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In Vancouver, the agony of defeat and loss of identity

February 20, 2010 |  7:00 am

Wother It's painful to see world-class athletes who have trained for years fail in the biggest competition of their lives -- particularly when they tend to have a history of bad luck. For example, Canadian speed skater Jeremy Wotherspoon finished ninth in his 500-meter race this week, even though he has been among the best in the world in that event for years. He also had disappointing results in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics. For all of his other honors, the Olympic medal has eluded him.

That kind of history can be a real worry for the coaches and loved ones of these athletes, says Sharon A. Chirban, a psychologist, who wrote about the emotional fallout for athletes who endure unexpected losses in an interesting essay, on the American College of Sports Medicine website. After the event, it can be difficult for an athlete to find a post-sports identity. Many athletes feel anger, shame or disorientation. One solution is to throw oneself back into training for another shot in four years. But, Chirban writes: "For others, the disillusionment, the pain, the shame can last for months, even years. For these athletes, it's often the end of a long road and without glory. It can be devastating to try to make sense of the years of commitment to training and a disciplined lifestyle with an unintended outcome."

Some athletes say they don't know who they are -- aside from their sports identify. Finding a new identity after a disappointing career can take a long time and even professional therapy.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Speed skater Jeremy Wotherspoon in Vancouver, Canada. Credit: Jasper Juinen  /  Getty Images