The cost of wearing the flag!
Transitioning from Athlete to the Real World – A what NOT to do!
I guess you can say that being sports has been a huge part of my life from a young age. I started in sports when I was 12 and when I retired it was a rough transition. Still is!
A famous quote tells my story very easily – “I’ve been told it’s a good idea to start a speech or a story with a joke! Well; don’t get your hopes up. I’m not hear to tell jokes. I am hearing to pick a FIGHT! I am here to pick a fight with second place.”
We all hear these great stories about “winning the gold” how great it is; how fabulous it will be! Guess what it’s not!
I often get asked –“What was your greatest game? Or your great memory in sports?”
For most people, ninety-nine percent of people will think it’s the gold medal game in Torino, but that’s not the answer. It was actually the semi-final, and I’ll tell you why. That was a really, really tough game against Norway. I made a really great shot on my first rock of the last end. I made a raise through a lot of cover, a very difficult shot for wheelchair curlers to make and it hadn’t been done before. There’s a photo of me raising my arms and people think it’s from the moment we won the gold, but nope, the photo was taken right after that semi-final shot.
I raised my arms for a reason. I knew that the very next day, for the first time in my career, after a 22-year pursuit of a Paralympic medal, I was going home with one. I didn’t care what the colour was. I knew that I’d guaranteed myself a medal at the Paralympic Games. To everybody else, maybe the colour would matter… but not to me. I was going home with a medal. It was my moment and I was finally going to get one.
So Norway tried their next shot of the semi, I then threw my second stone of the end, and now it was the Norway skip’s last chance. He missed, not by much, and we won. I just lost it… the tears were flowing. My teammates thought I was nuts; they thought I shouldn’t be celebrating because we hadn’t won the gold yet. I told them that it was never about the Gold. Tomorrow we are going home with a medal.
So the next day, for the final, I was either going to be the skip of the best team in the world or the second-best team. Someone once told me that it didn’t matter how many world championships you win; if you can win an Olympic or Paralympic medal, you are remembered forever.
Not only was I going to go on to win Paralympic gold medal, but I was going to win one of the first Paralympic medals ever presented for a sport. It turned out that I won the very first gold medal ever presented for wheelchair curling in history.
I guess you can say that is where my story starts.
The 2006 Paralympic wheelchair curling final was against Great Britain, and what a great game it was. We were ahead in the last end 6-4, and everything kind of fell apart on us. We couldn’t hit this particular stone, nothing was happening. When it came down to my shots we were facing three, and when I threw my first one it was… nowhere where I wanted it to go. Not even close! It was on the side of the button but wide open, fully exposed.
The Great Britain skip, Frank Duffy, wheeled down the ice to throw his stone and he actually said to me, “Thanks for the gold medal.” I said, “Hey, go get it Frankie.”
So what do you say to that; how do you keep you composure? I go back to my quote – “Maybe you like second place, Maybe you like that ‘you gave it your all, better luck next time’ malarkey they spoon-feed runner ups”
He threw and you could not pass a piece of paper sideways between his stone and mine. He’d missed it by the tiniest margin. Lo and behold, I managed to win the first Paralympic gold medal ever awarded in the sport of wheelchair curling.
Here is another reason why that final is not the number one memory for me. For the last 10 years, I've had to deal with people's opinions that we won the gold medal by default. They all said that we won because the other guy missed his shot for the win. That’s bullshit, of course, and no matter how easy Frank’s shot should have been, it turned out to not be so easy, right?
Now, what if I told you that my team has never celebrated or been celebrated for winning that first-ever gold? To me, we have never been properly recognized for that accomplishment.
Here’s what happened. We were awarded our medals, and it was great and emotional and all that, but then they hauled us off for drug testing. Not one or two of us…. all of us. This was during the time we should have been celebrating. By the time we were done, it was time to leave the building. So we get on the bus and then get back to the village, but there was no celebration.
The next day, even after the closing ceremony, there was no team celebration. My players all just split. The team basically broke up after that, and we haven’t played together since.
I ended up staying an extra day with a friend and the athlete village was dead quiet – except for the tear-down that was starting. I was told I had to be out of the village by such-and-such time. It didn't matter what was hanging around my neck anymore. I was a gold medalist the previous day, but today… no one cared.
My friend and I drove down to Pisa and we had a monumental moment. We went to a church and my friend turned to the Cardinal and he said, "We just won a gold medal.” We were blessed by the Padre and it was a really inspiring moment. We got into the car and decided to go home the next day.
