Last week, in one big breath, Canada saw one of its very best athletes, diver Alexandre Despatie, retire, and an equally great champion, speed skater Jeremy Wotherspoon, announce his comeback. It was a remarkable juxtaposition; Despatie leaving the arena because he knows it’s the end, Wotherspoon jumping back in because he doesn’t want it to be.
My jaw dropped quickly to the floor upon hearing the news that Wotherspoon was coming out of retirement for this one last kick at the can in Sochi, just eight short months from now. “No. Way!” were the words that followed in the moments after I retrieved my jaw.
Upon further reflection however, my surprise softened to a sort of understanding. Jeremy has unfinished business to attend to and he needs to make peace with his unfulfilled Olympic dreams. Win or lose, this is his last chance and he knows the risk. The sweetest reward, aside from winning Olympic gold, may just be that he can finally put it all to rest.
Even though Wotherspoon is still the winningest male speed skater of all time and the current world record holder in the 500m, he feels he has something left to prove – if not to the world, then at the very least to himself. Haunted by three straight Olympics with no glorious gold, he knows he has just one chance left.
It would take a lot to get me to jump back into the ring right now. In fact, I joked with my boyfriend Scott that if someone offered me a million dollars to go for Sochi I would say no. He didn’t believe me. But when I turned the tables and asked him what he wouldn’t do for a million dollars, say, move back to Ontario for example, he paused and said no. He’s an avid fly fisherman and leaving the Alberta backcountry is simply not an option, no matter the price! We all have our limits.
Of course, no one is going to offer me a million dollars to make a run for Sochi so it’s a moot point. But still, the news about Jeremy got me thinking about athlete comebacks and why they are so frequent, if not successful.
Notable comebacks that come to mind include Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi, Magic Johnson, Muhammad Ali, George Forman, Mario Lemieux, Lance Armstrong, Ian Thorpe, Michael Schumacher, Bjorn Borg and Mark Spitz. They all had magnificent careers (with the exception of Armstrong of course), and yet all were lured back into the field of play at some point after they retired. Some went on to achieve great success, some failed miserably, and others simply fizzled away. Even Michael Phelps, who can’t possibly have anything left to prove, is back in the pool a mere eight months after retiring from swimming after the London Olympics.
What is it about sport that drives the comeback? Unrequited dreams, making past wrongs right, cementing a brilliant legacy, simply a love of the sport, finally getting the gold, getting the gold again? Or is it because it’s so hard to let go, move on and transition to a new life? I’m truly fascinated by this phenomenon and curious to know what ultimately leads an athlete back to the game. What fuels that irresistible urge to answer the question, ‘what if?’ one last time?
I know what it’s like to have Olympic gold within my grasp and watch it slip away. We failed in a most dramatic fashion in the women’s team pursuit event at the Vancouver Games, a sure gold if there ever was one. And yet, no matter whether I retired or not, that wrong will always be a wrong. Sticking around for four more years to win gold would not make it right. Walking away was hard but ultimately I quit when I found peace with everything I did and didn’t do.
Even still, it took me a good long while to decide to quit sport. Once I did, I knew there was no going back, ever. I just didn’t care about winning anymore – my cup was full. But I can appreciate that for some the desire remains strong and the lure of one last chance at Olympic glory, however magical or tragical it may end up, is impossible to ignore.
Although I can’t relate to the idea of unfinished business, I truly respect Jeremy’s determination and desire to take this one last chance, no matter how risky or uncertain the outcome is. It was always a thrill to watch him skate and I look forward to watching him race again. Textbook technique, effortless power, unbelievably smooth, these are qualities that came naturally to Jeremy and he will regain them easily. Dealing with the pressure to win, making it happen on the right day and accepting the risk that it might go badly, these are the demons he will have to face.
When Sochi rolls around, it will have been sixteen years since Jeremy won his first and, so far, only Olympic medal – silver in Nagano.
What a story it would be…