The Mourning After Sports

The Worst Breakup: The Mourning After Sports heartbreak_444561633

You fell in love. She was elusive, distant, exciting. She taught you things about yourself no one else could or did. She took you to new places all over the world.  Months, years were spent chasing her, growing closer, winning and wooing. But, even after entering her warm embrace there was something missing, held back, a slightly stiffened spine, the latent question always lingering, “are you good enough for me?” This whispered hint kept you running, producing fervent efforts to prove yourself, to earn her affections.

Over time the relationship matured, settling into an uneasy balance: occasional punctuations of dizzy delight when things went perfectly and then the opposite, an arbitrary and tempestuous falling out when they didn’t. These episodes created a delicate tension keeping you in her thrall, ever subservient to her whims, always chasing, always pursing. Ageless, her remote beauty and charms only grew and as time passed you grew aware of an expanding list of suitors who began to surround her, muscles flexing, until one day it all ended as she loudly and publicly chose another. The moment was sickening: even as she welcomed a new young, fresh lover to her embrace she continued to call out her undying love to you. You, however, were jaded now: you had been through it all before and had made your choice. Too tired, too old, too weak, too lame, too hobbled from injury you decided to walk away from her fickle charms forever.

Her name was “Sport.”

All breakups are difficult, but the worst breakups are those where attraction still exists even as one party moves on and when there is no clean break, the cuckholded husband forced to watch his replacement woo his wife. The separation from elite sport is this sort of breakup. Even as her insatiable demand for perfection forces you from her embrace, her demeanor never changes, she is still there beckoning even as she entertains the latest crop of suitors. And, unlike real romances, the entire charade, parade and transition is done publicly under flashing lights without any sense of guile or gall. No one apologizes and averted gazes are only directed to you: the flawed, aging or weakened suitor.

What preparation are young, passionate, competitive, perfectionist men and women given to guard against this inevitable moment? Little to none as it turns out. Not once in my 15 years competing on various national teams did anyone ever provide guidance about “retirement” from sport.  For the romantic fallen, the discarded companions, the color of life disappears and is replaced by grasping black pits of hopelessness that yawn for long periods, occasional white sparks of manic optimism intruding and then fading into stretches of grey. She is gone. I will never again measure up. There is no replacement for the feeling she brought me. She took my livelihood, my funding, my sense of self. I am nothing now.

At some point in most normal breakups the color returns and a true separation from the “Ex” is made. Old healthy relationships re-assume their former stature, new ones form, and in the blue distance of time and perspective the warm colors of hope return. Eventually for most, new and better relationships are formed and the brilliant red drumbeat of life resumes.

But, what if after the breakup no separation ever occurred? What if the two divorced parties were still forcibly joined in an endless anti-matrimony with an arbitrary set of rules that look something like this:

1)     The exact set of qualities that earned your lover’s attention are replicated and improved by the new suitors that have taken your place. They look exactly like you, act exactly like you, but simply put, they are better than you.

2)     Your former lover still legitimately needs and wants you, but just as a “friend” since you know so much about her and she and her friends constantly draw you in to the same social circle.

3)     Sometimes the only way to make any kind of living is working directly for your former lover and her new suitors in an odd soup of fading admiration and mild contempt.

If this sounds like a recipe for a bout of depression then you are right. I am not aware of any studies that exist on the exit of elite athletes from sport, but anecdotally the story is much the same.

You've met them: the high school football star who didn’t get to play in college, the college track star who never made the Olympics. The Olympian who never won a medal. The silver medalist who never won gold. The gold medalist who failed to win again... and all of those who, at some point were forced to retire and in so doing put to bed the one singular intense focus of their entire lives in order to move on.

The desires and requirements of elite sport are insatiable: at some point everyone fails to measure up. Nothing and no-one can satisfy this lover, the ungrateful achievement whore who demands perfection every time and rallies the voices of the world to judge. Michael Phelps? A failure for only, ONLY winning 19 Olympic medals. Bode Miller – failure. Lindsay Vonn- fail. USA basketball – fail. USA Hockey - fail.  Only a few seem to escape the trap by breaking up first - exiting on top and declaring their undying love to some new lover (even if no one believes it). Perhaps Apolo Ohno falls into this camp, or perhaps he’s still riding the coattails of his mistress and doesn’t yet know what awaits.

When I broke up with sport it was heart breaking. It was February of 1998 and weak, slow and tired I failed to qualify for the last final at the Olympic trials despite having a fantastic pre-season winning the first American cup. I did not have enough points to make a second Olympic team and at 29 years old I also knew I could not possibly go another 4 years of income-less training to try again. So, I declared my retirement and Chris Needham, the competition’s announcer, shared it on the loudspeaker of the Lake Placid Olympic Rink. Immediately after in the echoing hallways of the arena I sobbed like a child, terribly embarrassed when my teammates saw me. That night I sat on the steps of the Lake Placid OTC with Apolo Ohno (who had also failed to make the team) and commiserated.

