- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2006

TURIN, Italy — The Winter Olympics are over — the competition, the medals, the parties, the youthful high jinks.

Now what?

Angela Ruggiero, a three-time Olympian, started pondering the question long before her U.S. women’s hockey team ended up with a disappointing bronze medal.

“I’m a chronic thinker,” she said. “I think 10 steps ahead. Back in October I was already stressing about what I was gonna do after the Games. For a while I was stressed. But you know what? I said, ‘Let’s just play and see what happens.’ And then after the Games I’ll spend a few weeks and figure it out. But, yeah, I definitely wonder.”

Others are wondering, too. After all, this is the pinnacle of their athletic lives. For some, it might be the pinnacle of their lives, period. Some experience a post-Olympic letdown after years of preparation and training suddenly end.

“I felt that right after my event,” said Toby Dawson, who won the bronze medal in the men’s freestyle moguls. “So much work and it’s done in 22 seconds. I tried to draw the rest of the Games out as much as possible.”

Aerial skier Eric Bergoust reportedly caught a bad case of the letdown blues after the 2002 Games. Kelly Clark of the U.S. snowboarding team is said to have suffered from them so badly that she became depressed after winning the gold medal in the women’s halfpipe in 2002.

Nothing like that happened to Ruggiero after the 1998 and 2002 Games. She has other interests, a close family and lots of friends. She is famous and smart, a Harvard graduate who has written a book and traveled to Africa to help disadvantaged kids. She can pretty much write her own ticket. The question is figuring out where to go with it.

“I’m thinking about business school or getting a job, trying out the real world,” she said.

Ruggiero is one of 12 Olympic athletes auditioning for a special edition of the television show “The Apprentice.” But for others, the real world will be a bit more realistic, a strange and scary place. Some won’t even go there. They will continue in their sports and aim for the Vancouver Games, four long years away.

Many athletes need not even consider their futures because they immediately return to their careers. When the Olympics end, men’s hockey players are right back in the NHL. Skiers pick up their World Cup season.

“I won’t be home till April 1,” said Julia Mancuso, the gold medalist in the women’s giant slalom.

“I’m still going on after the Olympics,” speedskater Catherine Raney said.

For Jeremy Bloom and Todd Hays, new careers beckon. Bloom is saying goodbye to freestyle skiing and will try to make it in the NFL. Hays, a veteran bobsledder, hopes to be a college football coach.

These athletes have no time for a letdown. Others have nothing but time.

“It’s much different for us,” Ruggiero said. “I debate whether my career’s gonna end after these Games or if I’m gonna stick around. Because, really, the Olympics are our NHL.”

Speedskaters can’t even make such an analogy. The Olympics are their Olympics, and sometimes nothing else compares.

“Yeah, of course, there definitely is [a letdown],” three-time Olympic skater Jennifer Rodriguez said. “The post-Olympic year, usually if you go to the World Cup circuit, it’s like, ‘la da da,’ everyone’s just having a good time. It doesn’t mean that much.

“It’s kind of a big letdown, but you’ve got to find a way to keep that energy going, keep that enthusiasm going. Some people take a year off.”

Raney, however, said she will have no trouble maintaining her enthusiasm.

“I’ve got another World Cup. I’ve got a race in Salt Lake City. I’ve got the world championships in Calgary,” she said. “I still have a full month after these Games where I have to keep going and still have to be prepared.”

Like Ruggiero, Rodriguez said she might retire. If she doesn’t, she said it can take about two years of skating to emerge from the doldrums after the Olympics.

“I mean, you’re still training as serious as ever, but if you don’t win a medal [during a competition], it’s not that big of a deal. Not like it is the two years before the Games. That’s the big buildup.”

Rodriguez said she cannot imagine the end of the Games leading to depression, “but I think the hard thing is if you’re gonna retire,” she said. “We’ve been athletes so long that a lot of us haven’t finished school, and so that’s kind of the big question. ‘OK, now I get real life. What happens now?’”

To some, what happens is relief.

“I can recall from my past Olympics, they are so intense and stressful that when you’re done, you’re exhausted almost,” Raney said.

For silver-medalist figure skater Sasha Cohen, whose life has been an endless whirlwind of training and public scrutiny, the close of the Olympics marks a respite and a return to normalcy, at least for the time being.

“I’ll miss it a little bit,” she said. “There’s so much anticipation and excitement. But it’s been very hard to live a life under huge expectations, intense pressure. It’ll be nice to give myself a little bit of a break.”

Krissy Wendell, a member of the 2002 U.S. women’s hockey team and captain of the current squad, knows how Cohen feels.

“I stay away from hockey right after the Olympics,” she said. “It’s such a grind from August till now.”

Wendell said dealing with the end of the Olympics is different for everyone. Snowboarder Rosey Fletcher, who won bronze in the women’s parallel giant slalom, looks at it this way: “To me, it’s the journey, not the destination,” she said.

Wendell focuses on more important matters.

“I have a lot to go home to,” she said. “I have a great family and friends. I have a good balance in my life. My whole life doesn’t revolve around hockey. For me, it’s just a transition to something different. There’s another part of me that’s excited to just breathe, to be normal and see friends and family and people that I’ve sacrificed time [from seeing].”

Several of Wendell’s teammates are looking forward to starting or returning to school. Jamie Hagerman, Katie King and Courtney Kennedy are coaches who can continue to exercise their competitive spirit.

“In the past I wondered what to do with myself,” King said. “But now I’m fortunate that I have a job.”

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