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Jul. 23 2009 - 11:41 am | 189 views | 1 recommendation | 11 comments

Now what? The end of an athlete’s career

Shawn Johnson

Shawn Johnson

At the end of this competitive season, many skaters will be faced with the decision of whether or not to stick around at another shot at Olympic glory.

In the wake of the Nicole Bobek news, there has been a lot of chatter surrounding the choices an athlete makes after they leave the sport. There isn’t someone waiting at the edge of the ice telling a skater where to go or what to do once their career is over. It’s generally up to the skater, who, after spending the majority of their young life in an ice rink, has to quickly figure out what direction they should go once their skates are hung up. Unfortunately, many struggle with this transition back to “normal“ life.

In addition, there also isn’t someone telling skaters like Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen whether going back to training full-time and attempting to compete in another Olympic Games is the best thing for them. These athletes have to dig deep and decide whether or not they have it in them to bring themselves back to the competitive arena.

Last week, the DesMoines Register ran an article about 2008 Olympic gold medalist and gymnast Shawn Johnson. Johnson, who recently won “Dancing with the Stars”–catapulting her into mainstream celebrity status–is having to face the difficult decision of whether or not to stay in gymnastics in an attempt to win another Olympic gold medal. Due to her success on DWTS, Hollywood has come calling, but there still appears to be a part of Johnson that is hungry to spend the next four years training in the gym.

This crossroads that Johnson finds herself at contains a world of choices. Should she choose the allure of the entertainment industry? Should she decide to go to college and focus on her education? Or, does she decide to whip her petite body back into competitive shape and embark on a quest to win another Olympic gold? These options for a young teenager are dizzying.

This vast array of choices is rare for the majority of people Johnson’s age, but these decisions are common for those in the world of athletics. Athletes in every sport face a similar juncture when the future of their competitive careers is up in the air. Whether it’s due to an injury, not making a team, or a feeling that perhaps they have accomplished all that they set out to do, it’s incredibly difficult to know whether staying around or leaving to embark on a new life is the right decision for them.

If Johnson decides to stay in for another four years, she, like Michelle Kwan, has to fully assess whether or not she has it in her to put her body through the stress of attempting to make another Olympic team. And, if she does manage to stay uninjured in the very dangerous sport of gymnastics and successfully makes the team, will coming home from the London Games in 2012 without another gold medal be viewed as a defeat?

There have been many athletes who have decided to stick around in their sport for one more shot at glory and who have come home unsuccessful. Brett Favre, who twice displayed a teary and very public goodbye to football, has once again announced he will play for another season, this time with the Vikings. Favre didn’t have a very strong 2009, culminating in an injured shoulder, which required surgical repair. Perhaps his body is giving him the not-so-subtle hint that it’s time to pack it in.

Sasha Cohen

Sasha Cohen

Although making a successful comeback is incredibly difficult, it is not unheard of. Pete Sampras did it in 2002, and Sasha Cohen is attempting to do it this year. For Johnson, she is going to have to weigh the pros and cons of this decision and keep in mind the statistics for a triumphant return are not in her favor.

That being said, my bet is that Johnson will choose to end her athletic career and will instead forge a life for herself away from gymnastics. If I am correct in my prediction, based on the success of athletes from a variety of sports, I have ranked what she should do once she retires–from worst to best choice.

5. The Entertainment Industry

This seems to be where Johnson is likely to head if she decides to leave the gym. Big mistake. Skaters, gymnasts, and athletes from a various sports think that because they were talented on the ice, mat, court, or field, this talent will translate success on the big screen. It hardly ever works. Tara Lipinski retired at age 15 from amateur skating. It’s been eleven years since she moved to Hollywood to become a full-time actress, and we have yet to see her act in a movie or star in a television series.

4. Play the Investment Game

Many of you have already heard about the financial fall from grace Lenny Dykstra is dealing with. Since retiring from professional baseball, Dykstra has managed numerous businesses including a car wash franchise in Corona, California.

Dykstra’s time away from the field has been problematic, to say the least. There have been a rash of legal troubles; law suits; a car accident as a result of drunk driving; and, more recently, he filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy, claiming to owe almost 50 million dollars in liabilities.

Now I don’t see Johnson mismanaging her life and money the way Dykstra has, but investing poorly or with too much riding on one venture is never a good thing. Rarely do people without an education in business, or without a smart financial team behind them, do well in this career choice. Having a lot of money doesn’t mean a person has the tools to invest that money wisely.

3. Coach

Many athletes have gone on to coach, and this is usually a fairly common career choice for skaters toying with retirement. In previous interviews, Johnson has expressed a desire try out coaching, so perhaps this is where her future plans will lead her.

Johnson has to be aware, though, that being a good athlete doesn’t immediately equate with being a good coach. Many of the best coaches in the sports world were never Olympic competitors nor stars themselves. Johnson will have to realistically assess whether or not she has the skills needed to become a successful coach. Unfortunately many of these skills can not be taught.

2. Commentate

This is another common career change for skaters, basketball players, and gymnasts, and I can definitely see this as a great way for Johnson to make a living. In skating, Dick Button, Scott Hamilton, Peggy Flemming, Kurt Browning, and Peter Carruthers are only a handful of the skaters who have made this choice after retiring from competitive skating. Shannon Miller, 1992 Olympic all-around silver medalist, has transitioned nicely into the role of a gymnastics commentator, and I can see Johnson emulating her move.

In order to be a solid commentator, Johnson is going to have to be okay with critiquing her friends and former competitors. She’s going to have to learn to speak eloquently on camera, and she’ll have to put in some training time to master this new career. That being said, Johnson’s personality is one that would fit this field perfectly.

