What Life Holds For Athletes After The Olympics Many athletes aspire to compete in the Olympic Games. Few ever achieve it. For those who do, what happens when the games are over? Former Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who won three gold medals in the 1984 Olympics, talks about her life after her athletic career.
NPR logo

What Life Holds For Athletes After The Olympics

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/158778056/158778046" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Life Holds For Athletes After The Olympics

What Life Holds For Athletes After The Olympics

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/158778056/158778046" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


As a kid, Nancy Hogshead-Makar wanted to be the best swimmer in the world. When she was only 14, she was ranked number one in the world in the women's 200-meter butterfly. At 18 she was part of the U.S. team that boycotted the Moscow Olympics, and at 22 she was swam in five Olympic finals at the 1984 Olympic Games, winning three gold medals, one silver and one fourth-place finish in the 200-meter butterfly. After that, she retired. She was recently profiled in an article by Rob Trucks on Deadspin.com as part of an interview series on former athletes and when they knew they're competing days were over.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar joins us in a moment. If you've ever participated in Olympic competition, what happened next for you? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And Nancy Hogshead-Makar joins us now from member station WJCT in Jacksonville. Welcome to the program.

NANCY HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Thank you, Lynn. Good to be here.

NEARY: So Nancy, the Olympics have just ended. All those athletes have gone home. Some have medals. Some don't. Some are sorting through lucrative contracts, some aren't. And I just - I'm so curious. I can't help wondering and imagining what that moment is like for an athlete. And what was it like for you after you won at the '84 Games? What happens when you get home? Is there a big - do you collapse? Do you start training again? What goes on?

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Sure. Sure. Well, you know, for me, I knew that the 1984 Olympics were really going to be my swan song, that afterwards I didn't really have a way to support myself. This is in the days of true amateurism. And I knew that my - the next step in my life was going to have something to do with academics. I still had a year and a half left of college at Duke University, and so, you know, I - in my mind, I always knew that was next.

What's difficult about going from being very, very, very good at something, being blessed and graced and feeling strength and pride in what you're doing is finding something else that is worth giving yourself over to. And for me and for most other athletes, that is the hard part. First of all, what's worth it? And then two is just the struggle of starting at the bottom and not knowing if you're really going to become good enough at something that you feel that same graced quality that you do when you're really good at something.

NEARY: Yeah. I love that way you just put it, that same graced quality, which maybe something that not all of us experience, at least to the heights that an athlete does, particularly at something like the Olympic Games. And there are certain sports, of course, that really we only see - we the public only see during the Olympics or pay attention to during the Olympics, whereas people have been laboring in obscurity for years to get there.

And I wonder for young people in particular, who have worked so hard, and maybe they didn't, you know, get that gold medal and then they come back and they're - they're 18 years old. Maybe they didn't prepare for an academic career. Do you know of any stories where people have really had trouble adjusting?

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: I'd say all of us have had trouble, honestly.

I mean, it's something that when Olympic athletes get together, that we talk about, sort of that, you know, what's-next-for-us kind of a thing, that, you know, this is - Neil Armstrong really struggled with this after he was at the top of the moon. I mean even if you don't win in the Olympics, just to be on that level is a real - I just can't tell you the feeling of when you spend so - you know, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours.

And when you've got your 10,000 hours in, what that feels like to be at the top of your game and to really have it feel effortless and graceful and powerful and strong at the same time and then sort of having to find something else, I mean, I - in that Deadspin article, I talked about trying to get into broadcasting, much like you, Lynn.

NEARY: Oh, that's right. That's right.

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: And I was terrible at it, primarily because, like, I didn't care who won and who lost. And that seems to be a part of, you know, the job criteria, is that you care about, you know, when you're commentating. Somebody like Rowdy Gaines, I mean, he is somebody who really has found his niche, his zen, his something. He's good at communicating his passion for the sport. He really does care who wins and loses.

So, you know, John Naber has always been a good buddy of mine. And when John talks normally, he sounds like a broadcaster. It's not something he really had to train for. So he already had the gift of gab to begin with, and then added on to that is he really has worked very, very hard at it. And he's a very accomplished speaker and presenter and speaker. And, you know, it's, you know, something everybody has got to find.

NEARY: I was just going to tell our listeners that we are talking about life after the Olympics with Nancy Hogshead-Makar. And, you know, how do you find the second act? And that may apply to other endeavors, as well. So if you've had that experience of reaching a really high peak in something and then had to figure out what to do next, give us a call to join the conversation here. The number is 800-989-8255.

And I was talking, Nancy, you know, athletes are so disciplined that I can't help but think that that discipline will ultimately help them even if they do go through a struggle right after, you know, they decide that they're going to leave athletic competition, that they can apply that to anything they do pretty much, huh?

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: I - absolutely. I think that the discipline that you learn as part of athletics - there's actually a lot empirical research that backs that up. I'm now - I'm the senior director of advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation, and there's a lot of - when you look at, kind of, the gestalt, the big picture of what it means for a girl just to play sports, not to be in the Olympics, but it is really powerful stuff.