I cried on and off for days. Skating was the rhythm of my life, my reason for being. Despite all my passion and sacrifice I had failed to make a second Olympic team despite putting every sinew and synapse towards that love affair the sense of loss was overwhelming. My friend and teammate Stefan Spielman was a rising star in cycling when at age 20 injuries forced him to retire despite 8 surgeries attempting to fix the problem. The loss stayed with him, weighed him down for a decade or more, in fact he's still not sure he's entirely over it. "I would have paid any price just to be back competing, trying.  I was so depressed for 5-10 years, even up to today I do not think I am over that loss."

I was fortunate. I had a new love and one that could actually compete with my former affair – I was in love with a real woman. I also found separation – immediately: the next morning I moved all my meager possessions into a car and drove 45 hours straight west to get as far away from ice as I could, landing in Phoenix, Arizona with my fiancé and starting a new life. I was also fortunate enough to have a fallback in the form of a pair of college degrees from good schools. I hoped that someone would hire me despite my failure and had to be convinced to even put my sports achievements on my resume.

It may sound odd, but the overwhelming feeling I had for a long time regarding my time in sports was one of embarrassment. In those early years I lived with an ambient backdrop of humiliation. I had professed to be something I was not, and I had failed. My romance with sport had become a source of disgrace. Fellow speedskater and Olympic bronze medalist Alex Izykowski shared similar feelings, "I shared the same 'disgrace'. I had a very similar reaction for about a 2 year period…which came after a year-long denial period."

I refused to watch the 1998 Olympics and for nearly a decade I didn't talk about the sport, didn’t enter an ice rink and severed most of my connections with my friends from that world.  I gladly gave my Olympic medal to my parents who kept it for a decade and lived enshrouded in the bubble a new world of work, marriage and, eventually, parenthood.

It was many years later before I finally began to recognize the gift that sport had given me: of discipline, agility, tenaciousness, self confidence and perseverance. It was nearly a decade later when the rewards of that original relationship were made plain to me.

It started simply. A sign in a grocery store in Madison, Wisconsin read, "Short Track World championships coming to Madison Wisconsin – Volunteers needed." And I thought to myself, "well I could help out - prepare the track, chase blocks - whatever." So I called the number.

"Hello?” I said and continued, “Yes, I saw the ad for the world championships and ... I'm a former speedskater and thought I could help out if you still need volunteers.." An odd pause on the end of the phone.

"Coyle?!!"

"Is that you?"

Welcomed back. It was Tom Riley one of my former competitors and a coach and organizer for the event. Quickly I was re-enrolled in the sport in a new role and recognized not for my failure, but for the part I had played. I began coaching, I began announcing and then was invited to join the Olympic broadcast crew for the Olympics with NBC the following year in Torino, again in Vancouver, and soon in Sochi Russia.

I have been very lucky - my first love has requited her love to me in unforeseen ways. No, perhaps they will never trump the one desire that I aimed to achieve - a gold medal - but with perspective I can see that even such an accomplishment would not have been enough. Perhaps had I reached my goal, my pain would have been lessened, or, perhaps it would have been that much worse. At some point the chase must be replaced by the lessons and narrative of the pursuit.

I do wonder and worry for the coaches of sport. I see so many of my peers during those years still traveling, still on ice, still chasing a revised version of that dream. How many of them are still pursuing the same unrelenting mistress and translating their energies into vicarious living through their athletes, trying to become what, in hindsight is impossible – a marriage to sport until “death do us part.” It does put into perspective some of the incredible passions displayed by some of my coaches through the years. It was almost as though they wanted it more than us…

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PS: There is an even more uncomfortable wrinkle to this tale. What if someone’s breakup with sport occurred during the transition to an era of cheating and performance enhancing drugs. What if an early retirement from, say, cycling, occurred right as the elite of sport took to illegal substances to improve their performance? What might have this crop of legitimate athletes have accomplished? Scott McKinley, Mike McCarthy, Marty Jemison and others on the cusp of greatness, winning the world’s toughest events and then suddenly marginalized – only to learn a decade and a half later that maybe, just maybe it wasn’t their limbs that failed them. It is hard to imagine what was stolen from these incredible athletes and and hundreds of others by the cheating scandals in cycling and other sports. Cheating is the perfect word – the heartbreak resulting from the betrayal of true love is perhaps the saddest outcome and these athletes can only wonder what “might have been.”

2013 Race Report: Birmingham Bike Festival

2013 Race Report: Birmingham The drive from Chicago to Detroit began a structure of energy and feeling that emerged like a fractal: it started with the frenzy and stress of the busy suburbs, frequent merges required to traverse the ant trails of the city, my right foot a hummingbird between the nectar of the accelerator and the threat of the brake, bright sunlight from above burning twitching limbs and blinding eyes.

