Features & Images » Feature Story

Over-time

When the chase for championships is over, athletes look for other arenas to excel in

by

comment

The life of a professional athlete, to put it mildly, can be hard for the average person to relate to.

The training, the pressure, the globetrotting, the fame — it can be difficult to see life from the perspective of these larger-than-life figures.

Perhaps fittingly, not only is a career in sports abnormal, but in many cases, so too is its finish. Many athletes are still young enough that when their competitive days are behind them, there are still decades ahead to embark on a completely different path. Some make the switch more smoothly than others, capitalizing on the skills and connections they made in the sporting world, while others struggle to transition from a life that's all they've ever known.

With the best athletes on two wheels making their way to Whistler this week for the world's largest mountain bike festival, Pique spoke with five athletes who've left the limelight behind to discuss the challenges they faced and the successes they enjoyed as they moved onto that next stage of life.

 

Krista Guloien:

Two-time Olympic rower, author and public speaker

Finding the right time to make the transition isn't always easy.

Krista Guloien went through the process not just once, but twice.

The 37-year-old from Port Moody wore the maple leaf in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, competing in the women's quad sculls, and thought when she wrapped up in China, that she'd find something else to do.

'I thought one Olympics would be good enough for me. I would have that and I would go home and move on with my life at 28. I crossed the finish line and when the race was finished, it was just underwhelming," she says. "I hadn't given it to the point of giving what I had envisioned being able to give... We finished eighth of eight (teams) and I didn't cry. I didn't feel glad."

Even with the unsettled, unfulfilled feeling, Guloien had resigned herself to fading out of the sport until big changes at Rowing Canada enticed her back as John Keogh was installed as the women's performance director and senior women's head coach. With a renewed vigour behind the program, Guloien rejoined and was part of the Canadian squad that secured the silver medal in the women's eight at the 2012 Summer Games in London. There, she felt the same joy she did over a decade earlier as a young rower at Simon Frasier University.

"When I crossed the finish line there was the feeling that I believed was there the first time I rowed. It's funny to say that, but when I first started rowing in 2001, there was something special about it that made me feel so special," she said.

Guloien's next chapter, as it turned out, saw her trade in the paddle for the pen with her first book, Beyond the Finish Line: What Happens When the Endorphins Fade, released by Influence Publishing last year.

The book came about after Guloien connected with the publishing house at a networking event shortly after her retirement. While she had been hitting the public speaking circuit, she found it wasn't the most comfortable way to tell her story — not just the highs and lows of being out there on the water, but everything afterward with her feet on terra firma.

"I never felt like I was the shining-star athlete. I didn't feel like glorifying that part of it. I knew I was already kind of challenged by the transition itself. It was a place that I landed (at): 'OK, this is comfortable for me to share, and in sharing, I can hopefully help other people, other athletes, maybe," she says.

Guloien started on a framework for the book in 2013, and wrote it over the course of three years. Like many writers, she struggled to get words on the page at the start. However, she credits Influence for knowing just what buttons to push, and setting her into action with her athlete's mindset.

"I had a fair bit of time (to write the book) — and I let that time go as most writers do procrastinate, typically. I could feel the deadline coming closer and closer and I reached out to the publisher and she gave me a little bit of structure," she says. "That appealed to my athlete self."

Beyond the Finish Line was a finalist for the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards in the sports/recreation/fitness non-fiction category. Judges recognized the honesty with which Guloien addressed her struggles after London as she tried to figure out what to do next. She hopes the book can be a resource for others, not only athletes, who are in the midst of a major life change. In addition to seeking help if they need it, she advises athletes find another passion to immerse themselves in.

"Being patient with ourselves and reaching out, extending yourself to help, wherever that may come from, is super important because you can feel a bit lost. For me, my family was a huge anchor for me in that time," she says. "It's a lonely kind of feeling to feel that you're the only one that's not dealing with it well, or you're the only one that's lost; you didn't set yourself up, you don't have enough money saved.

"When you align with others that feel the same way, that collective sense of struggle is really comforting."

 

Conrad Pridy:

Former World Cup ski racer and ski coach

Some retirements are planned at the end of a season or Olympiad, while others come a little more suddenly.

