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What becomes of a retired swimmer after the Games are over?

Jul 28, 2014  - Nia Charpentier

The Commonwealth Games, as with any major sporting event, will be a pivotal moment for so many athletes. Some will become household names, whereas others won't quite make it. Yet they will have made the same sacrifices, and been through the same highs and lows that come with world class competition. Lucrative sponsorship deals and work as sports commentators on prime time television are only for the lucky few, and so what becomes of the rest? 

More than 6000 athletes are competing in Glasgow right now, and hundreds of medals will be given out. But even a Commonwealth gold does not ensure fame and fortune. In fact, the exact opposite is what awaits many, as British Olympic swimmer Adam Whitehead can verify. "As athletes, we put everything in to our sport. We focus on nothing else, often sacrificing relationships, education and work. But then when it's time to retire, or we are forced to due to injury, all that focus and structure has no outlet. It can be pretty bleak. 

"And what's more, if funding gets cut, athletes face financial difficulty too, and finding other work can be a challenge as our CVs (resumes), apart from sport, look a bit empty. But athletes have a unique set of skills, and it's just about using them." 

Whitehead, the breaststroke swimmer who has gold medals from Commonwealth Games and European Championships, and competed at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, now works for UK charity, the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust. Their aim is two-fold: Firstly, they support athletes in their transition from post sport lives, through coaching and training. Secondly, athletes are deployed as mentors to disadvantaged young people across the UK. Those precise skills athletes needed to compete at top level - focus, determination, confidence, resilience - are those which tens of thousands of young people lack, and as a result have ended up unemployed, with no qualifications and little hope of finding work in a crowded market at the tail end of a global recession. 

Through the charity's programmes, young people are taken through their paces with team building and confidence boosting activities. They look into their health and well-being through fitness and nutritional advice. They prepare for interview, write up their resumes and gain work experience. The athlete mentor's role is to inspire the young people to work hard and believe in themselves so that they can get themselves back on track. "In this way, athletes are still themselves," says Whitehead. "They are not having to don a tie and sit awkwardly behind a desk with itchy feet that are used to training six hours a day."  So far the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust has over 240 athletes on their books, and through them they have impacted on over 170,000 youngsters, including some right here in Glasgow. 

"We have young people from our BP Young Leaders Programme 2014 volunteering at the Games," says Whitehead. "They're putting what they've learnt from athletes mentors over the last eight months into practice. Here they have to take responsibility for getting to their shifts on time, talk to strangers, be friendly and enthusiastic. In this way, they are preparing for the world of work." 

While we're still very much in the swing of the Games here in Glasgow for the 20th Commonwealth Games, the focus for athletes will still be on those medals. But looking beyond, the hope is that we can make the most of our sports men and women and all they have to offer, whether they have medals around their necks or not.