ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Many of us moved on painlessly after the Olympics ended in Rio a few weeks ago. For some of the athletes who competed there, it's different. They may struggle with identity, focus and figuring out what comes next. NPR's Melissa Block covered the Rio Olympics and has been talking with some of those athletes about what can be an emotionally fraught time.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Imagine you've devoted years of your life, maybe decades, to one all-consuming goal - making the Olympics. And now it's done. All the hype, buildup, and attention, the extreme adrenaline rush - they're gone.
KAREN COGAN: You work so hard for four years. You put everything into it.
BLOCK: Karen Cogan is a sports psychologist with the U.S. Olympic Committee, and she helps athletes through this transitional time.
COGAN: For some athletes, their performance is over in a matter of seconds literally. And then it's done, and now what?
BLOCK: That's what fencer Kelley Hurley is asking herself. I talked with her a couple of weeks ago as she was packing up to leave the athletes village in Rio, heading back home to Texas.
KELLEY HURLEY: You feel a little empty. Everything that you did all came up to one point, and now it's over. And the new chapter begins - and where to start writing?
BLOCK: This was Hurley's third Olympics. Now she's wondering, should she try for a fourth?
HURLEY: Should I do school or make new friends because I lost them all (laughter) the last four years when I haven't had time to hang out with any of them?
BLOCK: Like Hurley, many athletes have put their lives outside of sport on hold. Maybe they've delayed college. They've likely missed out on important family events, weddings and funerals. And now they're reckoning with the future. For triathlete Greg Billington, becoming an Olympian was a driving goal for nearly 20 years.
GREG BILLINGTON: Yeah, yeah, pretty much since I started swimming when I was 8 or 9, I've wanted to qualify for an Olympic team.
BLOCK: And he did it. He made it to Rio, the absolute pinnacle. He says it changes who you are.
BILLINGTON: There's nothing that quite grips your imagination like qualifying for an Olympic team does. So that's what makes it hard to replace.
BLOCK: In the end, Billington didn't have a good race in Rio. He finished 37th. And now that he's home in San Diego, it's been tough.
BILLINGTON: So currently nothing fills that void. It's just a little, empty part, and that's OK for a little while, as long as it gets filled before it starts to fester.
BLOCK: Some athletes find their identity is so wrapped up with their sport that if they retire, they just don't know who they are. And if they're starting over in a new career, guess what? They're not the best in the world anymore. As a former Olympic diver told me, all of a sudden you're a bottom-feeder.
Remember; of course Olympians get where they are by being perfectionists. Athletes will often replay a moment from their Olympic event constantly in their minds, wishing they could have a do-over. That's the case for Margaux Isaksen, who competes in modern pentathlon. At the London Olympics in 2012, she came in fourth.
MARGAUX ISAKSEN: I just remember thinking, wow, if I had run a second faster or I had got one extra fencing touch, then I would have a medal. And I just came home, and I felt so defeated and so sad.
BLOCK: And in Rio, Isaksen was coming off surgery and did worse. She finished 20th.
ISAKSEN: It makes you feel sort of worthless I guess. It's a really strong word, but that's kind of how I feel right now. I really feel like I've let myself down, let my coaches down, and that's hard. And then you don't know if you want to put yourself through that again.
BLOCK: Isaksen says she's finding relief with yoga and spending time outside and with some tough love from her mother.
ISAKSEN: She just said, you know what, Margaux? There's so much more to life than sport. And she said, just think about everything that's going on in the world, all the suffering. And just think for a minute about how lucky you are that this seems like the biggest tragedy in your life right now. When you think about that and you put it in perspective, all of my so-called problems - it really doesn't seem like anything at all.
BLOCK: Being an elite athlete is a self-absorbed endeavor, Isaksen admits. Sometimes you just need a smack in the face to bring you back to reality. Melissa Block, NPR News.
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