Olympians face highs and lows once games are over

Silver medal winner Nick Goepper, of the United States, celebrates after the men's slopestyle final at Phoenix Snow Park at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — If you are reading this, you are not likely to ever be an Olympic athlete. That's because the vast vast majority of us would never have a shot. Mathematically, the odds of any one person making the games are 0.000001560845334% — or 1 one-millionth of one percent. The rest of us get to watch.

For the elite of the elite athletes who make it, their journey is one of practice, drive, commitment, and sticking to a plan — a single-mindedness to which most of us could never relate. And, managing expectations on the front end can pale by comparison to dealing with life after their Olympic experience is over.

When the competition ends, the "what's next" questions begin. Psychiatrist Chris Bojrab works with high-achieving athletes, and he says, "For most of these Olympians, I think the issue is more about the confusion over, 'well, I haven't really considered what do I do next? What do I do now?'" He says the Olympics are unique in that all of the training involved leads to one singular moment of "do or don't do" — a tremendous amount of pressure. Or looking at it another way: a tremendous high, followed by an equally tremendous crash back to earth.

Amy Cozad Magaña knows what it's like to commit to the Olympic dream. The Indianapolis-native worked for years to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic Diving Team — making as many as 100 dives a day, followed by an hour in the weight room, and then more exercises to strengthen her core.

She qualified as a synchronized diver, and remembers the experience as a dream come true.

"I remember walking out the day of my competition," she said. "You do your introduction and you go around the pool and you stop, and thinking 'oh my gosh, this is happening. I'm doing this right now. I can't believe it.'"

In other words, it was a surreal experience. And while it didn't end up on the medal podium, it put her in front of an audience of billions of people for a few fleeting moments in Rio.

Amy Cozad Magana

The problem for Olympians is that many of their sports become popular only for the few days they compete at the Olympics every four years.

Amy Magaña recognizes the problem. "When I talk to people about the Olympics, they say, 'Oh, diving is my favorite event to watch.' But they don't watch it any other time and they don't know anything about anybody on the team."

That can lead to frustration for some athletes and for others it can lead to outright depression. Hoosier Olympian Nick Goepper is one example. He has been open about his battle with substance abuse and depression following his bronze medal performance in the Sochi Olympics four years ago. he said he even contemplated suicide.

Nick Goepper
Nick Goepper, Olympic freeskier from Lawrenceburg, Ind.

Dr. Bojrab says, "When you put that type of time commitment, those types of hours working single-mindedly toward the goal, and you get there and you achieve it and you're done, it's a bit of an identity crisis, and people start to describe themselves in terms of what they were, not what they are."

The best thing an athlete can do is manage expectations before they compete at the high-profile competition in the world.

Magaña said she tries to always keep in mind that diving is her hobby, her sport. But she has seen fellow athletes struggle when the spotlight fades. "Some people don't have the family support or the friend support," she said. "All they have is their teammates. Some people don't have opportunities outside of their sport like going to school or working, and they're literally there 100 percent. And when you put all your eggs in one basket like that, I can totally understand having that taken away from you, or putting too much pressure on it can be devastating."

When her Olympic journey ended in 2016, she came home to a fiancé and a wedding to plan — from one happy event in her life to another. Her "what now" moment didn't kick in until after the honeymoon.

She answered that question by starting work on a master's degree in accounting, interning at a local company 15 hours a week, and getting back into training for a shot at the 2020 games. At age 26, Magaña is doing so with a perspective that comes from having been on the biggest sporting stage of them all, and building a life that she is proud of in her hometown. "I love my life," she said. "I have created this life for myself where I have a husband who loves me and I have these two puppies who are going to love me no matter what, and I have a beautiful little home and the Olympics was very exciting, but it wasn't what defines me."