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How to retire without losing your identity

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I am a professional athlete. It’s something that will always be a part of my identity. Sport is my job, not just a passion or hobby. And over the past four seasons, I have been what I truly consider a ‘pro’: I was paid to do my sport. I had the backing of some awesome sponsors who believed in me. I was doing what I dreamed about as a young girl. I was making a career out of my passion, cycling.   Having cycling as your job has its obvious benefits, but it also comes with added pressures. You’re responsible for maintaining a certain level just to be worthy of the job. That pressure can sometimes detract from the beauty of the sport. It adds a strain to just racing a bike. It meant I couldn’t take a couple weeks off to relax. It was my job, and my job didn’t work like that. When you’re at the top of your game, things get tougher. You’re on a stage being watched, judged and critiqued. If you have a bad race, it’s not just you that notices it. People are quick to question and speculate, they forget about the potential problems that crop up behind the scenes. I felt like I was a puppet on a stage, not a real person, but a performer.

Two seasons ago, my husband and I set up Neon Velo cycling team with the backing of a London-based sponsor who also has a huge passion for cycling. It was a big achievement to set up our own team and manage everything. But it took a toll on both of us. In December 2014, I had reached my breaking point with cycling. I no longer had that passion or desire. The flame deep inside had completely burned out. I had been part of competitive cycling for 13 years without ever stepping away and doing something different. I had always trained to a plan. Now I had to step away and re-asses my life. But the feelings of depression didn’t go away after I took some time out. Truth be told, I didn’t want to leave on a low note. I felt I had not reached my true potential and, with the right people around me, I knew I could come back stronger, with more drive. I spent the months leading up to the next season working with a sport psychologist. She really helped me to express myself and just let go of some tough feelings I had been holding on to. It was an emotional few months. It was through working with my psychologist that I realized it wasn’t boredom or burnout that pushed me from cycling, it was depression. So I took a step back, and I wrote honestly about my feelings. I felt I needed to express myself, and that I would not be alone in how I was feeling. I was sure there were other people in my community struggling with the same thing I was feeling. I was not wrong. The response I got from my writing was overwhelming.

Depression in sport is not uncommon. In fact it is more common than we think. What is uncommon is sharing how we feel and letting people know that we are suffering from a mental illness. It’s not an illness you can see, and that makes it tougher to explain to people who haven’t been through it. It’s also not something you choose to have. But we do have the choice to talk about how we feel and to try to make the changes to feel better in ourselves. For me, this was what helped me to lift the dark cloud. And despite my best efforts to have a fulfilling and glamorous retirement, the reality was I didn’t retire after my best season or after fulfilling my dreams But I did retire happy. During my time working with my psychologist, she introduced me to Headspace. It was like finding a little haven in a big dark space. Spending just 10 minutes a day with myself and being able to get some ‘headspace’ to just breathe, relax and focus on clearing my mind; freeing myself of anxieties and allowing my mind to meander through meditation was really refreshing for me. It allowed me to have something to look forward to every day. A little me-time where, for those minutes, I was free of feeling of anxiety and depression. And what I particularly liked was that during the meditation, it was ok to have other thoughts, I just had to allow them to pass by and then refocus my attention. You are not told that you have to be completely zoned out. Meditation takes practice, just like riding a bike. Before my races, I would take 10 minutes out of my routine and just lie on the ground or in a quiet space, put my headphones on and meditate. It allowed me to feel less stress leading up to the race and it made me feel more focused but at the same time a sense of calm before I had to put my race face on and do battle. The hardest part about retiring was feeling like I was losing my identity. I’ve been an athlete for so long, and transitioning away from that is a big thing, a big life change. I am scared and uncertain of the future right now, but I have to approach it as one chapter ending and a new one starting. Life is too short to keep doing something that makes you unhappy. We all deserve that new chapter. Bike racing allowed me to travel the world and see so many wonderful places. It allowed me to grow as a person and learn important life lessons and skills. It taught me to always aim high and dream big and to never give up. And I’m not giving up now.

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The hardest part about retiring was feeling like I was losing my identity.

Gabby Durrin

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