Once we got home there was a camera and maybe a couple of people at the airport, but there was no major fan affair. Then the reality stepped in because the camera was gone after about five minutes and that was it.
Then your family goes away. They were happy for me and took lots of pictures but once they left that was it. You are left to think about the reality. You need to think about what you are going to do with your life. You see… what no one knew was that during the Paralympics I was going through a divorce. I also had no job to go back home to, and I felt as if I had no future. Curling was all that I knew. Training was all that I knew. At that point in time, I woke up the next morning thinking the phones were going to ring.
“The phone never rang. Not once.”
I thought maybe some endorsements would come in but there are no endorsements for a Paralympic athlete. You would think that someone would care that you just won the gold medal… but no one did. So I prepared to continue on with the sport, and re-start training, and then I was graciously retired. Those are the words I am going to use. I was GRACIOUSLY retired from the national team.
After I was “retired” I didn’t have a sport to go to, I didn't have a job to go to, and I just met this woman who was the love of my life… but that is another story. Before I knew it, depression set in, and that is where my story started to take a turn. There is no strategic planning for all this negativity to be dealt with.
You don't know what to do because one day you are thinking that you need to go to the gym, you need to train, and do all these things. What do you do when you wake up one morning and your gym membership is revoked and your phone is revoked? You are not a member of Team Canada anymore and by the way, congratulations on your medal (that you have never been recognized for or celebrated for).
So my transition from an athlete to the real word was an early failure. Every step of the way.
Sport Canada funding was the backbone of my support structure but when you not paying into CPP (Canadian Pension Plan) or EI (Employment Insurance ) the morning after that gets revoked because of retirement you wake up without that $1,800 a month coming in get a rude wake up call. Top this this off with the fact that because you did not pay into the support you get left in the vacuums of uncertainty. Over the years, my coping mechanism with all this has faltered.
And it has cost me everything.
Everyone says to me, “You are a gold medallist, isn’t that the greatest thing that you have ever done in your life?” I turn to them and say, “It was the worst thing that I could have done in my life.”
I felt as if there was no support for me, no structure. Did I make mistakes along the way? Sure I did. I was trying to make sure that I had the right coping mechanisms to get me through all of this non-transitional support but in the end, it cost me everything.
I want to bring attention to this so nobody has to go through what I have gone through for the past eight years. I hope that nobody needs to ever learn the hard way.
Part of being an athlete – once you can gain the acceptance of the inevitable – involves being able to put yourself in a strong mindset… that you have a strong skill set to be able to deal with the virtually unknown.
It is like going into that semi-final game. If I didn’t do everything right in that semi-final, I would have never made it to that gold medal game or even had a chance at a medal.
My life right now is much like that semi- final game but I am down in points, and there is no single great shot that I can make to win the game.
I’ll tell you the truth, I am a big guy. I'm 280 pounds, I have been around the world, I am a gold medallist, a world champion, the whole bit. One thing I can tell you is, never ever underestimate or think that what is on the surface is what the reality is. Ever.
Everyone has their demons. I have mine. I don’t take drugs, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke but I have skeletons in my closet. I was afraid because I was too proud. This was all because of a mindset that I had being instilled in me as an athlete for 22 years. A mindset of saying that “I can do this” and more importantly, that I could do it on my own. I should not have had to pretend to never need help, to be strong and to cope. I just know that I am not the only athlete that is in that place. There are a million athletes that will never tell you the struggles of what they have and the costs that these struggles have. The ultimate thing is the cost.
It did not just take a toll on me. When I thought it was all about me, it wasn’t… but I made it all about me because I was trying to cope. I felt stuck because I never got the support I needed to transition. For the last years in particular, I just felt like I was trying to survive.
Quicksand is a scary thing that none of us really recognize. My deepest fear is that quicksand will kill you. You are trying to live your life and everything seems fine. Then one thing goes wrong, then another thing goes wrong, then another, and you try to fight back… but then you sink. You are stuck until you can't move and you can't breathe. In reality, you are in over your head. Most of the time we are either too proud or too embarrassed to know what is happening or how to ask for help.
Athletes all around need help and they cry out for help every day. People around you assume that you are strong and that you need this. The answer at the end of the day is that unless we recognize that there is a problem, and an untold truth to what is going on, then all these athletes are going to suffer in silence. We need to act. Athletes need to know that you can get out of quicksand… someone just has to throw you a rope.
I have a couple of degrees. I have 10 years of Business Administration and I am 46 years old. I have gone through everything I can go through in my life. At the end of the day, I can't find work.