And I'd also say that, in my work at the Women's Sports Foundation, that so many other women athletes use their athletic career as a platform for giving back. I can't - the social good that Olympians are doing out there, trying to use their Olympic fame as a way to help so many causes from, you know, diseases to social causes to, you know, all kinds of things. Angela Ruggiero just retired from ice hockey, and she's on the International Olympic Committee board member, and she's the president-elect of the Women's Sports Foundation.

Laila Ali, current president of the foundation, she was, you know, she's the daughter of the great Muhammad Ali, and she also was a president of the foundation. She does so much to give back. Benita Fitzgerald Mosely was the - she was the head of performance for USA Track and Field. We owe so many of those gold medals to all the background work that Benita does behind the scenes.

NEARY: So it sounds like you're saying you have to find another passion is really what you're saying. I mean, your passion is about women sports, you can - and you can channel all of that great energy and discipline you have into something the usual passion is about.

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Absolutely. You do have to start at the bottom, though, and that's hard. I mean, as any 22-year-old graduating college will tell you that, you know, and then you find something. It takes a while to become really good at it.

NEARY: I know. I always tell, you know, my nieces and my daughter and everybody else. You don't - you're not going to know right away.


NEARY: It takes a while.


NEARY: Let's take a call from Tyler in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hi, Tyler.

TYLER: Hi. How are you today?

NEARY: Good. Go ahead.

TYLER: I just had - I wasn't in the Olympics. I was in the extreme sports equivalent, the Winter X Games, and it was a great career. And pretty much after it ended, (unintelligible) of skiing. I did unfortunately suffer a back injury. But after that, it was kind of hard to get back into the grove of things. I had - I had put off school for so long to focus on skiing that once I got back, I was 18 and a half, and I didn't really get back into school with the same...

NEARY: And Tyler, were you eventually able to find something that you could, sort of, channel your energy and fashion into?

TYLER: I'm still looking for it. I'm currently just working Salt Lake City, having a bunch of fun with friends. But it's been an interesting road.

NEARY: Hmm. Any thoughts for Tyler, Nancy?

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Sure. You know, some of these sports, like the extreme sports, where they do have sponsorships and they do have the financial wherewithal to keep going in their sport, particularly, say, the NFL, the NBA, the - you know, men's professional sports, in some ways, I feel sorry for them because they really don't - because, financially, they don't have to worry about what's next for them. So they don't, you know, starting from zero again after being so good at something is very humbling.

To have people look at you and say, oh, you're the Olympic champion, and you say, you know, as a lawyer, trying to write my first brief and it's terrible and - or trying to be on television, I'm terrible. And, you know, to make it worth your while to start the very bottom of a career again is, you know, it's - in some ways I do consider myself lucky that I was able to go forward because I didn't have to - because I had to.


HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Because I, you know, my parents are very academically oriented and, you know, they were looking for us to kind of, you know, what's next from all three of their kids. They - we - and so I, you know, it never occurred to me that swimming was going to be the end.

NEARY: Yeah. Tyler, thanks so much for calling in.

TYLER: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

NEARY: I think that's important that you had that - you had your parents sort of urging you to keep in mind that you had to have something else, right, Nancy?

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Sure, but I was going to, you know, earn a living, and I needed to be competent at whatever that was, that I was going to be in some kind of profession. And, you know, my parents are unique, I think, in some ways, in that they didn't always agree with all my decisions, but they always supported whatever my decisions were, and I don't think all parents would. For example, my parents, they paid for my last year and a half of swimming. I dropped out of college, gave up my college - I thought I giving up my college athletic scholarship, and they paid for the whole kit and caboodle. And, you know, I think a lot of parents probably wouldn't do that.

NEARY: How long would you say it took you to sort of, you know, feel that you had, you know, I'm there. I've made the adjustment, you know?


HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: That's right. Right. Well, I mean, I guess, I made a couple of adjustments. One, I tried for four years, very, very hard, to be in commentating, as I said, and I failed. And so I went from there, and I was making a really good living as a motivational speaker, and I really liked the audience. I did - I do very well with an audience. And at one point, I really thought that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. As a volunteer, I was the president of the Women's Sports Foundation, and I also did a lot of work with asthmatics and was an advocate in that way. But, you know, frankly, it got tiring just talking about that, and I really didn't see myself as creating a new paradigm for success the way that really great motivational speakers have done.

So for me, I could see - when I was the president of the Women's Sports Foundation, I could see the people who were having the most fun at doing this gender equity stuff were the lawyers. And there were a couple of lawyers who worked with the Women's Sports Foundation and the National Women's Law Center, and I kind of want to be like them, frankly. And so I went to law school at Georgetown and...

NEARY: Nancy, I'm going to have to - we're going to have to stop right there because I know...


NEARY: ...you went to law school, and you've become...


NEARY: ...very successful in your latest career and have made a wonderful adjustment...


NEARY: ...to life after the Olympics.

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

NEARY: So I appreciate you...

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: That's a long answer. I'm sorry.


NEARY: Thanks so much for being with us today.

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Nancy Hogshead-Makar won two gold medals and one silver at the '84 Olympic Games.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.