Whistler's Conrad Pridy falls into the latter category. After the national ski racer suffered a knee injury during the 2014-15 season, he was approached by the British Ski Academy (BSA) about coaching. He jumped at the opportunity to not only try something new, but also live abroad, first in Chamonix, France, and last winter, in Pila, Italy.

"It was good because I didn't have a lot of direction at that point in my life," he says. "It was a good experience and I also wanted to get away from everything up here.

"I, in a sense, ran away, but I also needed to get away and find myself."

Pridy's ready to return this winter, though. After meeting with Whistler Mountain Ski Club (WMSC) executive director Mark Tilston while home for a visit, Pridy accepted the offer to lead the next generation of International Ski Federation (FIS) athletes after serving in that role for the BSA last season.

"We talked it out and I really like the direction it's going. This is where I learned to ski and it kind of feels a bit like home," says Pridy, who raced in over 20 World Cup events, placing in the top 30 on three occasions.

With two years of instruction under his belt, peace with the abrupt end to his career, and a greater understanding of how people learn, Pridy is ready to help WMSC members reach new heights.

It wasn't always easy, though, as he describes himself as a kinaesthetic learner, progressing best when he can feel the snow and get feedback from it. However, many of his charges in recent seasons were, unlike him, either auditory or visual learners. Conveying his knowledge in a way that best suits his students has been an adjustment for the 29-year-old.

"I found myself saying the same thing in different ways to try to get people to do the right thing," Pridy says. "One day, we were working on line drills and I was trying to explain a conservative line and a race line. I was trying to demonstrate how you ski a bad line, going too straight in the gates and losing all your flow and fighting the hill too much. I couldn't do it. Not to pump my tires too much, but I've been preaching the same thing so much I just couldn't think of it in another way. I just kept solving these problems.

"If I ever start ski racing again, it's probably a valuable tool to have, learning how to word things differently and understanding the sport differently."

Another surprise Pridy has taken on is a necessary about-face in attitude, as, especially in an individual sport, athletes can naturally become "selfish," he explains. As a coach, he's focused on everyone but himself, recalling a trip to Austria this past season where he flew from Canada to meet the racers for a trip, but his work was far from done.

"I flew from here to Austria, then got in a van and drove another four hours to where we were staying to train. From my experience before that, everything was always: get off the plane, hop in the van, go to sleep and someone would get you there.

"On this side of things, it's: get the van, drink a bunch of coffee to stay awake, drive there."

Only once everyone else was checked in and had heads in their beds could Pridy rest.

As someone who yo-yoed on and off the national team over the course of his career, Pridy, on the one hand, could help instil a never-say-die resiliency in his athletes. However, he also realizes he has lessons to teach about how to stay on top after getting there. Once again, it comes back to a new revelation: how much work his coaches actually put in.

"I became too reliant on my coach. I thought back to when I first made the team, and I was used to being coached by the BC Team at the time and I was more-or-less on my own. I'd watch the guys better than me and dissect their skiing and figure out what it was that I could do," he says. "I was skiing quite well and in my time on the team, I put a lot of faith in my coaches. I think you need to, but at the same time, I also leaned on them too much. When things started going south, I had a few bad results and I had a summer without them, (and) I couldn't duplicate the things I was doing when I was with them because I was so lost.

"The difference between the guys who are still there and me is they never forgot what got them to the team."

Pridy, who is also heavy into mountain biking, says it's key for coaches to strike the right balance between being a mentor and a friend, sharing in the highs and lows while also being a steadying hand. He enjoys working with young athletes at the moment, but in the future, might look to make the jump to coaching older athletes. He also plans to pursue filmmaking.

 

Jay DeMerit:

Former professional soccer player and entrepreneur

Like Pridy, American Jay DeMerit didn't have a say in how his career ended.

But he'd been planning for the next stage for well over a decade.

Before kicking off his on-field professional career in 2001, DeMerit graduated from the University of Illinois-Chicago with a degree in product design.

With a solid education in his back pocket, DeMerit hustled his way from the U.S. to the U.K., finding himself starting with a ninth-tier club in Southall before eventually making his way to English club Watford and the Premier League.

The native of Green Bay, Wis. also made 25 appearances for the American national side, including every game of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and later became the first player signed by the Vancouver Whitecaps as they prepared to make the jump to Major League Soccer. He retired in 2014 after twice rupturing his Achilles tendon, but later that year, launched Portmanteau Stereo Co. with business partner Jeff "Heffe" McConnell.