1. Go to college

Johnson, who is finishing up her senior year of high school online, has said she is currently weighing the option of whether or not to attend college. My advice? This is definitely the smartest move for her. If she were to go to school, she would still have the time to devote to some of the smaller acting gigs that she has been offered in Hollywood. By attaining her college degree, Johnson will open herself up to an array of opportunities away from gymnastics.

Michelle Kwan, who recently graduated from the University of Denver, is a great example of someone who Johnson could look up to. While in school, Kwan still had the time to work for the State Department, attend Hollywood events, and make public appearances. Now that she has graduated, she has decided to return to the ice and has given herself an education, which is so important to an athlete or non-athlete.

Although in the DesMoines Register article Johnson said that she wishes someone would decide what to with her future for her, in the end the decision is up to Shawn. She, alone, has to make the choice of whether or not she is going to go to college, stay in and compete, coach, or fall in with the wrong crowd like Nicole Bobek. After living a life where day after day the structure and rules of what an athlete has to do are laid out for them by their coaches and parents, it can be incredibly difficult for them to come up with new rules and make decisions by him or herself. Johnson seems like a smart girl, and hopefully whatever choice she, and the skaters at the end of this season, will make will yield the results that they’re hoping for.


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  1. collapse expand

    Jennifer-
    Couldn’t help but comment on your post. In addition to being a contributing editor here at True/Slant, I am a lawyer in “real life” and I happen to do some work for Shawn. This is an absolute pleasure for me as Shawn is a terrific young woman. I can also say the same about her parents and her manager, Sheryl Shade – all great people to wrok with.

    While I thought your post was very good, you might not want to be too quick to suggest that Shawn might not have the ability to do well in entertainment. I have found that Shawn has a remarkable way of succeeding at pretty much anything she puts her mind to. You might be surprised when you learn some of the things Shawn has coming up in her future. I appreciated your advice regarding her continuing education and I know Shawn would also appreciate your words. I have little doubt that university is in Shawn’s future. While that will happen at a time of her choice, keeping in mind what decision she may make with respect to the near term, there is no question that Shawn will be a successful student while managing whatever other adventures she elects to pursue. Shawn is an extremely bright and level-headed young woman who understands who she is, what she can do and how she should go about doing it. She really is the definition of a “winner”.

    • collapse expand

      Thanks for your comment and your information about Shawn. I think it’s great that she is planning to attend college in the future, and I wish her well in whatever endeavors she faces in the years to come.

      While my opinions were based off of success from athletes in the past, and I generally believe the entertainment industry and trying to excel as an actor is a risky place to head, if this is the path Shawn chooses to take, then I hope she has much success.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    What I find interesting about Shawn is that she was very committed to remaining in public school when she was training for the Olympics. This was focused on a lot in the media and she was made out to be a one of a kind athlete with a “normal” teenage life.

    I find it ironic that the only thing keeping Shawn in school was gymnastics. She actually took time off of high school to go on DWTS and because of this fell behind all her classmates and is now finishing high school by online courses. Too much emphasis is being placed on the entertainment opportunities and this shows a lack of focus, in my opinion.

    • collapse expand

      I don’t know if it’s a lack of focus per se, but I think it‘s a diverted focus. If Shawn’s focus is on the entertainment industry right now, and that is more important to her than immediately going to college after finishing school, then I would assume she will put the amount of focus she did into gymnastics into her acting career.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        It is one thing to choose the entertainment industry over college but quite another to choose it over high school. Public school seemed so important to her during all the fluff pieces that ran during the Olympics. All of a sudden going to school with your peers and having a “regular” teenage experience doesn’t matter anymore because Hollywood is calling.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    I think you’re right on the mark with your 5 choices and the pros and cons, especially regarding the entertainment industry and going to college. Show biz is a competitive business where it’s hard to survive. Pursuing an education allows an athlete to discover other abilities that can launch another career.

  4. collapse expand

    Jennifer, while I agree with your 5 choices in general I think that in Shawn’s case I would put the investment choice dead last. I would never recommend to anyone the investment/financial industry as a career unless they had large amounts of extra capital or are incredibly bright, Chelsey Clinton comes to mind as one who is successful in the financial industry and she was a Rhodes Scholar. I would move up the entertainment industry as a choice since she already has some skills for that career path as illustrated by her success in “Dancing with the Stars”. A great dance coach and a great choreographer would make her shine even brighter. However, if she chose the entertainment industry I would still recommend college because there are many great schools, UCLA, Northwestern, NYU and Julliard are among the many that I can think of at the moment, that could teach her the ins and outs of the industry. She could still perform and develop her skills as well as continue gymnastics if she chose.

  5. collapse expand

    hey jen, just wanted to leave a note saying i’m really enjoying your column. i was a fan of yours during your skating career, and i’ll admit i was a bit surprised to find a “jock” such as yourself to be such a good writer. as always, this article was well-researched and thoughtful and also provided the perspective of an elite athelete who’s ‘been there’. keep up the great work, i look forward to your future articles. :)

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    About Me

    I’m originally from Boston, living in LA, with a passion for the world of figure skating. During my career on the ice, I was a world junior champion, a five-time U.S. national medalist, and a three-time world team member. Since retiring from the sport, I have dedicated myself to attaining my college degree with a major in broadcast journalism. I’m looking forward to sharing my views on the ins and outs of the skating world, along with my opinions and thoughts on various issues coming from the ice. I welcome you to my blog!

    To contact me: Jeki815@gmail.com

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    Contributor Since: June 2009
    Location:Los Angeles, CA