They’re a rarefied breed. Since the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, just 267 Australians have brought home a gold medal.
For every one of them, this peak of sporting achievement was the culmination of years of sweat, sacrifice and determination – and afterwards, their lives would never be the same.
Now as our best sportsmen and women count down the hours to Rio, four past winners reflect on life after gold.
Taekwondo: 2000 Sydney
When Lauren Burns won gold in taekwondo at the Sydney Games in 2000, people told her it would change her life forever. “But I never really thought what that might mean,” she says.
It didn’t take long to find out, and it was all good. The win supercharged her career speaking in schools and in the corporate world. Her bookings increased 100-fold.
“I retired straight away, which meant I could speak anywhere, anytime,” says Lauren, 42. “I was running around the country. I reckon it took about five years until I slowed down and took a breath.”
She wrote her autobiography (and a cookbook) and completed a health science degree. She also worked as a naturopath. She now juggles caring for two children, aged seven and five, with work on the speaking circuit.
She says winning gold was all positive. “One of the most positive things that has ever happened to me; it opened up a whole new world. On a personal level it deepened my understanding of myself and the impact self-belief can have on your life. It also took me to places I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go.”
Life after the Olympics is a topic close to her heart. She completed a four-year term on the Australian Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Commission, where she was involved in developing an initiative that supports Olympians after retirement and through possible depression after a life in elite sport.
Now she is undertaking a Masters at RMIT, looking at the impact of lifestyle on elite sporting performance.
“Sometimes it doesn’t happen straight away,” she says of the impact of an athlete’s career ending.
“There’s an awakening moment when you go, ‘I’m not Lauren Burns the taekwondo girl, I’m Lauren the mum, the student, whatever is in my life’. Taekwondo was such a huge part of my life for such a long time … sometimes your sport becomes very entrenched in your identity. Some athletes can feel defined by it. It can come a
year after they retire or five or 10 years [later].”
Lauren still enjoys the legacy of the medal. “I am still involved in talking about it, reflecting on it, being in contact with other Olympians. That’s still very much a part of my everyday life.”
Swimming: 2004 Athens 2008 Beijing 2012 London
It’s with great affection that Libby Trickett reflects on winning gold. “The predominant impact that swimming had on my life was incredibly positive,” Libby says. “I feel incredibly privileged and also blessed that I’ve been able to do what I did for so long.”
Libby won her first gold medal in Athens in 2004 as part of the 4 x 100 metre freestyle relay. “It was amazing. Just going to an Olympics is an incredible achievement and such a wonderful thing to be a part of.”
She went on to win gold again at Beijing in 2008 in the 100 metre butterfly. Her Olympic medal tally sits at four gold, one silver and two bronze.
Libby says winning gold didn’t change her. “You realise that you’re the same person. It’s a wonderful achievement and a dream come true but it’s not as though you get a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I didn’t feel different. I didn’t feel like I had changed at all.”
It was only in retirement, after the 2012 London Games, that Libby felt the impact of gold. “Since retiring I’ve realised that I will always be known as Libby Trickett the swimmer, which is an interesting thing especially when you’re trying to establish yourself as a different person in the real world,” she says.
“And it can be hard for the ego at times. I was the best in the world at the age of 23. I’d reached the pinnacle of my sport, my craft. And then it’s – and this isn’t meant to be a negative thing – all downhill from there. I’m probably not going to be the best in the world at anything else.”
After so many years devoted to swimming, adjusting to the day-to-day world was not easy. “I’ve retired and come into the real world and you have to learn everything from scratch.”
Now 31, Libby lives in Brisbane and juggles caring for her 10-month-old daughter Poppy with working part-time in marketing at a technology company. She is also studying to become a personal trainer in the corporate world.
She says that, like many athletes, she struggled transitioning to life after swimming but she’s not complaining. “Pretty much every opportunity that I get now is because of my swimming. I probably will be remembered until I’m on my deathbed as someone who once competed for Australia. I’m now at a point where I’m really proud of that, I can own it and I know that I’m a whole person, that there are other aspects to me, other than just my swimming career.”
But there were also negatives in winning gold. “When I started my full-time job you worry that people have these expectations of you that you can’t live up to,” she says. “[That’s] purely generated from my ego and the expectations and pressures that I placed on myself.