"In an athlete's transition from their sport, it's always a question of what am I going to do next and what are my skills to allow me to do that? It had been 13 years since I had used a design curriculum, so to speak, but I found myself on a party bus with some of my friends. There was a ghetto blaster made out of a vintage suitcase and I just thought it was the coolest thing.

"As someone who appreciates craft, I thought, 'I want to buy one,' but when I tried to find out where the company was, I couldn't find it... Then I thought, 'Why don't I try to make one? I'm educated in this design kind of stuff so I'll give it a shot and save myself a bunch of money.'"

The company's latest venture is the Rockit Log, a speaker made with lumber found right here in the Sea to Sky.

"You see all of these huge piles of wood that are two to three years old just sitting there and rotting in the ground. I always think 'What can I do with those logs?'" he said.

While he was experienced on the design side, DeMerit had minimal business experience. But after rising through the soccer ranks as an unheralded college grad working side jobs to make ends meet, DeMerit recognizes the importance of using any and all resources at one's disposal.

"Making connections with the community or having relationships with sponsors or brands, that's a huge part of being an athlete and I understood that from the start," he says.

"People didn't think I'd use my design curriculum in life, but ultimately, I've used it every day. It teaches me how to look at things creatively.

"We're very fortunate to be in these circles, so if you're not utilizing the whole circle, then you're really selling yourself short. All of those things help the transition once the circle starts to close," he says.

DeMerit, who is married to 2010 Olympic ski-cross champion Ashleigh McIvor, also runs the Rise & Shine Camps in Pemberton with 17 girls and two boys currently enrolled. Through the camps, DeMerit is practicing what he preaches, striving to not only help the attendees excel in the beautiful game, but create beautiful lives off the pitch as well.

"The most enjoyable part is creating a curriculum where you're not just playing sports. For me, that's where I see the big hole in development in sports. We're not creating these kids to be well-rounded and respectful people. We're training them to be athletes, and a lot of times that falls short from the other human qualities we all need to be well-rounded people," he says.

Recently, big-mountain skier Ian McIntosh came to meet with campers, but DeMerit said the goal is to go beyond even athletics, welcoming doctors, lawyers and business leaders to speak as well.

 

Tristan Merrick:

Mountain-bike racer, sports announcer and producer

An injury also played a role in Tristan Merrick's change in career trajectory, though it didn't force him out of action permanently.

Instead, once healed, Merrick balanced his roles as a racer and announcer at Crankworx Whistler, becoming known nearly as much for his voice as for his riding.

Merrick, a Whistlerite by way of Comox, said the shift happened because of one particularly fortuitous injury.

"I had no desire to ever announce. I never wanted to be involved with the media," he said. "Seven years ago, I had a crash and broke my hand on the first day of Crankworx.

"The right people knew me, knew I had this wealth of information, and just handed (me) a microphone."

Well, there was one step in between.

"I was supposed to come in and pass information off to the announcers about certain riders. I got introduced on the microphone, which I was terrified about. This wasn't part of the deal. Then by the end of the first day, I was announcing broadcasts on the web and announced the rest of the week," he says.

Merrick was such a hit with audiences he was invited back, but initially thought of it as something fun to do on the side. He gradually realized it was something he could grow into and began to hone his craft, taking vocal lessons and nailing down his own enthusiastic style.

"The next year came and they wanted me to help out, so I did it. But I still enjoyed what Crankworx was — I still raced my bike and partied every night in the early years," Merrick says.

"By the second or third year, I thought I should take it more seriously. It's the biggest mountain bike event in the world, who knows what else I can do with this?"

After settling into his role, he found a way to provide updates while racing, noting he would get seeded to ride early so he could finish his run with enough time to hop on the microphone. In enduro races, he would even make himself heard in between the action.

"In the Enduro World Series, when I was racing those, I would call in between the stages when I was out racing to talk to the announcers," he recalls.

At the time, he still had a full-time job with Whistler Blackcomb, but worked independently to build his knowledge base, noting that announcers not only need to know everything from stats and rules on-course, but also the technical side of things, like creating on-screen graphics.