The transition to Indiana began with a ribbed series of long, straight, tarred concrete boulevards surrounded by a parade of ugly billboards pimping everything from hardware to strip clubs and then finally, the curve to the north and the relief of the Michigan border. The transition came quickly its first relief from the afternoon heat found in dappled wood-lined bends, shadows stretching in the late August sun. With the cruise control humming, calm emerged and I grew thoughtful, leaning into the curves.

As usual it was a “race to the race,” but this time merely to join members of my team the Wolverine Sports Club for a simple breaking of bread the night before the actual event. I arrived with ample time to spare and sat in the parking lot of my old grade school / middle school / high school in Southfield marveling at how it was both novel and natural to park the same parking spot of my 17 year old self and gaze upon the bricks that enwombed and entombed me for 13 years as a child, teen and young adult. Egg shells and dripping yolks by the high school entrance reminded me of a series of senior pranks including cementing the doors shut and painting handicapped symbols in every single parking space. Good times.

Pulling into Birmingham I felt the easy embrace of my cycling brethren: the graceful green intellect of Kelly and Jay, the joyful banter of the Rodd brothers and their ladies Chelsey and Sam, Sarah’s competitive curiosity and Kroske with his camera and quick humor. The night was warm then cool, conversation transitioned and groups reformed and I stumbled into Jay and Kelly’s house near midnight, content yet missing my family.

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I slept in the dark basement without setting an alarm never questioning the notion that I’d awaken in time for an 11:20am race. Wine and time zones conspired and I awoke at 10:20am and faced the usual mad scramble to make the race: eat, shower, dress, pack, lockup, drive, get money a the ATM, register for the race, pin the number on the jersey, assemble the bike, pump up the tires, and then, with 7 minutes left, “warmup.”

The race started fast and strung out quickly. For two laps I stayed in 5th position before folding and tucking back behind the draft of the larger peleton. I had forgotten to fill my water bottle and only had ½ bottle for the 50 minute long race and had to ration my sips. The first ten laps were difficult but eventually the pack settled in and I rode the eddies and currents of the rear of the peleton. I felt the newfound power of a clean drivetrain coursing through my veins and into the pedals and determined I would have a shot at the win. I could hear twice that my friend and competitor Paulo Eugeni won two primes in a row. Good for him.

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Then the pace picked up again and the pack slinkied out single file with 10 laps to go as a break of strong riders went clean. I danced inside and outside the turns with Ray Dybowski and had glimpses of fellow Wolverines Jay, John and Kroske for a few laps and then heard from Tim Finkle the announcer that Ray was putting in his signature move of a late break, but to no avail. There was already a break up the road and the peleton was determined to bring it back.

The sun was now heating the pavement and limbs. Families were lining up in advance of the kids race. Tires were grippy and risks could be taken on the tight yet smooth turns and I spent 10 laps enjoying the mastery of efficient pack surfing, gracefully pedaling through corners on cruise control. With 5 to go we gained sight of the breakaway and began to reel it in. The pace was high and the peleton single file – 200 yards from tip to tail. I was sitting 2nd to last and waited for the pack to hit the inevitable lull so that I could move up for the sprint. It never happened.

We caught the break with 2 to go but another surge happened and finally I realized I had to play the hand I had been dealt. On the backstretch with 1 ½ to go I surged up the outside, asking John Sammut for permission to move out. I jumped from 60th to 30th and then followed wheels through the turbulence and then heard the bell for one lap to go. Again on the backstretch I lit a match and jumped up the inside from 30th to 10th before entering the chicane, but now, with only 400m left I realized that my efforts were too late and that my weakness from the accelerations and the single file line ahead of me would not present any opportunity for the win. I skipped a few wheels and finished a reasonable but unsatisfactory 8th – in the money but hardly fulfilled.

Nostalgia reigned after the race as voices and faces from my youth emerged as the kids race and then the Pro race were sent from the line. My great friend Kirk had arrived and we meandered the course, I talked with Ray, cheered Randy and Ryan and Ryan and Ray, ate with Kelly and Jay, talked with Kirk, saw TJ and Duane and the Andreau’s and Stechkines. The sun angled early and I got back in the Jag and pointed the smoothly humming V8 west at 80mph for for the ride into the setting sun.

Something, many things stuck with me. Most of all what I recall was Kelly and Jay talking about their exit and return to Michigan. They had moved to Wisconsin, and then faced adversity. They looked for community; they cast hooks and reeled in empty lines. They realized, she realized, that they were lonely. The defined loneliness and I sat and listened in rapt attention. They realized that they missed their friends and the sense of belonging of Detroit’s cycling community. One year later they moved back. Despite the economics, despite the city’s woes, despite the climate they moved back and were once again happy.

