I Retired from a Hall-of-Fame Olympic Career at 27—Here’s What I’ve Learned About Redefining Purpose

I was just 27 years old when I walked away from my dream, from the only life I had known for the previous 14 years. Just 27 when I shed the skin (or skinsuit) that had come to define my entire identity: Apolo Ohno, Olympian. The fastest man on ice. Sports Illustrated cover model. Phenom. Champion. 

I didn’t make any sort of big announcement. There was no teary press conference, no parade in my hometown of Seattle, Washington. No major media interviews. In fact, I didn’t really tell anybody what I was doing. But I knew I was done. I had no doubt in my mind that I could still compete at a high level. If I’m being honest, I still feel that way. My confidence, which is one of the things that fueled my success as an athlete, hadn’t wavered when I walked away from the sport. What changed was what was in my heart. 

I knew how close to the sun I had flown all those years, and I remembered all the sacrifices I had made—all the outrageous things I’d demanded of myself in pursuit of my Olympic dream. And because I knew everything it took to achieve what I did on the ice and the toll those sacrifices exacted from me over four Olympic cycles—physically, mentally and emotionally—I also knew what it would take for me to maintain and surpass that level of performance. And when I looked into the mirror, I knew it was time for a change. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but I was headed for what I’d later call the Great Divorce.

The Great Olympic Divorce

Before you can reinvent yourself, you first have to decide whom you want to be. I don’t mean whom other people want you to be or whom you think you should be or whom you think you deserve to be. You get to decide whom you truly want to be, and you get to do so with your own criteria.

Most of us who grew up in the U.S. have been conditioned to define ourselves by our professions, even when our inclinations, desires and skills aren’t necessarily in line with our job title. Instinctually, we know that our work is only one part of who we are and that there are other less publicly recognized identities (as parents, volunteers, gardeners or musicians) that are closer to our hearts. 

Early on in my career as a speed skater, my father told me that life is a series of chapters, one leading to the next, and that we lean on the lessons and insights we gain along the way to move forward into whatever comes next. That’s hard to see when you’re so immersed in one particular chapter of your life. I spent years believing that being an Olympian would be the primary identity that defined me, and it would take a long time for me to understand how limiting that perspective was. Of course, winning those medals opened doors for me that aren’t available to most people, and I’ll be forever thankful for those earlier chapters of my life. I might not identify as an Olympian anymore, but my father was right—those earlier chapters led to where I am today. And for that, I’m grateful. They were springboards that empowered me to pursue new paths, interests and opportunities.

It took me a long time to gain this new perspective. I had pursued my competitive goals with such single-minded purpose that I didn’t think too much about what the future held. On one hand, that single-mindedness is one of the reasons I was so successful as a speed skater; on the other, it’s also why I was so ill-prepared for life when I retired from the sport. I was 27 years old, but inside I felt 17. I had no academic education to speak of, no work experience, and no training in finance or business. I’d never developed other parts of my personality, gained any other skill sets, or pursued any source of purpose or meaning outside of speed skating. I had ignored or pushed everything else away from me in pursuit of my ultimate goals.

The Olympics were my first great love. Even now, I can close my eyes and hear the hush that descends on the arena just before a race, so quiet I could almost hear my competitors’ hearts beating as we took our marks. At that moment, I had no doubt whatsoever about my purpose or meaning in life. As a representative of my country, I was part of something bigger and more substantial than myself, and eight different times, I found myself standing on top of the world with millions of eyes on me, as an Olympic medal was placed around my neck. Those moments defined the entirety of my existence. I’m telling you all of this just to convey how profound the Great Divorce was for me. 

I had chosen to divorce myself from my previous identity—the one I foolishly thought would carry me through the rest of my life—but I had no idea how to go about forging a new one.

A New Pivot

I haphazardly began pursuing various business interests, none of which I knew anything about. Although my experience was limited, my curiosity and willingness to learn was great. I said yes to basically everything that came my way. I was starting from scratch, something I hadn’t done since I was a kid.

Because I’d trained as a sprinter for so long, I was accustomed to going really fast to figure out what I had to accomplish and how. I worked at warp speed to learn everything I could about these businesses. 

It didn’t take long for me to notice that the drive and relentlessness that enabled me to win Olympic medals was transferable to these new ventures. I was beginning to see that I was more prepared for my reinvention than I expected. Just because you pivot doesn’t mean you should leave all your hard-earned skills behind. All your strengths and experiences are part of your transformation.

It dawned on me that I had become a great speed skater not simply because I was gifted as an athlete, but because of my approach to the sport and certain attributes I used to my advantage. It was mostly my dedication to the mental and physical training that made me a great speed skater, not because I was somehow inherently special. It was because I did the work, and because I refused to let anyone outwork me.

* * *

Chances are you’ve experienced a Great Divorce of your own. If you haven’t, perhaps you’re seeking reinvention for a different reason. For many people, a new identity often means a new job or career, though it doesn’t necessarily have to. We’ve been conditioned to think about our identity in terms of what’s printed on our business cards—what we do instead of who we actually are. 

The COVID-19 pandemic caused countless Americans to be laid off, furloughed or unable to find adequate work in their field. Seemingly overnight, these people were forced to put to bed whatever identity had been printed on their business card, name tag or company badge because the title no longer applied. How many of you (and your friends, family members, neighbors) were left scrambling, thinking, That was the only thing I’m good at. That’s what I’ve known. I haven’t developed any other skill sets or strengths. What am I going to do? 

Even before the pandemic, it’s been clear that the days of learning a trade, securing a job and staying with the same company until retirement are a distant memory. These days, it’s common for folks to have two, three or even four (or more) acts in their professional lives. Very few people remain at one job for more than four years. Some careers are getting phased out entirely, whereas others are being transformed by automation and other emergent technologies. Without a doubt, it’s a stressful and frightening time.

If there’s a silver lining to this instability and uncertainty, maybe it’s that the answer to that profound What now? question can basically be anything. Whatever you’re facing, it’s an opportunity to review, reflect and renew. It’s an opportunity to get curious to know yourself better—both the person you’ve been and the person you’re about to become. 

Excerpt adapted from Hard Pivot: Embrace Change. Find Purpose. Show Up Fully. by Apolo Ohno ©2022 Apolo Anton Ohno, reprinted with permission from the author and the publisher, Sounds True, Inc. This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos by © Kristofer Cheng.

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Excerpt adapted from Hard Pivot: Embrace Change. Find Purpose. Show Up Fully. by Apolo Ohno ©2022 Apolo Anton Ohno, reprinted with permission from the author and the publisher, Sounds True, Inc.

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