“There are moments where you think, ‘That was a lifetime ago’ and I’m such a different person. I was 23. I’m 31 now.”
Shooting: 1996 Atlanta
Russell Mark’s children have “Olympic Day” coming up at school, and they would like to take to school the gold medal dad won in shooting at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. The medals have been on display at the Gallery of Sport museum since 2000.
Russell’s proudest moments are when his children realise what dad achieved. “This is probably where you understand the impact it has,” he says.
Winning gold was a life-changer for Russell. “When I jumped off the plane [in Atlanta in 1996] I was a full-time professional real estate valuer and when I came home I was a full-time professional shooter.
“I was offered a contract by Beretta [the biggest shotgun manufacturer in the world] on the night I won gold. I spoke to my father and said, ‘I can probably make more money shooting than I can valuing real estate’. [His contract with Beretta finishes at the end of this year].”
Winning gold set Russell up financially. “I was blessed because there was a home Olympics coming up [in 2000] and there was a lot of money around for Olympic sport,” he says.
“I got some very good endorsements from some very big companies like Telstra and Ansett. My father owned a big real estate company in Werribee. He always had a business brain. He said, ‘You’re earning far too much money, you need to start investing’.”
Russell and two partners now own a couple of hotels in Melbourne and he helps with his wife’s shooting range business. “It doesn’t last forever, but the only way you can make it last is to invest it into something. The other people who won gold medals might have bought boats or cars. I bought real estate.”
Russell had a non-romantic approach to winning gold, knowing it was just one aspect of his life. “It wears off really quickly. It’s great for a couple of weeks, the parades and all, but I did want to go back to my old life.”
Russell, 52, won one Olympic gold and one silver before he retired after the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The one downside in winning gold, he says, is losing anonymity. “You’d be hard-pressed to say there have been negative things associated with it – unless it’s being recognised at the local Pizza Hut.”
Russell says he never felt “defined” by gold. “I say this to school groups all the time – Olympic Games are great but it’s only sport. I’d like to think it hasn’t changed my outlook on life.”
Swimming: 1972 Munich
Sometimes Shane Gould says it would be easier if she didn’t have to do the Shane Gould recognition moment. “Sometimes it’s distracting because it’s another persona, like a mask or a character,” Shane says. “I usually have to steer the relationship back to the here and now. I might be doing a transaction with the teller in the bank and, ‘Oh it was amazing, your career, I really admire you’, and you think, ‘This is nice’, and then I have to steer it back saying, ‘Can you put that amount in there please’.”
Shane was just 15 when she won five individual medals in the pool at the 1972 Munich Olympics: three gold, one silver and one bronze. That 15-year-old superstar is now 59 and her name is forever linked with those achievements.
“People pay so much attention to the medal,” Shane says. “To me it’s the process that changed my life. In order to get a gold medal there’s a bunch of things you have to do to achieve that. I know that if it was a fourth place you probably wouldn’t be talking to me, but I would have gone through the same process to try and achieve a gold medal.”
After 30 years living around Margaret River in WA, Shane moved to a small town on the east coast of Tasmania seven years ago. Her four children are grown up. She says winning gold has had positives and negatives. “There are difficulties but there are incredible opportunities to be had. I love it. I’ve got a really healthy ego. It’s an identity. I embrace that.
“For me my positive was the athlete experience. I had no injuries, there was no abuse. I was respected among the squad, respected in the community, I had a sense of belonging to a sporting community. It gave me a strong identity, I learnt a lot about my body, I was given accolades and attention, which was good for my sense of self-worth.
“The negative experience was that I get locked in the past. That was a snapshot in time; it’s as though one still image represents a person’s life. It precludes the narrative of me as a growing human being by locking me in the past, and that can be really frustrating.”
Shane says that when people keep saying ‘you’re amazing’, you start to believe it. “And amazing in every aspect of your life, not just [sport]. It sets you apart and makes you feel really special but that can isolate you. And you’re expected to be not only a good swimmer but a good speaker, you’re supposed to enjoy meeting strangers, you’re supposed to have expertise in politics and make comments. These expectations are quite unrealistic. It’s like a role where you get attributed other capacities.”
- The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will be broadcast on Channel Seven, August 5-21.