Facing the Final Curtain with Class... The end is near. For the comeback junkies, like Thorpe and Evans and the rest; for the legions who'll hang up their goggles immediately after not making the Team at Trials; even for the mighties like Phelps who'll likely swim away after London... Everyone swims a last race. This athletic death will come with all sorts of fallout...
A satisfied walk into the sunset, it's not. Even if it all ends with a fine rendition of your anthem played while you stand atop a podium. Which it won't, for all but the chosen few. And if it makes you feel any better, they won't be smiling much either once they've stepped down and out of the spotlight...
Retiring is brutal. No matter how well balanced you think your life might have been as a swimmer, in the aftermath, you will feel as though your soul has been sucked away. It has been; for years your soul has been marinating in chlorine. It takes awhile to clear all that junk from your system. Dark memories on a winter's day...
Of course, some wise fools manage this transition better than others. They can actually cope, with that rare gift of perspective in the present. Last Sunday, in the New York Times, there was a piece on one such athlete. A washout major league pitcher turned novelist, on his way to play ball in Italy, after failing to make it in the Show. His name is Dirk Hayhurst. His perspective should be required reading for every athlete facing the end:
“I think people want athletes to say, ‘I’m never giving up, I’m going to fight till the bitter end,’ ” Hayhurst told the Times. “But that’s just it: at the bitter end, you turn bitter. You’re like a junkie, strung out... because that’s your whole identity."
Fighting to the bitter end... Such a noble down-with-the-ship sentiment. I'd never considered the adjective in that cliché. Like good strong coffee or the best rumor, bitter can have a nice bite, but one hell of an aftertaste.
So, how to walk away?
1. Try the Hayhurst Method - Ween yourself off the drug with a lower dose. Go compete in Europe on a stage with less pressure, a less crippling level of competition. Enjoy the sport. Enjoy the lifestyle around it. Maybe a few World Cups, the Mare Nostrum tour... With best times as an after thought.
2. Cold Turkey - Dangerous, but sometimes necessary. For those whose swimming careers were, and are, a matter of life and death, a slow ween simply won't do. You're the sort who can't do a little, who can't find any satisfying high in the halfway. If that's the case, you just gotta go dry. As in, showering should be your only contact with water for a good long while. You will be unpleasant to be around for this long while. You will probably pick up some bad habits along the way. Apologize to your spouses in advance.
3. Admit to your subconscious that a comeback is coming. When you retire, you won't admit this in words or even frontal lobe thought, but deep down you'll know. C'mon, all these champions currently on the comeback trail? You think they truly believed they were done all those years they were away? I don't. If the door has been left open, even a sliver, you know it. You might not admit it, as you're packing on the pounds, trying out new careers your heart really isn't into, but sooner or later you're going to hear that Olympic anthem on one of NBC's promos and you're going to find your way back to a pool.
When that happens, more power to you. This will just delay the actual end, of course, but that's a worry for another day.
Last week in London, failed comebacker Mark Spitz spouted off about how Thorpe, Evans, and others have lost their edge and were doomed to fail - like he did, 20 years ago. As Swim News' Craig Lord points out, Spitz conveniently forgets to mention a middle-aged woman named Dara Torres. A woman who sees no end, and no need to quit.
44-year-old Torres has been analyzed endlessly, compared to countless athletes across every sport. Maybe all along, we were looking for analogies in the wrong places. Here might be Dara Torres' closest contemporary: Keith Richards.
With all these drug allusions, how can you not think of the indestructible Stone? Quitting cold turkey? Weening your way dry? These quaint notions are for mere mortals.
When the end comes, impossibly but inevitably, for Keith and for Dara, there will be no bitterness... Only a knowing, mocking smirk for those who died trying to keep up.