Life After the Limelight
Just three months since the Winter Olympics closed up shop in Turin, Italy, most of those events and the stars made from them have become distant memories. The average sports fan probably couldn't pick American gold medalists Shaun White or Hannah Teeter from a lineup of everyday Joes.
It's the nature of sports coverage to shine the light brightly on the news of the day, and leave athletes in the dark as soon as that day has passed. And what happens when the limelight moves on often is not pretty.
Pick up a newspaper these days and you're bound to find a story about a former professional athlete who is living in crisis. Name a sport -- any sport -- and you'll have no trouble finding a poster boy for "Don't let this happen to you." You probably can find several, but here are two of the biggest:
- At his very best, Bjorn Borg was tennis' indomitable force. He had grace and power on the tennis court, and he won everything -- including an unprecedented five-year winning streak at Wimbledon, his last an epic five-set battle against John McEnroe in what was arguably the game's greatest match. That was 1980. Today things aren't so wonderful for Borg. In March he withdrew his five Wimbledon trophies from auction, the proceeds of which were going to help get him out of financial ruin.
- Last month, former major league baseball pitcher Dwight Gooden was sentenced to one year in prison for violating his probation. Despite being subject to multiple weekly drug tests, Gooden couldn't stay away from cocaine. Now the former National League Rookie of the Year and World Series champion is behind bars.
There is no end to these stories. Like child actors, former athletes seem ripe for trouble as soon as the fame washes away. But it would be wrong for us to cast athletes as victims of too much limelight, too much temptation. Rather, the lesson to be learned from all of the sour news on these former beloved athletes is that maybe glory isn't all it's cracked up to be. Maybe money and the limelight do not fully satisfy one's needs. Maybe, just maybe, there is more to life.
Consider the story of Eric Heiden. Remember him? Like Borg, Heiden was the darling of the year 1980. Decked out in a golden suit fit for a Greek God, Heiden seemingly got faster and faster as his speedskating distances got longer and longer. He won five gold medals at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics that February, more individual medals than any American has won in any one Olympiad.
Not long after the Olympics' closing ceremony, Heiden's speedskating career ended. He became an accomplished cyclist a few years later. He won the U.S. cycling championship in 1985, in fact, and was part of the first American team to participate in the Tour de France a year later. It would be no stretch to call Heiden one of our country's greatest athletes of the past 50 years; several shapers of such lists, including ESPN, have done just that.
But after his cycling career, Heiden walked away from competitive sports, walked away from the cameras and headlines. He never did take advantage of endorsement deals, even though after Lake Placid they flew in through the door at an astounding rate. Just a promotional poster for a team cycling sponsor, or a signature on something he believed in.
That kind of commitment to his craft and to self-preservation makes Heiden an admirable man, let alone a remarkable athlete. But what Heiden has done with his life after sport is what separates him from just about every other professional athlete or Hollywood movie star you've read about in recent years.
After receiving a degree in 1991 from Stanford Medical School, Heiden chose to become an orthopedic surgeon. He works out of the University of California, Davis sports medicine facility and lectures a bit on campus there, as well. He also sees patients, some of them famous. Charles Barkley is one. Yep, the same guy who once famously said athletes are not role models. It's clear Barkley did not have Heiden in mind when he said that.
In February, Heiden served as the team doctor for the U.S. speedskating team in Torino. How is that for irony? Think Michael Jordan would take a job as the Chicago Bulls' strength and conditioning coach? Heiden views his life now as a step up, not down. For that, he is a champion of men.
Americans love good stories and our media loves to tell them, but sometime only if they can be sensationalized and packaged in blood or tears. When a story of Heiden's worth is shoved to the side so that more timely stories about drug sentences and financial embarrassment can be reported, it sends the wrong message. Heiden shows young athletes that life does not end after a professional athletic career is finished, and he sets the bar high for student athletes in high school and college. Heiden's accomplishments encourage us to see the good in sport, and life, and more positive stories like his should be found and told.