There are lasting memories from every Olympic Games. The majority are inspiring and worth celebrating.
But some are darker. The heartbreak of falling short after dedicating so much of your life to one moment. Confronting the unknown after a four-year Olympic cycle.
The Beijing Games have provided a few such reminders.
American Mikaela Shiffrin composing herself on the side of a mountain after skiing off course in her specialty, the slalom.
Japanese speedskater Nana Takagi in tears after her late fall in the women’s team pursuit cost them gold.
Canadian curler Rachel Homan coping with an early exit in mixed doubles, after a game decided by the smallest of margins.
“I’m in the deepest of black holes wishing we could have found another centimetre for Canada … personally struggling beyond words,” Homan tweeted Tuesday.
Stephanie Labbé felt that. The now-retired goalkeeper from Canada’s Olympic champion soccer team has been among the most vocal supporters of the Canadian curlers. She has also experienced post-Olympic blues, which can hit athletes whether they win a medal or not. It happened to her after the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where Canada took bronze.
“To put everything into this one competition and then when it’s over, whether it’s good or bad, it’s over and … there’s just this empty feeling, whether it went well or not,” Labbé said this past week.
She said she soon learned that it wasn’t uncommon at all.
Top athletes such as American swimmer Michael Phelps and Canadian trampolinist Rosie MacLennan shared similar experiences. MacLennan, a two-time Olympic gold medallist who also missed the podium in 2008 and 2021, believes the majority of Olympic athletes wind up physically, emotionally and mentally burnt out from the experience.
“I know that both standing on the podium and not, I experience the same drain, perhaps in different time frames,” she said. “Maybe when you do well or achieve your goals you ride that high for a little while, but it eventually does come down.”
And when it does, there’s help.
Game Plan is a program funded by Sport Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee and delivered by Canadian Sport Institutes across the country to Olympians and Paralympians who need help. It’s been around in different forms for a long time, said senior national manager Cara Button, but evolved into a more formal wellness strategy after the 2010 Games in Vancouver — when a number of athletes opened up about having trouble focusing on competition because of concerns about the future.
There are five pillars to the program, which keeps athletes’ participation confidential: career, education, skill building, health and community. Support includes access to mental health care providers who have worked in the sports system, and up to $1,000 annually per athlete to pay for their time; a 24-hour athlete support hotline through sponsor LifeWorks; workshops, conferences and a post-Games planning workbook.
But it only goes so far.
“Despite people trying to be proactive and athletes even being aware of (post-Olympic blues), that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen or be eliminated completely,” Button said.
Athletes work one-on-one with Game Plan advisers to decide which resources might help the most, Button added. Those advisers will follow up with athletes who went to Beijing.
Labbé supports Game Plan, but suggests it could do even more good by adding a comprehensive post-Olympics program for all returning Canadian athletes, not just the ones who ask for help.
“You’re in such a dark space that it’s very hard to reach out,” Labbé said.
Both Labbé and MacLennan had their own game plans before last summer’s Olympics, blocking out downtime with family and close friends for when they returned home.
“It is important to give yourself space to recover, and acknowledge that that takes patience,” MacLennan said.
MacLennan was among the athletes who normalized the post-Olympic blues for Labbé, who tried to pay it forward by reaching out to Homan recently. Homan returned to Twitter on Thursday, thanking Canadians “for your support when I needed it the most.”
Said Labbé: “I know Rachel. She may not know it, but that message that she put out, she going to help someone else as well.”
Laura Armstrong is a Star sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @lauraarmy