By Devin Lowe | Jan. 05, 2018, 9:30 a.m. (ET)

ACE staff pose with participants in the fourth Pivot Workshop in December 2017.ACE staff pose with participants at the fourth Pivot Workshop in December 2017.

Veronica Carlson is a former freestyle wrestler, though she sometimes hesitates on the word “former.”

She spent 16 years in the sport and five years at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center, working toward her chance at the Olympic dream. When she decided in 2016 that it was time to retire from wrestling, she grappled with leaving behind the one thing that had always been her constant.

“It’s kind of like you’re an athlete, and then you’re not,” Carlson says. “If you identify as an athlete, if that’s your identity your whole life, it almost feels like you died or something. It’s like, what else is there?

“Nobody can really prepare you for it and we don’t talk enough about it.”

From an early age, athletes become intertwined with their sports in ways that shape their lives and often define them. But what happens when that identity shifts or disappears altogether?

It’s a question that the Athlete Career and Education (ACE) Program is aiming to answer with its Pivot Program.

“Post-Olympic blues”

Piloted in 2016, before the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Pivot Workshop was designed to help athletes transition to life after elite sport. It is the brainchild of ACE career coach Terris Tiller, sports psychologist and executive coach Roberta Kraus, and Leslie Klein, the program’s director.

Klein, who is an Olympian herself, would hear about athletes bouncing from job to job and otherwise struggling as they left their sport. She’s also noticed a phenomenon she calls the “post-Olympic blues,” where an athlete returning from the Games would grapple with negative emotions that could sometimes last for years.

Since ACE helps athletes still competing find part-time jobs and navigate their education, and assists retired athletes in landing full-time positions, she wondered if there was an unmet need during an athlete’s transition that could be solved with something like Pivot.

“We just had this idea of creating a program that would help the athletes in transition that wasn’t related to the nuts and bolts of resume writing and interviewing skills and job and career placement, but that dealt more with the psychological challenges and the identity transformation,” Klein says.

With that goal in mind, Klein and her team set out to design a two-day, all-expenses-paid workshop in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that would bring together a small group of retiring athletes for introspection, exploration, self discovery and, most importantly, camaraderie.

“They come in, and they have their athlete game face on. That’s who they are and that’s why they got good. They come in, thinking, ‘I’m fine and it’s all good,’” Klein says. “Before we even get them to the hotel, when we pick them up at the airport, they’re often bonding over feeling isolated in their retirement.

“I think every athlete thinks they’re the only one struggling. By normalizing the process and letting them tell each other their own stories, that’s super powerful.”

“I do have a peer group”

Carlson was one of 10 participants at the December 2017 Pivot Workshop, the fourth iteration of the event. She signed up for Pivot on a whim with few expectations, unsure of what the workshop could offer her as she tried to cope with her retirement.

But after two days of personality assessments, roundtables, stress management techniques and interacting with the other participants, her mindset had changed.

“It’s something completely unexpected,” Carlson says. “I feel like the thoughts and feelings that I’ve had about leaving sport were very dark. My experience in this was finding out that it’s almost the norm for people stepping out of their sport or quitting.

“I think that everything we did really fostered being open and being close with the people around us, it fostered vulnerability and made us able to open up. And the biggest thing that I got out of it was actually realizing that I do have a peer group.”

Morgan Tracey came to Pivot searching for answers. A skeleton athlete, she trained for seven years in Lake Placid, New York, working long shifts at a local restaurant to support her career.

When she realized it was time to step away, she found that it was more challenging to find a fulfilling job than those around her expected it to be.

“I don’t think the general public knows how hard it is to be an elite athlete, and I don’t think they realize that it’s gone once you’re not producing medals,” Tracey says. “People just think it’s really easy. People think, ‘Oh, you’ll totally get a job. It’ll be easy.’”

With help from the ACE Program, Tracey secured a position with Synchrony Financial in recruiting support. Her biggest career goal is to help people – something she emphasizes because of the help she received from others during her athletic career.

At Pivot, she discovered that her emotions in retirement – feeling lost, worried, cynical – were entirely normal.

“I came in not really expecting anything, feeling a little lost, and I’m leaving hopeful,” Tracey says. “Even if I walk away tomorrow and don’t do the things that I say I’m going to do, I know that I could call any one of these nine other people and say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling with this today. How did you deal with it?’”

After the Pivot Workshop, participants meet virtually with each other and a facilitator once a month for six months and three times after, extending the experience to something of a yearlong support group.

Katie Holloway, a three-time Paralympic medalist who attended the third Pivot Workshop in order to think critically about her future transition out of sport, found that the follow-up sessions help her keep in touch with her goals.

“When I left the Pivot Workshop, it felt like a shift had been made, almost permission to allow myself to feel my successes and work toward a life more in line with my values,” Holloway says. “Pivot shows you how to value the things you love the most in life and, most importantly, how to see that as success outside of sports. The follow-ups have been helpful in keeping pace with all of that.

“It's not just a one-time class you can take to make sure you are making progress. You need help and support from peers and sports psychologists who fully understand the big picture.”

“Let’s not just forget these athletes”

With 46 athletes served across 24 sports – including summer, winter, Olympic and Paralympic disciplines – in the first year and a half of its existence, the Pivot Program is off to a successful start, according to the feedback Klein has received.

“It’s everyone on our team’s favorite program in a way that we feel like we’re making such an impact,” Klein says. “We get thank-you notes all the time from athletes … but to see someone change their perception of themselves at their core in a period of a day and a half is powerful.”

In the future, Klein hopes to expand the program to include athletes who have gone through previous workshops as coaches for current participants.

Her team also wants to reach as many athletes that could benefit from Pivot as they can, an amount that Klein knows is still far greater than those served so far.

As an ACE offering, the Pivot Workshop is entirely donor-funded. To Carlson and her peers, that’s one of the most special aspects of the program.

“I’m really grateful that the USOC and ACE and everyone put this in place, because I think it’s really important,” Carlson says. “I feel like I have more of a place in the world now. When you leave something, you think that that’s all that matters and you have a complete loss of identity. I think I’m starting to rediscover my identity through being able to connect with people who are also going through that.”

Carlson now lives in San Diego, California, and serves on the USOC’s athlete advisory council. She’s recently taken up mixed martial arts and aims to use the platform sport has given her to change the world for the better.

Tracey’s journey took her toward and away from skeleton, to law school, to volunteering with Americorps, to fighting forest fires and, finally, to the Pivot Workshop in December. She’s not sure what’s next, but like Carlson, she wants to positively influence the world.

She says Pivot gave her ideas for where to start – and provided a reprieve from what can be a confusing and scary transition.

“If you didn’t win a medal or you didn’t go to the Games, but you still represented your country on all of these different levels… that’s it? Do you just get dropped?” Tracey says. “It’s a relief and I’m also grateful to know that we’re not just being dropped. There is a support system going forward.

“Especially given some of the tough transitions I’ve seen other athletes go through, it’s nice to know that the USOC and whoever is funding this is saying, ‘Let’s not just forget these athletes. Let’s really help them.’”

The Athlete Career and Education (ACE) Program, and its Pivot Workshop, is made possible by donors like you. Click here to learn more about ACE and how you can support its impactful initiatives, and to give to the ACE Program, click here.