The pain was palpable as Australian sporting heroes talked about their struggles upon ending their careers, on SBS’s Insight on Tuesday.
In a two-part special (the second part runs on 18 April), it’s clear that elite athletes are rarely prepared for the void that follows when the siren has sounded for the last time.
Former Brisbane Lions player Justin Clarke was moved to tears as he talked of being forced to retire from the AFL last year at the age of just 22. He had suffered severe concussion at training, having played 56 games for the Lions.
“I wish I was able to run around out there and play sport with the boys.”
Matthew Mitcham won hearts and gold at the 2008 Olympics. It was downhill after that.
Diving gold medalist , 29, said “there’s something about sport that the loss of it can be so devastating.”
“When I was eight years old I remember wanting to be the best in the world at something and I didn’t care what it was. Then everybody will love me.
“When sport came into my life, I just grabbed it with both hands.
“I didn’t want to pursue a plan B or dare to think that I might not be the best in the world at something.”
He suffered a “pretty profound” period of depression between the ages of 14 and 18. He first retired at 18 and “went a bit off the rails with drugs and partying.”
He returned to the sport but hadn’t addressed the underlying cause of his depression.
“After a while the self-esteem stuff started to kick back in and I started to believe that nobody liked me, they just liked the medals and I was just a coat rack for the medal. That’s when I had a relapse of my drug addiction.”
Former Sydney Swans captain Barry Hall said that, for “two or three months” after he chose to end his career in 2011, he “really struggled”.
“I didn’t get out of bed, I didn’t answer mates’ phone calls, I was eating terribly, I was drinking heavily. It was a tough time,” he said.
Hall said he used it as “something of a test” for people in his life to “see who kept calling, who would stick around.”
When things got better, “people tried to crawl back into your life. I don’t like that.”
The clear message to aspiring athletes was to be prepared. But even then, things can be difficult.
Justin Clarke had been an academic first and foremost at school.
“I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, design planes and fly them.”
He played country football for fun.
“I was working at a grain silo one day and the next I was playing for the Brisbane Lions. What the hell! That doesn’t happen – I was inserted into someone else’s dream.”
Justin has returned to pursuing his academic dreams and has taken up rowing in an attempt to replace the sport he so clearly misses.
Hugely successful basketball player Lauren Jackson, 35, had advice for young athletes: study and train at the same time.
“If you don’t, you will get to our age and regret it,” she said.