Retirement from Sport: Rachel Joyce – Pro Triathlete and 3x Podium at the Ironman World Championships
Over my years as a professional athlete I have seen so many athletes retire and move on from professional sport. Some have thrived in their next phase of life. Some have maintained close ties to the sport that they called their job and career for so long, while others have moved entirely away from it and shifted their focus and motivation all together – beginning an entirely new chapter.
Others have struggled. Whether it is the loss of identity, to lack of confidence in a tangible and transferable skill set, to decreased inspiration and drive for the next phase, to even the negative physical implications that can arise from years of training and competing at the highest level – transitions can be hard.
One of the themes I have heard repeatedly is that there exists a genuine lack of support for retiring athletes. Things like financial management and planning, career coaches, mentors, and advisors to help with things like resume writing are all things that would help athletes transition. However they largely don’t exist.
As part of this series, I am interviewing former professional athletes across a broad range of sports, focusing on their process of retirement – the ups and downs, the planning, the emotional and physical changes and more. In addition I have asked for their tips and advice for those who are considering retirement soon. I hope these interviews prove to be informative and helpful as the idea of moving on from professional sport comes into vision.
In this week’s interview, we hear from Rachel Joyce. Rachel is the 2011 ITU Long Course World Champion. In 2012 she won the highly regarded Challenge Roth triathlon in Germany. She is a 6x Top-10 finisher at the Ironman World Championships, which include three incredible podium finishes (2nd in 2013 and 2015, and 3rd in 2016). In addition, Rachel, both throughout her career and since her retirement, has been/continues to be a significant leader in helping to promote positive change in the sport of triathlon.
In 2017 Rachel retired from professional triathlon following a comeback after the birth of her first son, Archie. One of the things I found to be powerful about Rachel’s interview was the confidence in her decision to retire coupled with the self awareness she displayed around her emotions. For example, Rachel explained that she felt uncertainty, loss and sadness when she stopped competing, but also knew that her decision to retire was the right one. And, while she was not concerned with loss of identity, she acknowledged the urge to be drawn back into the sport at times because it was what she knew and was comfortable. I enjoyed reading Rachel’s approach to finding her next career, and her patience in determining what feels right. This was a great interview! Enjoy!
Can you give us a bit of background about yourself. What sport did you play? At what age did you turn professional? How long were you competing for as a professional athlete? Did you go to University?
I was a sporty kid and played just about every sport: dance, gymnastics, sychro (!), tennis, netball . At around 14 I decided swimming was my sport and I started training at a bigger club, swimming 7-8 times a week at Ipswich SC. I reached a national level at swimming and competed at English School in running but at around 17 I’d lost the fun in competition and stopped racing. After finishing high school I took a year to travel before starting uni. After a year out I joined the University swim team (it wasn’t a swim program like in US colleges). We trained 3-4 times a week. I befriended a few triathletes and ended up jumping into a couple of triathlons (on borrowed bikes) whilst at university. Although my results were unremarkable, I kind of ear marked triathlon as something to revisit down the road.
I took another year to travel after finishing university and law school (I had a job lined up for when I got back). I cycled around NZ, and spent 2 months in Argentina as well as some travel around Europe. In 2002 I started my job at Taylor Wessing in London and I joined a master’s swim team pretty much as soon as I moved to London. I met some great friends through swimming but after 4-5 years I was itching for a new sporting challenge and that’s when triathlon came up again. I started racing as an age grouper in 2005 and in my second half ironman qualified for the inauguaral 70.3 World Champs. In 2006 I got my first coach and started training in more structural way. It was the tricky balance many age groups face – I was working on a big case which meant I spent 3 days a week living in a hotel but I was pretty driven to make it work. I won my age group at Clearwater and got a glimpse then that I could compete with professional field.
In 2007 I negotiated reducing my hours to three days a week and I got my pro card. My results weren’t too promising but in 2008 just before turning 30, I had a “Now or never” mentality and I resigned from my job and decided to train and race full time. I raced my first Ironman in November 2008 and came 5th. In my first year as a pro I was mostly self funded and relying on prize money. My first Kona was October 2009 when I finished 6th. After that I joined Abu Dhabi Tri Team and making a proper salary.
What are you doing today from a career perspective?
I have retired from professional racing (my last race was at the end of 2017). In the last 2 or so years I have had a few different projects going. I went into partnership with Dana Platin (a leadership development strategist) and we created REINAS in 2018 (www.thereinas.space). We have spoken and led a number of sport and leadership workshops in the last couple of years. Learning from Dana and creating a business with her has been a passion project and a great learning opportunity. We have plans to develop the business in the future.
I have also coached a small number of athletes as well, which has been very rewarding and a good way to stay involved in triathlon. I’ve done some commentary on Ironman Facebook Watch series and I also did some work with Michelob Ultra related to their development of a new beer. I also had a baby a year ago (our second) – so family has been a big part of my life.
When I stopped racing I wanted to spend a few years trying different things. I had some ideas of where I would like to work but I also wanted to spend as much time a possible with my two boys whilst they are young. I like the flexibility these different “jobs” have given me.
How did the sport define you? Did you feel like it was a big part of your identity?
I have always been “sporty” and being sporty has always been a large part of my identity but not the totality of it. Being a professional athlete meant “being sporty” took up more of my day to day life but it never became my identity as I continued to see myself as other things besides “athlete”. It probably changed how I was seen by others more than anything. Now I am not racing professionally, sport continues to be a part of my identity, it just takes up a much smaller part of normal day.
I think having already transitioned from a career in law (which is a pretty full on career) to pro triathlete I was also prepared for some of the discomfort that comes from a big life change. When I resigned from my role at Taylor Wessing I found the shift challenging and felt a need to justify that I spent my day training. I found it hard to measure how productive my day had been after logging my “productivity” in 6 minutes increments at work. I suppose that means I had an expectation that retirement would be challenging and uncomfortable and that helped a lot.
