Retiring Olympians' toughest challenge: Finding something else to do

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SOCHI, Russia – Ask a Winter Olympian what the future holds and the answer is the same just about every time. Some version of "I'm not thinking about that right now, but I will."

Shani Davis said he was "just focused on the competition." Charlie White admitted he "hasn't even thought about that" yet. Noelle Pikus-Pace will go back to being a mom and a businesswoman, while Maia and Alex Shibutani weren't even sure – and they're only 19 and 22.

While it is understandable that athletes just removed from the intensity of Games competition are not prepared to immediately switch their minds to what comes after their athletic careers, the topic is not a particularly happy one.

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"It turns my stomach just thinking about that experience," said U.S. bobsledder Steve Mesler referring to life immediately after he retired following an Olympic gold in 2010.

The United States Olympic Committee has set up programs to assist its athletes' transition to regular life once they're done competing or to prepare them for that inevitability ahead of time. The USOC has partnered with employment agency Adecco to assist with job placements and DeVry University for educational training.

[Related: Bode Miller's Olympic career possibly over after withdrawing from slalom]

Typically, up to 50 percent of U.S. athletes after an Olympics will not come back for another Games and are in need of finding a new direction. According to Mesner, it's not much fun.

"It is something that I don't think is paid much attention to," Mesner said. "When you are an athlete, you go from this structured life, literally dozens of people around you. All of a sudden, you retire and that's gone. The support structure is gone. Your health care is gone. Your identity is gone.

"You are on a plane or in a park and somebody says, 'What do you do?' It is the third question everybody asks. [As an athlete] you get to say this thing that intrigues people. And then that's gone. My answer for quite a while was 'unemployed.' Your identity is stripped.

"The sooner you can understand the perspective that the world doesn't revolve around you, the better off you are going to be."

The life of a winter athlete is a tough one by its very nature. Only a select few earn serious money and most make great sacrifices of time and energy to pursue their dreams. And once their Olympic experience is done, finding a happy medium and a contented life outside of sports does not automatically follow.

"They say that athletes die twice," said Bill Cole, founder and president of the International Mental Game Coaching Association and a leading author on sports psychology. "When it stops, it is stunning and shocking and jarring. A lot of times you hear them say, 'I never thought this day would come.' It is like a really big portion of your life has just ended."

Cole likens the experience of the retiring Olympian to that of some of the Silicon Valley CEOs that he works with. Replacing the buzz of competition and the thrill of winning can be compared to business maestros suffering withdrawal symptoms from cutting big deals.

Long-track speedskater Chad Hedrick retired after the Vancouver Games with five Olympic medals in his collection but had no clear plan on what to do next. He now works in the oil industry in Houston and is happy with filling his life with complete workdays and evenings spent studying toward a business degree. But the transition didn't happen overnight.

[Photos: Bode Miller's Olympic career]

"Unfortunately I had some struggles along the way in finding my purpose, finding a passion," Hedrick said. "Leaving your sport you never, ever … very seldomly does somebody achieve something outside sports that is equal to what they had before. That's the struggle, something we have to live with.

"I have started a new career and everything is great but it doesn't happen on Month One. It has taken me a couple of years to really find my spot in this world and go out and chase on a professional level."

For some, engaging in charitable works is a cathartic experience, giving former athletes a greater sense of purpose and a fresh challenge to attack, according to Cole.

"People that handle it better than others have a portion of ‘giving back' – where they figure that their status and experiences give them a lot of power to do good," Cole said.

That's exactly what Mesler did, founding a charitable organization called Classroom Champions that connects Olympic athletes with school children in high-need areas.

"I never thought I would find something as rewarding as competing at the Olympics," Mesler said. "But I did."

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