What's It Like To Leave The Olympics Empty-Handed?
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
More than 10,000 athletes are participating in this year's games and a few will become icons. Michael Phelps, dubbed the greatest Olympian ever; Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world; Gabby Douglas, the flying squirrel. Along with their medals, they get prize money, endorsements, their face on a cereal box, a seat on the late night TV couch, but the reality is most Olympic athletes don't achieve stardom, a superlative title or even a medal.
For the people who spend years dreaming of the Olympics and devoting themselves completely to a sport only to come home empty-handed, where do you go from there? Well, to give us some insight, I'm joined by two Olympians with that experience. Derek Brown competed in the 1996 Atlanta games in Team Handball. He's here in the studio with me.
Derek, welcome to the program.
DEREK BROWN: Thank you.
BLOCK: And rower Kate MacKenzie competed in Athens in 2004 in Pairs Rowing. She's with us from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Kate, welcome to you.
KATE MACKENZIE: Thank you so much.
BLOCK: And, Derek, let's start with you and U.S. Team Handball. How'd you do in 1996?
BROWN: We finished ninth, overall. We had a record of two and four, which was the best record that we've ever had as a U.S. delegation in the sport of Team Handball, so we were excited to get two wins.
BLOCK: OK. And, Kate, how about for you with rowing in 2004?
MACKENZIE: We were also ninth out of 10, so not as well as the teams have done in the past and we were definitely a little bit disappointed with our performance, but it was what we had on that day, so...
BLOCK: Well, what's that moment like, when you've spent years preparing for the Olympics, they only come around every four years. Maybe it was the only Olympics you'd ever be in and it turned out that was the case. It ends. You don't have a medal. Derek Brown, how did you process that?
BROWN: Well, for me, my career didn't end after the Olympics. I actually went and played two years professionally. I enjoyed the games. I played well, I can be bold to say, but...
BLOCK: You can.
BROWN: But it was a little bit of a, wow, all this time I spent here to get to this place and it's over and you never know if you have another opportunity and now I'm just a little too old.
BLOCK: Your first and last Olympics.
BLOCK: Kate, does that sound familiar, that experience?
MACKENZIE: Yeah, definitely. I was done after the games. There was - with the injuries that I'd had and sort of where I was in my life, I knew there wasn't going to be another Olympics after Athens. And so you come off of the experience - which was amazing and I wouldn't have traded it for the world - but I definitely came off feeling lost and actually pretty depressed because I had had this structure for so long of getting up, going out, training and not thinking about anything else at all.
So, when the games ended and I came home, it was - what do I do now? I need to figure out how to move my life forward. And, at that point, I had no idea what I was going to do.
BLOCK: So what did you do about that?
MACKENZIE: Well, I started looking for a job. Basically, sent out about 20 resumes and actually didn't get a single call back, which was very difficult at the time. And so I signed up with a temp agency, got a job, so you know, within six months of the games, I had a full time job, but it was definitely during those six months, being, oh, my goodness, I don't have any skills other than I've done the Olympic games, but for a lot of employers, they're looking for something more specific than that.
BLOCK: Kate, you can't see him, but you're getting a lot of nods from Derek Brown across the desk from me here.
BROWN: Yes. That sounds very familiar...
MACKENZIE: Oh, I'm sure.
BROWN: ...to my situation, as well. You know, even though I had the two years of playing professionally after the games, when I came back home to the States and I was looking for a job while still pursuing another contract with other countries, all they saw on my resume was, you graduated from college in '93. You haven't done anything and here it is, '98.
BLOCK: Was there any preparation from your teams or maybe from the Olympic organization itself, both about how to handle losing and how to prepare yourself for a life after your sport, Kate MacKenzie?
MACKENZIE: No. I would say that there actually - especially when it comes to the losing part, there was no preparation for how you were going to feel after that. As for finding a job, we just had very, very little help. The only thing that I had was my teammates, who were amazing and then, you know, when you're having an off day or a really bad day, you could call them up and say, hey, I just need you to tell me it's going to be all right.
MACKENZIE: And they'd do that.
BROWN: The thing that I would have loved to have had was a better support system for after the games. You know, it's almost as if - OK, well, you've competed. Now, you go.