"Part of it is learning all the aspects that go on behind the scenes, how the production works, understanding what the goal for the broadcast is. If you're an announcer, you're not just sitting up in the booth talking about what's going on," Merrick says. "As people's attention spans get less and less, it's up to the announcers and the show to be, not more entertaining, but more engaging so that once the viewer either logs in or is flipping through the channels, they start watching and watch from start to finish."

Merrick parlayed his Crankworx role into a similar one with the X Games, doing the field reporting for freestyle snowmobiling in the winter edition and freestyle motocross — one of his all-time favourite sports to watch — for the summer event.

"If you're passionate about any sport, you can announce it. If you know the right stuff, as long as you don't pretend you're a professional, if you have great questions and great insight when working with the athletes when interviewing them, you can make anything happen," he says.

As Crankworx gets set to open this week, you won't see as much of Merrick as in years past, as he's shifted to work more behind the scenes producing a recap show for IMG TV, in addition to two Red Bull mountain biking web series, On Track with Curtis Keene and Fast Life with Loic Bruni as he follows riders on the Enduro World Series tour.

In both web series, Merrick is a jack-of-all-trades.

"I take care of everything outside of the budget. I have a coworker who deals with all that," he said. "I create a rough storyboard and it's up to me to create all the content of where the show or where each episode goes with that."

While he still rides, the chances to compete are fewer and further between as Merrick immerses himself in his new projects.

Ultimately, he'd love to find himself working on broadcasts of the world's biggest sporting events, naming the Super Bowl as a potential goal.

 

Mike Janyk:

Three-time Olympian, former World Cup ski racer, web series host and comedian

After concluding his racing career in 2014, Mike Janyk made a point of trying out new things he'd missed out on during his World Cup days. He joined a writing group, has taken to the stage as a stand-up comedian and, most recently, worked with FIS to host a series of videos called Riding Single, where he captures the lighter side of the sport with some of the world's best alpine racers.

The first season included interviews with Canadian Marie-Michele Gagnon, Norwegian Nina Loeseth and Swiss racer Lara Gut. The first two accumulated over 3,000 views on YouTube while the latter is up over 7,000.

"The Gut," the pilot project's debut episode, featured the two skiers in an arcade facing off in air hockey and other classic games while also chatting about Gut's career — including Janyk's admiration for her take-no-prisoners approach on course. "The Loeseth" episode took place at a local ice rink where the Norwegian broke down how skating, for her, translates on the slopes, and he joined Gagnon in the gym to talk about balancing training and racing during the season.

"They wanted me to highlight their individuality," he says. "You're picking out all the little characteristics that make that other person who they are."

Janyk says he draws inspiration not just from lighthearted sports presenters like TSN's Cabral "Cabbie" Richards, but other shows like superstar stand-up Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Like Seinfeld and his rotating cast of chuckle-inducing guests, Janyk brings a certain cachet to the show from his career as a World Cup racer. That, in turn, makes it easier for his subjects to speak candidly in interviews. In particular, his sit-down with Gut was a thrill as she shared her experiences bursting onto the scene at 16 and becoming a household name not only in her native Switzerland, but all over the world.

"She was 18 and she was a superstar. People recognized her all over the street and she had no idea how to handle that," he says. "They're really opening up and I'm so grateful that they're sharing that."

Janyk's progress as a comedian, meanwhile, has him realizing the importance of empathy: onstage, he needs to relate to the audience, while as a host, it's the subject.

"Make sure you're aware of the other person, care about how they're feeling or what their mood is," he says.

In addition to looking good onscreen, Janyk also needs to consider the tight schedules of his guests while ensuring he gets strong content for the video. He also stresses the need not to come in with too many designs about how a conversation might progress.

"I have to be ready to let go of any idea I have of how I want it to go," he says. "I'm learning to trust myself and trust my instincts in an interview."

A number of athletes don't get the chance to go out on their own terms, and with the inherent dangers of high-speed mountain biking, it's likely some of your favourites at Crankworx Whistler, running Aug. 11 to 16, won't get the chance to choose when they hang up their helmets.

Regardless of how they exit, some may find trouble filling the void left by this all-consuming part of their lives. There may be some struggle, but with focus, hustle and skills learned on the trails, they will surely find another adventure to transition into.

Add a comment