Future: Life After Sport

By Liora Israelsohn

Breaking records, beating personal bests, always chasing something just out of reach. This is the life of an athlete; focused and goal-oriented.

But what happens after the ultimate goal is achieved? After the Olympics, World Cup, or international championship? How do athletes make the transition into a new life after sport? What steps can they take to ensure a successful future?

The pressure to compete in the 2000 Sydney Olympics was huge. But by this point, athletics had taken its toll, and Lisa Lightfoot was injured beyond recovery. “I spent more time on the physio table than training. It got to the point where I just felt sad about it; it wasn’t exciting anymore”, she says.

Thankfully, Lisa had taken the necessary steps to ensure she had a future beyond sport.

Lisa Lightfoot ran for Australia in the 1994 Commonwealth Games and the 1996 Olympics. She grew up in a family that was very involved in watching sport, and accepted early on that sport was a part of life. But her parents never pushed her into competing, like so many athletes’ parents do. When Lisa went along with her friend to ‘Little Athletics’ training as a young child “it just sort of stuck. When you find something you’re good at, you stick with it” she says.

Though she started running early, Lisa only began training seriously at 14-years-old. At 15, she won her first national medal, and at 16 she won a junior title. “It was exciting, so you wanted to stay with it” Lisa says.

At 15 she won her first national medal, and at 16 a junior title.

During high school, she learnt to compartmentalise, but her life quickly became routine. “I did homework, went to training, did more homework, went to bed and went to school. Saturday nights were my one social night a week” says Lisa. “But I never watched an episode of [Australian soap drama] Neighbours, you just didn’t do that sort of thing”.

After high school however, life became a lot tougher for Lisa. She knew she needed to have future job prospects beyond athletics, so she enrolled at RMIT University. But her athletics began to suffer.

Balancing training with the load of a university student was difficult; her performances plateaued and she struggled physically. She was still competing at a national level, but everyone expected her to take the next step.

After her three years at RMIT, Lisa was offered an athletic scholarship by the university of Nebraska, which had one of the top three women’s track and field teams. Finally, she could put athletics first. “I actually medalled at the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), that was a really high honour”, she says.

But shortly after, at 23, Lisa discovered her left leg was an inch longer than her right. She suffered terrible pain in her back, knee and achilles, and was left unable to train. “I wanted to do so much and didn’t understand why I couldn’t.” she said.

Lisa desperately needed to gain control of her body, and she spiralled. “The one thing I could control was what I put in my body, but I over-controlled.” The desperation to stay on top of her training led to an eating disorder, and two years later, she could no longer even focus on running. “I was working to support myself purely so I could train, but I wasn’t going anywhere”, she says. “I felt pointless.” At 25, Lisa decided to retire.

“I wasn’t going anyway… I felt pointless.”

In a desperate need to reinvent herself, Lisa applied for a law degree and moved from Melbourne to Hobart to study. But on a trip home for the holidays, she met her now husband, David. He was very involved in athletics, and together with him, she started jogging again, and they developed a routine to overcome her injury.

Within two years she’d made the 1994 Commonwealth Games and World Cup, and two years later, she ran for Australia in the 1996 Olympics.

In 1996, Lisa also completed her law article clerkship. “That probably wasn’t the best decision; I should have probably deferred” she says.  

While balancing an education with training made Lisa’s journey to the Olympics tougher than most, she doesn’t regret it. She didn’t struggle to understand her identity beyond being a sporting star, like so many athletes do, if they don’t have opportunities waiting once they retire. “All of a sudden, you’re out of the system and where do you go for help? Where is that huge support network you once had?” she says. This is especially true of sports that generate income. “Once you stop, the question becomes ‘where is my income?’”, says Lisa.

“You have to have a plan B.”

20 years after her retirement, Lisa’s son is now an athlete. “It’s his passion and he wants to pursue it at a high level” she says. While she would never stop him from doing it, Lisa says he needs to be realistic. “It’s a fantastic opportunity and I want him to enjoy it and go with it”, she says. “But you have to have a plan B. You have to think of the future in the broader sense.”