WASHINGTON – Ann Swisshelm walked up to Julie Chu as the room began to clear at the end of Day 2 of the 2014 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Athlete Summit and uttered two simple words that carried a lot of weight.
“I’m not going to be here tomorrow, so I just wanted to say, ‘Thank you,’” said Swisshelm, a two-time Olympic curler, to Chu before leaving the conference.
Chu had spoken on two panels during the conference, which provided professional development tools for Team USA athletes as they ponder life post-Games.
“I think it was just for being a part of this process,” said Chu, a four-time Olympic ice hockey player. “We all go through the same thing. I didn’t say anything in my panels that was earth-shattering or that anyone is going to walk away thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to take that with me for life,’ it’s more the knowledge that we’re all going through the same thing, that we’re not alone in this process.
“Even though we’re all confident elite athletes, when we do change and transition, like anyone else, we’re going to have uncertainty and moments when we’re scared, and we’ll also have moments where we’re like, ‘Alright, I got this.’ Knowing that a lot of us are going through that same process and that it’s ok relieves a lot of stress in the process.”
This year’s summit, themed “Train, Compete and Succeed in Life” marked the first time the event was held since 2006. The conference was also the first event to showcase the United States Olympic Committee’s renewed focus on athlete support, and would not have been possible without generous gifts from the Foundation for Global Sports Development, David Pottruck and The Dow Chemical Company Foundation, as well as USOC partners Adecco and DeVry University.
“We were proud to support this educational endeavor by the USOC,” said Steven Ungerleider, a founding trustee of the Foundation for Global Sports Development. “Kathy Johnson Clarke, one of our Champion Ambassadors, had the opportunity to speak to this generation of Olympians and Paralympians about excellence in volunteerism and community work, as well as in sport.”
The three-day conference covered four tracks: careers, financial management, personal development and education, and featured more than 30 speakers including employers, sponsors, human resources professionals, financial planners and athletes. Of the 200-plus members of Team USA who descended on Washington, D.C., earlier this month for the Best of U.S. Awards Show and White House Visit, 81 remained for the summit. The athletes found the presentations invaluable, with two-time Olympic bobsledder Nick Cunningham saying, “This was outstanding. It should have been mandatory.”
If there was every any doubt the summit should return, look no further than the opening athlete panel, where two-fifths of the panel broke down in tears.
“I was one of them and I think it’s because we’ve competed in our sport for so long and for the U.S., and this has been our identity, but this has also been our passion and our love; to think about leaving that and finding that again is a scary thing,” said Chu.
“For me, I got emotional because my teammates are a huge part of who I am and what I love… But I think what I learned from this is you end up shifting out of one arena that has been our comfort and into another. I’ve been on the team since 2000, so 14 years in this arena and now shifting it to an environment where our careers, our job, our work is going to be a different arena we specialize in and be able to have that same comfort in at some point.”
“We hit the nail on the head,” said Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, the USOC’s chief of organizational excellence, who oversees the Athlete Career & Education Services program. “We heard directly from those athletes what it meant to revive this program. The athletes are so passionate and it was heartwarming and gratifying.”
Fitzgerald Mosley was part of a working group CEO Scott Blackmun formed a few years ago to understand the USOC’s support of athlete development and what the future of the program looked like. She was a natural fit to lead the efforts upon rejoining the USOC full-time in 2013.
Fitzgerald Mosley understands better than anyone the difficulty of the “what’s next?” question all athletes face after their athletic career ends. Since winning 100-meter hurdles gold at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, Fitzgerald Mosley has gone on to work as an engineer, director of U.S. Olympic Training Centers for the USOC, president and CEO of Women in Cable Television and chief of sport performance for USA Track & Field, and has served on several boards.
“It’s a tough transition, even when you feel like you’ve got your act together and you have the education that you need and the skills and experience you need, and you’re leaving your career with the performance you wanted to have, it still feels like you’re in no-man’s land for a little bit of time,” said Fitzgerald Mosley.
“To have that emotional and psychological support, and also career management support, is really important to these athletes. The good news is that’s how I felt and you’re not 100 percent sure that’s universal, but when you’re here and you’re talking to Olympians and Paralympians about their struggles and their concerns, they’re completely dialed in to the same place.”
While each session was valuable in its own right, many athletes resonated most with panels that included their peers, most notably one on entrepreneurship and non-profit careers featuring freestyle skier Jeremy Bloom, bobsledder Steve Mesler and Paralympic alpine skier Bonnie St. John. After competing at the 2002 and 2006 Winter Games, Bloom went on to found Wish of a Lifetime, an organization aimed at fostering appreciation for elders by fulfilling wishes, in 2008 and Integrate, a leader in advertising technology, in 2010. Mesler, a three-time Olympian and 2010 four-man gold medalist, is co-founder, president and CEO of Classroom Champions, which connects top performing athletes with students in high-needs schools. St. John became the first African-American to medal in Paralympic alpine skiing when she earned a silver and two bronze medals at the 1984 Games, and is now a leadership consultant for more than 500 companies and has written six books, including her best-seller “How Great Women Lead.”
“I thought it was really eye-opening,” Chu said. “Starting my own business is an idea I’ve never thought about, so that was awesome.”
“I always loved coaching, but now I’m thinking maybe I’ll write a book, maybe I’ll start a nonprofit and a for-profit, maybe I’ll be a hula dancer,” Chu joked in a panel she was on later that day.
“I actually was blown away by all the talks we’ve had, especially listening to my peers who have gone through it already,” said long track speedskater Anna Ringsred. “I’ve thought about starting my own business but didn’t know how to approach it, so hearing them give you some real tips on how to do it and having those contacts has been really valuable for me, so I think I’ve gained a lot out of it.”
Ringsred told the media at the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating she planned on retiring after the Olympic season — which marked her 15th year in the sport — whether she made the team or not. Ringsred made her first Olympic Team and competed in the 3,000-meter in Sochi. Three months later, she is now singing a different tune thanks in part to the athlete summit. She is considering continuing her athletic career, but taking a different approach.
“Listening to all these talks has inspired me to go about it differently this time and instead of just focusing on myself and training and getting better… making a bit more effort to network and develop those contacts while I’m still in this sport, so that when I leave I’m prepared.”
Alpine snowboarder Justin Reiter is in a similar situation. After making his first Olympic Team at 33, Reiter is unsure what his future holds as well, and whether he will take his snowboarding career year-by-year or commit to the next four years or retire altogether. He has completed two years of college at Colorado Mountain College and, whatever his athletic future holds, said the athlete summit motivated him to “definitely” continue his education, potentially through the opportunities DeVry University offers to Team USA athletes.
“The more focus I can put on my career outside of athletics is hugely important to my development not only as a person but as a participant in society,” Reiter said. “So it was a great opportunity to come and learn more about myself, learn more about the opportunities that exist out there, especially the opportunities the USOC provides.”