I have been a Wolverine since 1976 and in some way part of that community since I was 8 years old. I always look forward to seeing anyone from the club or cycling community including previous members – Ryan Cross, the Rodd Bros, Ray D., Frankie, Jose, Sarah, Brett, TJ, Duane, Jason, John Sammut, Cullen, Duane, Mark, Scott, Kelly, Jay, Danny, Jamie, Tim, and dozens of others. Other than a brief stint with 7-11 I have always had a Wolverine cycling license despite many offers to switch to teams when I lived in Arizona, Wisconsin or Illinois. To be honest I didn’t give it much thought – I liked being part of the “club of champions” and flying my colors in remote regions.

The sun was setting as I turned off the cruise control and crossed the Indiana state line with a line of cars blocking my way as I headed west. I was having an unnamed feeling, one that I had felt on and off for a few years. The sun was lighting up the worn stones in the concrete like gold coins. I tried to thread my way through traffic but lapsed into the single file queue towards the border. The feeling grew stronger and I avoided naming it. I tried the radio, flipped stations but the sun dipped lower and lower and avoided my visor and lit up my retinas with its brilliance and eclipsing descent towards my current home.

A rush of nostalgia for the previous hours returned. Perhaps my feelings had a name. Perhaps I too am “lonely.”

Perhaps I too need to head “home.”

Choose your suffering...

I was reminded of this bit of wisdom over the weekend. The human existence contains suffering - no matter how much we avoid it, dodge it, drug it or outspend it, it finds us. In fact in a few brief intervals of my life when I was not subject to a rather rigorous discipline of training or school or a demanding job where I was suffering regularly for a cause, I found that my whole day became saturated with a low level angst that penetrated all my activity.

When I retired from sport and was able to luxuriate in doing nothing for a few weeks and months while looking for a job I quickly found my days wasting away and then scrambling to send a few resumes by the end of the day which coulda/shoulda taken 30 minutes in the morning.

Work requires a chosen form of suffering in the investments of time and energy to the tasks that aren't "awesome". I "reward" myself at the end of a work day by saving my favorite tasks for last AND by allowing myself the occasion to write on this blog or theartofreallyliving.com  But... it is not enough. My body as well as my brain needs some physical form of stress to clear out the cobwebs and clear my mind.

Lately I've pretended that work stress was a substitute for physical stress - that the "suffering" I've chosen for work could serve as a substitute for putting in miles on the bike. I was wrong.

On Saturday morning I was tired. I had had a long week, late nights, big client deliverables. Each evening I barely squeezed in a short ride to prep for the coming big race in Elk Grove. Saturday morning came and instead of sleeping in I had to get up earlier than a work day to eat, then head to the race.

I was "on the rivet" every minute of those next 30 miles. I had a mouth full of pennies after the first half lap, tasting lactic acid and feeling the uncoordinated burn of a body not yet really in shape. It was a shredding debilitating pain and I convinced myself to finish at least one lap of 1.2 miles. After one lap I convinced myself to protect my pride and complete two laps. After two, I said, "one more straightaway" and made it. It slowed a little right when I intended to quit on lap 3. Again on lap 4. Lap 5 I got dropped, but a splinter group chasing hard brought me back.  Again on lap 10, then lap 14 and 16. I got dropped over 20 times and managed to reconnect often by hitting the U-turn at 20mph when the pack was taking it at 5mph. I ran the currents and eddies and swung up 30 places only to drop 29 on the next straightaway. I was suffering immensely. I wanted to quit, I even tried to quit, but always the race reabsorbed me.

And then it was over. I didn't win. I was actually "last" - in that of the racers that finished I coasted across last. A few dozen had been "dropped" I suppose, but I did have a quiet pride about not quitting. I had turned myself inside out and was exhausted... but the great thing about the bike is you can immediately feel good again...Not sore, not fatigued, just "clear."

I went home. I checked my bike. I had a small mechanical problem that appeared to be the equivalent of riding with the brakes on. My legs and lungs were lit up like a christmas tree and twitched all night, but when I woke up on Sunday and rode back to watch the final pro race, my synapses and fast twitch muscles were on fire - I rode the big ring to and from the race and averaged the fastest pace on a training ride that I have all season. Was it the mechanical fix? Or did the massive suffering the day before reactivate long slumbering muscle fibers?

I guess I can't know, but I do know that when you choose your suffering and invest in positive stress that makes you stronger, the outcome is a kind of joy that is hard to find in the walks of everyday life. Riding home Sunday after the race was one of the best afternoons I have had in months - just me against the wind, wheels and sky.

At Craig and Kim's house - at the 300m line
At Craig and Kim's house - at the 300m line