It is almost the superannuation analogy of its age in an athlete sense, in so much that we know it exists, and we know that we should be prepared for it, but seldom do we think to act until it’s absolutely necessary.
Yet as inevitable as the cliché of death and taxes, for athletes, there it is. Retirement.
At just 20 years of age Teju Williamson is all of a sudden a former elite diver. Indicative of the times, she announced her retirement through social media just last month. Seemingly in a blink. Retired. Instead the Olympic hopeful that until then had stood true.
She hadn’t lost passion for the sport, nor had her talents escaped her. It was instead the well versed example of straight forward expert medical opinion. Regrettably, Teju had a degenerative condition affecting her back. Put simply, the risks of diving would by far, outweigh the potential benefits of continuing.
The purpose of this entry isn’t to wallow. And it certainly isn’t to hijack a young woman’s retirement for the purposes of cheap empathy. It is built on the need to broaden the understanding of athlete transition.
Even in the gloom, there is considerable light. Teju is a star. She’s bright, has an absolute gift for the violin and she was without question an exceptionally talented diver. There is so much to be positive about, but right now there is also legitimate sadness. This can often represent the raw truth of retirement.
The Perth product who relocated to Brisbane to work within the Diving Australia High Performance environment explained that the months leading to her retirement had been emotionally draining.
"For months in the lead up there was a lot of frustration because I couldn't figure out why it wasn't getting better when I was doing everything I was supposed to,” she says.
"There were two or three times that we tried to get me back in the water since it first got sore about six months ago and it didn't really respond too well but this last time we got in, I really was confident.
"I thought that this time we try to get back in it's going to work. And it was three water sessions later that it went downhill again and about three weeks after this last session that we made the decision.”
A national champion on platform and having made a debut at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, Williamson admitted that the news came as a jolt.
"It was upsetting knowing that I can't dive again and that I’m now unable to achieve the other goals I had set in my diving career. I felt a little helpless knowing that there isn't a whole lot that I can do to make it better.
"In the end I am happy with my decision though. It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders when I announced it. I don't have to put on a strong front anymore and pretend everything is fine. Often I’d hide it a bit because I didn't want people to feel sorry for me and I also didn't want to have to admit to myself how bad it was which was the hardest part. It really has been a roller coaster of emotions and tough conversations. Days turned into weeks which turned into months of unknowns which is always unsettling and tends to make you anxious.
"We always set goals for when we expected it to get better and I’d be able to dive, and it was upsetting when we didn't achieve any of these goals,” Williamson said.
The Institute and Academy network in Australia connects with the Australian Institute of Sport with all partners supporting athlete outcomes as a primary focus.
With Williamson living in Brisbane, the Queensland Academy of Sport will make a range of high quality service support and staff available with the specific aim of helping guide Teju through the ups, downs and the everything in betweens as she makes new pathways and decisions for her future plans.
Chief amongst those contacts is a familiar name in Australian sporting circles, QAS Personal Development Advisor Mark Knowles. Knowles is a former captain of the Australian Kookaburras and he holds recent experience, having retired from elite sport after last year’s Commonwealth Games.
This network will include the national body and of course Teju’s family and friends – who have always been part of her journey.
"Diving Australia will continue to support me with whatever I need. As I’m still in Queensland, using the QAS team is more convenient but if I chose to move back to Perth in this time I will then move to the WAIS team. I will engage with many members of the support team as I’ve been doing thus far, but they're not all as necessary in the transition aspect,” Williamson starts.
"The main person I’ll be consulting with is Mark Knowles, our Personal Development Advisor. He will play a key role helping me transition out of the sporting world and into the 'real' world as it's quite different and like nothing I’m used to.
"I've been in elite diving since I was 12 so being a 'normal' person isn't something I’m used to doing. My immediate family, although living on the opposite side of Australia have helped me immensely throughout this process and will continue to, even if it's just people to bounce ideas off.
"Apart from my family and friends our Sport Psych over here (in Brisbane) will be a part of the process. Helping me navigate through everything while I discover what and who I want to be.
"I'm currently in the middle of my uni degree (Bachelor of Business) so as of next semester I will probably do full time uni to get through it at a bit faster a pace. I've been teaching violin for the past few months so I will continue to do so and maybe take on another couple of students. Music is very much still in my life; I just don't play individually like I used to.”
One the key lessons in Teju’s story is the significance of her decision to not rely solely on sport. Whilst she admits diving was her priority, it wasn’t at the expense of other opportunities.
"It’s always been important to me to make sure I have something to fall back on as we all know a sporting career isn’t meant to last forever. This is something I was always told and it made sense but it’s only now when I have to actually tap into these other aspects of life, that I fully understand how necessary it is,” she said.
"I’m so glad I didn’t put all my eggs in one basket with diving. Some people have said that I’m lucky I have something to be going on with now that diving is over, but it’s not luck. Although I prioritised diving, I made sure I didn’t let other aspects in my life completely slip away.
She says that in a way it made a difficult outcome, less so.
"The decision to retire certainly was easier knowing that I have other things in my life to carry on with. Obviously I’d want to keep diving if I could but seeing what possibilities lie ahead, made me want to not ruin my chances of a bright future by peaking at 20 with diving and making my back much worse to the point I’d be unable to carry on a normal life.
"I can take one of the paths I’ve already kept open or start a completely new one, different to anything I’ve done before. I still need to figure out who I want to be in the next part of my life but thankfully I haven’t closed off any options.”
KEEPING ATHLETE IDENTITY
Retirement doesn’t equal retreat. All of Teju’s achievements are as relevant today as they were when forged. Maintaining the memories and skillsets established can often help with the transition to the next phase.
For Williamson, those memories are rightly cherished.
"The best moment of my career was definitely walking out at the opening ceremony at Comm Games. Nothing can compare to it especially because it was a home Games. That highlight will never change.
"Winning nationals not only on my own but with such a great teammate was amazing. Nothing is better than the feeling standing on the podium knowing that you deserve it and you've put so much effort into achieving it. I've had so many great memories traveling the world. They weren't always the best competitions but were definitely such great experiences with amazing teams.
"Over the past year or so I’ve gotten closer with Melissa Wu as I did synchro with her and she's so easy to get on with. She's such an inspiration in many aspects and has been someone who's helped me to try and get through this injury in terms of the motivation around training. Although I’ve singled her out, every member of the national team and my Queensland training team is so supportive and always willing to lend a hand with whatever it may be so they all are people whom I appreciate very much.
"All the coaches I’ve had, have played different roles throughout my career. Mat Helm in Perth, Xianging and Ady in Brisbane, have been my most recent coaches from which my successes properly started so they will always mean a lot to me, however I’ve also worked with all our Aussie coaches and learned so much from each and every one of them at competitions as my (personal) coaches often didn't travel with me.”
If you would like to learn more about the Australian Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement (AW&E) framework, please visit the following link.