How long were you contemplating retirement before you stopped competing?
I had my first child, Archie in 2016 and I wasn’t certain I would race again after having him but I soon realized that the challenge of “coming back” really appealed to me. I didn’t have my career best performances in 2017 but I had some solid races and it was wonderful (and hard!) to get back on the circuit with Brett and Archie. After Kona in 2017 Brett and I wanted to try for another baby so I figured I would race until that happened. I got pregnant pretty quickly but miscarried. I did feel a pull to get back to training and racing after that but ultimately, I recognized I was ready to move on and some of the pull back to racing was because it was familiar and comfortable. 2017 was definitely a bonus year and it had always been my intention to go out when I was racing my best.
What were your feelings around retirement? Were you nervous? sad? excited? conflicted?
Emotional: incredibly emotional. I am not sure if it was because I had started racing professional relatively late (30) but when I retired I recognized what a privilege it was to race almost 10 years as a professional. In many ways it changed the course of my life: there was the racing of course, the community, meeting Brett, moving to the US – all the people I met and got to work with. It was intense. There were a lot of tears – but they came from a place of gratitude I think. I was thankful for everything the sport had given me. I suppose there was also a sense of loss in recognizing that a very special 10 year chapter in my life was coming to a close.
With all that said, I did (and still do) feel a great sense of excitement at the future both personally with my family and professionally. I feel comfortable with the fact I don’t have to find my next thing right now. I’m enjoying the various projects I have on. I am learning new skills and I enjoy having the flexibility to be with Archie and Benjamin a bunch.
Were you concerned at all about loss of identity?
No I didn’t worry about that. I think that might be because it was never my whole identity and that I came to professional triathlon relatively late and appreciated it for what it was but I never felt like I was my racing results. My concerns were always more about how I would find my next career.
Many athletes talk about falling into depression after their career has ended. Did you experience that at all?
Retirement happened at a difficult time for us personally so I think my struggles were more around that than retiring. At several points I wondered whether to come back to racing but I think I could see that I was reaching for something familiar and known at what was a difficult time.
What were your feelings around decreasing your training and exiting competition? How did you address that?
Honestly, I wasn’t sure how I would handle this and it was a process to find what was the minimum exercise for me to make sure I satisfy the “sporty” part of my personality. This fluctuates with what is going on in life and I have been relieved that I don’t need to train a whole bunch to meet my “sporting” needs as this leaves me more time for other stuff.
I am driven by goals and that didn’t start with triathlon or stop when I retired so I will continue to set myself these goals but I like that these goals don’t have to be based on metrics and performance and I can have gaps between setting new goals. Running a certain trail, learning new MTB skills (so I can ride with the boys in the future). I did enter the Leadville 100 run so I guess I haven’t settled into anything too moderate yet!
I perhaps didn’t appreciate in the height of my career that I would never be as fit as I was then. I do like it when I get those glimpses of performance though!
When you retired did you already have a plan in place for what was next, or did you approach it only after retirement? If the former, did you find it difficult to both focus on your future while staying committed to competing at the highest level still?
I had a concept of what I wanted to do post my racing career but whilst racing that is where my focus was. I was pretty all in on my training and racing so whilst I spent time thinking about my post retirement career I didn’t do too much about it. I was an athlete that was pretty all in on training and racing and probably would have found it hard to balance the two during the height of my career. That could be a personality thing as looking back I realized I had a decent amount of time!
How did you determine what would be next? What process did you go through to figure it out? Did you have a hard time seeing the path forward?
I would say I am still on this path. I feel okay not finding my next career immediately even though this can feel uncomfortable. I also am very aware that this is a luxury I am lucky to have. Sometimes I wish I could just “know” what was next for me as figuring this out but I am learning that this is a process. I take lessons from my career in triathlon. Becoming a Kona contender was a process and took 4-5 years so I am okay with it taking time to find my next provided I know I am being proactive now.
What was your timeline for determining your next steps? Did you feel pressure or anxiety around this?
I have moments where I feel less patient and I guess a little anxious but I have been able to take a step back and see that I will get there.
Do you look back with any regrets or wish you had done anything differently in this process?
I don’t think so. That’s not to say I did it perfectly but I am okay with where I am at.
How long would you say it took before you felt like you had found your stride after retiring?
It probably took at least 6 months and in some ways I am back to finding my stride now after having Benjamin.
What are you top 5 things you wish someone had taught you/ told you before you retired?
- Do actively think about life after retirement. What do you like doing, what lights you up and think about how you can.
- Get help with writing your resume. It can be hard to convert all the skills we learn as pro triathletes into skills that apply in work.
- Talk to people
Retirement for athletes can be a very scary thing – many people don’t know how to take that next step. Are there any resources you used that you found helpful?
Talking to friends who had already been through this retirement was very helpful. It can be hard to do this but when I have spoken to friends who retired before or around the same time as me, they have been happy to share ideas and be sounding boards and share experiences of the transition. It is hard.
The Tuck Next Step program at Dartmouth was an incredibly helpful course both in terms of content and because you are surrounded by people who are going through a career transition.
Anything else you’d like to add or that you think is relevant?
Saying “yes” to new experiences after retirement has helped me a lot. I have found this very helpful in letting me find what I enjoy, what I am good at and skills I need to work on. Saying yes to a job doesn’t mean you are tied in for the next X years but it could be a stepping stone to the next thing. After retirement you will be asked “what are you doing now?” a lot….which I know I sometimes received as a pressure: “Why don’t I know my exact plan right now?”.
Find a mentor, someone you can check in with and talk to/bounce ideas off.