Saturday 17 August 2019

Retirement? Like a death in the family

Ireland's retired sports stars tell of the shock and pain after the challenge and the emptiness that follows, writes Niamh Horan

CALLING IT A DAY: Champion jockey AP McCoy
CALLING IT A DAY: Champion jockey AP McCoy
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

When AP McCoy wakes up in the morning, the feeling of listlessness can overwhelm him. "I just think, what's the point, what has my life come to?" he says.

It has been two years since the former champion jockey retired from horse racing, and the feeling of emptiness is all-consuming.

"I have heard a sportsperson is the only person that dies twice," is how he describes the sense of loss. The jockey is one of 14 former sports stars to open up about how it feels to retire from the national and international spotlight in a new book, At The End Of The Day.

He joins athlete Sonia O'Sullivan, Gaelic football player Colm 'The Gooch' Cooper, hurlers Henry Shefflin and Donal Og Cusack, boxer Kenny Egan, footballer Damien Duff, and rugby player Gordon D'Arcy to explain what happens when your time in the sporting arena comes to an end.

AP McCoy

AP explains, at first, how the perks are great. "I could now eat what I wanted to eat and not worry about the next day and making the correct weight." But, he adds: "After a week or 10 days, all that suddenly began to wear off."

Soon he longed for a return to the routine that gave his life meaning.

"For 20 years, I got up every morning with the fear that I might not be any good, with a goal, with a challenge and with an expectation of myself from myself.

"When I get up in the morning now and I don't have that expectation, I just think what's the point? What has my life come to? How do I replace racing? With what and how do I get that intensity back? But the reality of it is that it's not coming back.

"I often have days when I think that there must be something that can replace being a jockey, but realistically I don't think there's anything that I'd love to do as much as racing."

He reckons the days taking time out are the toughest.

"There are days when I find retirement difficult, especially if I'm home for a day or two and just thinking too much," he adds.

"I find myself watching the racing on television and thinking, 'Should I still be out there?' I'm still as good as a lot of them lads riding. I find myself doing the silliest of things just to keep busy.

"I miss the discipline associated with being a jockey. There is a lot of s**t I miss that people would laugh at or not understand. I miss the danger, I miss the adrenalin and I miss the fear. I miss not getting up in the morning and thinking I have to lose four or five pounds and I can't have breakfast. People probably think it's great now that I don't have to worry about what I eat and making weight, but it's not. I eat now because it's a novelty, whereas before eating and, indeed, not eating was a huge part of the job."

Although he will never experience the same high again, the Co Antrim man's outlook remains bittersweet. "I'll never find anything that I enjoyed as much as being a jockey," he says. "As a child, it was my dream to be a jockey. That's all I ever wanted in my life. I didn't want anything else. I didn't want to play soccer, play golf or be a rock star. I feel very lucky. I lived the dream. Not everyone can say that."

Damien Duff

Damien Duff retired from professional football in December 2015. Two years later, he says: "I'm still trying to figure it all out and what I want from life going forward. There were mornings when I'd leave the house in my car only to pull in on the motorway wondering what I was doing or where I was going."

Although he earned his UEFA coaching badges, in a way, he says, that was "more to keep myself busy". He has "found the transition very difficult at times".

Coaching "doesn't give me the same buzz as playing. I certainly don't jump out of bed in the morning."

On his feelings of lassitude, he says: "It does worry me. It also makes me sad that I'll never love something as much as I did with football.

"I miss the lead-up to games, working hard, feeling good and looking forward to playing.

"When you're a sportsperson at that level, you feel invincible. You're an elite professional and feel untouchable to some extent. It's the most alive you'll ever feel in your life, a great place to be mentally and physically.

"Unless something magical happens, I know I'll never feel that alive again which makes me sad," he says.

"It's just a case of searching for something to replace it. I do get a buzz out of coaching, but it's not playing football. Some days I love it, some days I hate it.

''I'm not going to give up on what might be out there for me - maybe something totally leftfield. I'm definitely struggling to find it."

One of his biggest regrets is losing the innocent side of his approach to the sport. "As I got older, I lost that 'kid on the street' thing probably because of coaching, pressures of the game, money.

"I hated the whole celebrity thing around football and found it hard to cope with the attention we all got following the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.

''It was just crazy. You couldn't walk down the street, you couldn't even go for a pint in peace.

"I remember breaking down one night with my mates and saying, 'I just don't like this'. I just wanted to go home and close the door."

Donal Og Cusack

For former Cork hurler Donal Og Cusack, "retirement is like being in a war zone".

He says: "All of a sudden, a man taps you on the shoulder and goes, 'Did you not know today was your day to go?' Surprised, you reply, 'I thought I had another couple of months left here'.

"The next minute, you're whipped away in a helicopter from the madness and the following day, you're reading about it in the newspaper. It's not your war anymore, despite being in the thick of it 24 hours earlier."

At his happiest, he says he had hurling on his mind 24/7.

"Thinking about hurling and visualising the games, the moments and the big days," he adds. "I'd be thinking about it in the car with my father. As I got older, I'd think about it while spending time with friends. I'd even think about it in the shower."

But when he was let go by Cork in 2013 it all disappeared. "The dreaming was over. It was like a switch," he says. "There was nothing to dream about anymore."

The pain of losing has only been replaced by the pain of a loss of purpose in his life.

"People think you're exaggerating, but it's like a death in the family when you lose. It's the same process you go through, the same grieving, the same feeling."

At The End Of The Day by Paul Byrnes is published by Lettertec and is in bookstores now

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