BLOCK: Do you look back and think, boy, I should have been thinking more about what was after either handball or rowing? I mean, I knew that couldn't go on forever and maybe I should have had more of a backup plan.
BROWN: But, when you're in it, you think you can do it forever. I know, for me, I thought I'd have at least three games. I thought we were at a place where we could have kept playing together. When that didn't happen, I was still hoping that at least I can have a professional career, but God has a way of making things happen and He brought me home and, when He brought me home, I met my wife. So I can't complain about that because that's been an awesome experience - is being married and being a father.
BLOCK: Kate, any second guessing on your part?
MACKENZIE: I wouldn't say second guessing in the sense that you just don't have time to second guess it when you're training. You're just so laser-focused on the goal and, especially within - with rowing, you don't know you're making the team until June before the games start in August. So I wish that I had prepared, but I don't see how I could have because I needed to focus on what my end goal was, which was absolutely making an Olympic team.
BLOCK: What's it like for you both to watch the Olympics now, thinking back on your own history, Derek?
BROWN: You know, for me, it's - and my wife asked me the other day how I feel because it is an emotional - a highly emotional time for me. I've been watching the Olympic games since I was six and then to have competed and then now, to look and to see these athletes out there doing what I did, especially when I get a chance to see handball being played, I relive some things. I go back to the games that I played and just the feeling of performing in front of people. I don't have that same feeling in doing anything that I'm doing now, so I miss it.
BROWN: I miss it. If there was a way that I could on a court right now, I would be, honestly.
BLOCK: Yeah. Kate, you've been watching the Olympics, too?
MACKENZIE: Oh, yeah. Actually, this time, I've been an Olympic junkie. I've watched everything and, actually, I really enjoy handball, just to let you know that, Derek.
BROWN: Thank you.
MACKENZIE: A very intense sport.
BROWN: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.
MACKENZIE: Like, you have to be a serious athlete. Wow.
MACKENZIE: But, for me, it's - I'm so excited about it and I love it, but there's - definitely, it's a little bit bittersweet because I love watching, especially the teammates that I know on the rowing team and watching them have such great success and to be so strong and to be so proud of them and proud of the U.S. athletes. But it does bring back the games you competed in and, sitting at home watching the games, being like, wow, that didn't go well for me.
MACKENZIE: You know, and that wasn't what I wanted and you still - it just drags on you and I don't know if you ever get over that. I don't know if you ever get over not performing your best on the biggest stage in the world.
BLOCK: When you mention to people that you were in the Olympics, do they inevitably ask you, did you get a medal?
BROWN: First thing.
MACKENZIE: Really. Yeah.
BROWN: And that's one of the hardest things. The Olympics is so much more than medaling. It's the whole experience and it's playing for your country. I mean, I've traveled all over the world wearing USA on my chest, but it was so much more powerful when you get to the Olympic games because everyone's watching the Olympics. And so, you know, it would have been awesome to stand on the podium and hear the National Anthem played for me.
But, even now, when I'm watching, I stand in my position. I tear...
BLOCK: Do you really?
BROWN: I tear every time the anthem's played because I know what those athletes dedicated themselves to get to that point.
MACKENZIE: It is the hardest question when they say, hey, did you win a medal? It's sort of - you almost shirk back from it and be like, look, I really tried. I swear to everything. I really tried. I wanted a medal, but - no. And then they give you the - but it's so great that you made the Olympics. And it's like, making the Olympics isn't a consolation prize. It's actually a really big deal and I want people to understand. You know, like - yeah, we all want the medal. Goodness, you know, we do.
But, sometimes, you just have to remind people that - hey, you know, it's not about the medal, like Derek said. It's about the experience and wearing the colors and representing the United States as best you can with your performance and just being proud to be an American.
BROWN: That's right. That's right.
BLOCK: Kate MacKenzie and Derek Brown, thank you both so much.
BROWN: Thank you very much.
MACKENZIE: Yeah. Thank you.
BLOCK: Kate MacKenzie competed in Athens in 2004 in Women's Pair Rowing. She's now pursuing her doctorate in physical therapy. Derek Brown competed in the 1996 Atlanta games in Team Handball. He went on to get a Master's in education administration and worked for Washington, D.C. public schools. He's now taking some time off and trying to figure out what's next.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.