I am older, I have experience, I have an education and I was a Paralympic gold medallist. So because I have all that you would think I can go in and say, “Hi, I’m Chris Daw, I have an education, I have experience, you should hire me.” Well no, for some reason I scare them. That is what I have to deal with. Everyone gets scared. There is no company out there that wants to help or hire. At least, it seems that way.
Sure, you have sports psychologists but really, what are they there for? To make you a better athlete… not a better person after sport. I think we need that component. For 22 years I had it in my head that it is all about me. I am the center of attention, the big show, I am the best, I need to be the best, and so on. In the end, did it accomplish something? Yes, I was the best. Then when it was all over, I didn’t even really know who I was or what I was doing – until I went and started discovering things. This is a problem. This is not only hitting amateur athletes but also professional athletes..
I run what is called the “Wheelchair Curling Blog 2”. I was the leading reporter on wheelchair curling and the historian on wheelchair curling in the world (this was before my personal crisis). You know what sucks? I can’t tell you who won the silver medal at the 2010 Games in Vancouver. I can tell you that Canada won gold and Sweden won bronze but I can’t tell you who won silver. I can guess but I can say I don’t definitely know for a fact. I am the guy who is supposed to know that stuff.
These struggles are now affecting basic things, like memory.
This story needs to be told. I have sat in the dark for too many years, and I am here watching TV and I see all these athletes, and I know what to look for in these athlete’s faces. Forpeople that meet me (and happen to learn the truth) they say I am a nice guy and they would never guess what I am going through and the back-story. Well, putting up that “front” is what we are trained to do as athletes. That is the problem.
I can’t sit here and be angry because there is only one person that I can blame… and that’s me. However, I was trained not to ask for help. Not to show emotion. Not to show when I am hurting. I was taught to be confident, to be parallel. To put up this fake facade of what I am supposed to represent. When you live it and you believe it too much, it is consuming. It has always been there, and I know the person I am… but I fear it’s too late now.
Last year I was diagnosed with cancer and I’m battling through that. There is no support; there is no health plan to help you through that. I have been trying to make sense of everything that I was ever told.
Everybody is going through it at some point or another. I had people telling me that I needed some help and that I am not dealing with it properly and I would always say the same thing: “I can handle it.” I thought to myself that it was all okay… but that was brainwashing. It is not about me anymore. It is about other athletes.
There is one lesson I need to share. Don’t ever let go of who you are. Always keep who you are in perspective. Every person is going to mature. If you don’t keep the perspective of who you truly are, then you will lose yourself. You can’t lose yourself at the cost of everything that’s around you.
There are too many athletes that stay quiet and struggle with their problems. They do it because they need to escape the pressure of what they are being asked to be. What they are being asked to be, is something that they may not necessarily be. It wasn’t until everything that I had was taken away that I was able to discover two things. Number one: Who I am. Number 2: That I wasn’t true to myself, not to mention anyone around me. That’s the cost of of striving, year after year, for that medal.
So in true Canadian style, I am apologizing. I am sorry for what I did in the past. I am sorry I wasn’t true to myself. I am sorry I wasn’t true to my friends. I am sorry that I wasn’t true to my family and I am sorry that I didn’t bring this forward sooner. I can’t say anything else or blame anyone but myself.
Let me sum things up for you. Again a quote – “If you’re willing to go through all the battling you got to go through to get where you want to get, who’s got the right to stop you? I mean maybe some of you guys got something you never finished, something you really want to do, something you never said to someone, something… and you’re told no, even after you paid your dues? Who’s got the right to tell you that, who? Nobody! It’s your right to listen to your gut, it ain’t nobody’s right to say no after you earned the right to be where you want to be and do what you want to do!… You know, the older I get the more things I gotta leave behind, that’s life. The only thing I’m asking you guys to leave on the table… is what’s right.”
I didn’t know how to bring the story forward until someone was brave enough to tell me that they were willing to tell my story. In the future, don’t wait for someone to come to that point to ask you to tell your story. Go out and tell it to your mom or dad, your wife, your husband, your friend. Go find them and tell them what you are dealing with before it costs you dearly… before it costs you who you are.
In the end;” you can spare me the ‘it’s not how you win or lose, it’s how you play the game’ bullshit,” The moral of the story – is not about coming in first; it is remembering about how and who got you there. It is remembering and preparing for the after life (after sports), it is about stopping to apricated who and what is around you because if you don’t NOTHING can prepare you for the consequences – TRUST ME!
“Still want to hear a joke? Fine. Here’s one for you –
Chris Daw; who?