Gracie Elvin’s gap year: ‘Retiring is a gift, not just a loss’
By the time Gracie Elvin retired from pro racing at the end of the 2020, she’d spent almost a decade as a professional cyclist. She won two Australian road titles and a handful of other races, she finished on the podium at the 2017 Tour of Flanders, and she represented Australia at the world championships, the Commonwealth Games, and at the Olympics. During her time as a pro Elvin also co-founded The Cyclists’ Alliance, a union representing the interests of female professional cyclists.
Now, with her racing days behind her, Elvin is in the process of working out what comes next. She’s got options, but as she writes in the article below, she’s in no rush to dive headlong into the next thing.
A long time ago the writer Roger Khan coined the phrase “every athlete dies twice” to explain the profound sense of loss one feels when retiring from sport. There have been numerous accounts of athletes struggling through transition, unable to find their next pathway or navigate the mental health fallout. It was a daunting prospect to face such a challenging time when I had been an athlete for so long.
I had done nine full road seasons, three years of elite mountain biking, and had kindled the dream of being a professional cyclist since age 13. My whole adult life had revolved around a singular focus. How would I handle stepping away?
I have learned from cycling. The skills I have gained I will be able to apply to the rest of my life, and the mistakes I have made I was able to learn from. I also endeavored to watch what others did, their triumphs and their failures, to see how I could adapt such experiences to my own journey. There are certainly moments when you need to make your own mistakes, but there are also opportunities when you can learn from those around you.
There were times dotted throughout my career when I had access to people outside my athlete bubble, and they were always valuable. A charity ride or a corporate event was not just a money-earner or a networking opportunity – it was a chance to pick the brains of some very interesting and successful people. One of the many wonderful things about cycling is the people it attracts. On these occasions I met CEOs and high-achieving professionals and we would ride shoulder-to-shoulder as peers. I was a star guest, but in reality I was stoked to be able to meet them.
One of the themes I picked up among some of these people was their self-discipline to set boundaries around their time. They would make regular time for their values, such as cycling and family, and they would punctuate projects or job roles with meaningful chunks of time between to rest and enjoy what they loved. Some of them took a month, some of them a year.
I found this very interesting, and a pattern that aligned with an athlete’s season. We always have a significant amount of time off at the end of each season to rest our tired bodies, but I knew from an early stage that I was also resting my mind and this was just as important.
It would have been easy for me to jump on to something new immediately after retiring. I didn’t need an “off-season” to rest physically, but boy did I need it mentally. The idea of taking a meaningful amount of time like those successful individuals to take stock of myself and think deeply about my next pathway was forefront in my mind. My gut was telling me to shed some entrenched layers of guilt and perfectionism, and just take a year off trying to be great.
It occurred to me that retirement from professional sport was also a gift, not just a loss. As an athlete you know from the very beginning that you will have to stop at some point. Sport is for the young. It’s a thought that you accept, but it’s a thought that you push far back in your mind, not too different from the thought that you know you will die one day. It’s a fact, but not a comfortable one.
Finally facing imminent transition I realised that I had an amazing opportunity to reinvent myself in my 30s. I was being forced into something that maybe many non-athletes of a similar age wish for.
There are times in your life when you become reflective and assess your situation, and these often occur around significant birthdays that mark each new decade. Am I in the right career? Am I in the right relationship? Am I happy? I had gone through some of this process already, painfully separating myself from my marriage the year previous. I was now in my early 30s and even though my identity was very much tied up in cycling, I felt a sense of excitement at the fact that I was still young and had many choices and opportunities ahead of me. My life wasn’t over – it was a new one just beginning.
I decided to call the year after retirement my “Gap Year”. It felt playful, as though I was a high-school-leaver in search of adventure. Why not have a gap year in your 30s? I’m sure there are many people out there who feel stuck in their jobs, their debt, their relationships, who are scared they’ve come too far and can’t go back now. I feel like I have a fresh start, but I also have a whole decade behind me of life experiences. I still have much to learn, but I know a whole lot more than I did when I was 18. I know what I like, and more importantly I know what I don’t like.
On the other side of the coin, I knew it was important to have things to do even if they weren’t big things. I had seen ex-athletes floundering with too much free time, and I knew it was important to have some form of purpose and structure. I still had a few units left to finally finish my first undergraduate degree (I started it in 2010!), and this was a perfect low-pressure way to have something to do and a timeline to stick to. I can do my studies part time, so I still have plenty of time to pursue other interests during the week.
I’m a pendulum at the moment, swinging periodically between new ideas of what my next pathway should be, but it’s a feeling I’m embracing instead of being churned up by. Like emotions, I let the ideas float through me and acknowledge them without getting too attached. I write things down, and I talk to people I trust. Like my athlete life, a personal network has been one of the most valuable things to foster and lean on.
Don’t get me wrong – there have been challenging days of questioning, doubt, of feeling overwhelmed, and of grief since ending my career. I still loved racing and felt like I had unfinished business, but I can accept that this feeling is better than ending with immense loathing and resentment of the sport. It’s hard not knowing what’s next when everyday for over a decade was planned out, and it’s hard to no longer be in a state of progress.
I miss aiming high, I miss being super fit, and I miss feeling special. I was very tired for at least three months after my last race. I spent the summer doing some really fun things, but with heavy fatigue that left me feeling lethargic and foggy. I tried hard to balance activities with rest, and it took a lot of work to not feel useless or guilty for not doing more with my time.
But I have done plenty. Things I’ve been up to so far include, but are not limited to:
- Hanging out with friends and family (and my sister’s deaf cat)
- Glamping in Byron Bay (with some massive spiders)
- Attending Lucy Kennedy’s wedding (including a COVID-free dance floor!)
- Running twice per week (my max is 12 km and I’ve had no injuries except for falling over and skinning my knees – I thought I was done with road rash)
- Spending time at our off-grid family property (and howling at the moon)
- Still getting drug tested and doing #2 instead of the required #1 (hey, it was morning! I went my whole career without this happening)
- Camping and hiking in the Blue Mountains (our calves got so sore we hobbled around for days)
- Mountain biking in Derby, Tasmania with some old (and new) friends (best trails in the world, and I’ve seen a few)
- Setting up a Mentor Program within The Cyclists’ Alliance with colleague Roos Hoogeboom (launching soon)
- An eight-hour MTB adventure with some very cool chicks (I only agreed to do this the night before)
- Attending local amateur stand-up comedy (and wishing I could do that)
- I bought a season pass to the Thredbo ski slopes (I’ll keep you updated)
- Home gym sessions twice a week (No income = no gym membership)
- Bought my dream car despite no current income (10-year-old Range Rover Sport that we named The Lady Jenkins)
- Became a Velocio ambassador (I feel very fancy in some new threads)
- Getting more involved in my local cycling club (one of many ladies!!)
- Lost any desire to do medicine while I watch my girlfriend study for her final specialist exams (brutal)
- Cultivated a strong interest in writing (this is me being vulnerable with you today).
I still love riding bikes and am regularly riding with friends on the road and on the dirt (and now I’m dying to add a bigger trail bike and a gravel bike to my collection!). But the best part of this gap year is finally getting to do the things I’ve missed out on for so long because of my dedication to cycling.
I’m working my way through my bucket list of fun activities, experiences, and places to go, because there is no better time than now.