Published Aug 06, 2021
The eyes of the world are on Olympians during the Games, but we often don’t see or know what they do once they collect their medals and walk off the podium for the last time. After competing, Olympians go on to have varied careers that are often connected to their experiences and lessons learned during the games. As demonstrated by their adapted training schedules during the pandemic, many athletes begin developing their careers while preparing for the Games. We’ve highlighted for you the post-Olympic careers, interests, and efforts of a few Olympic veterans, and—as you’ll see—their lives after the Games are as wide-ranging as the sports they play.
Women account for 40% of all sports participants, but receive only 4% of all sports media coverage. This lack of coverage leads to less gender representation in sports, impacting the sponsorship opportunities and exposure that help to advance athletes in their careers. Four Olympic athletes have come together to combat this disparity through their media company TOGETHXR.
You may recognize professional soccer player Alex Morgan from her fight alongside her teammates for equal pay for the U.S. Women’s National Team soccer team. Or you may know Sue Bird, WNBA champion for the Seattle Storm, considered one of the greatest players in WNBA history. In March 2021, with fellow Olympians swimmer Simone Manuel and snowboarder Chloe Kim, they launched their media company TOGETHXR. The name is pronounced “together” –but can also be read as “to get her.” It is an effort to both elevate women in sports and their stories, changing the narrative and preparing a better future for the rising generation of female athletes.
TOGETHXR’s four founders have won eight Olympic gold medals between them and are each record-breakers in their own sport. Manuel became the first Black woman to win a gold medal in swimming in 2016; Bird sits in the top 10 in three categories in WNBA history and is the oldest player in WNBA history; Kim, the current World, Olympic, Youth Olympic, and X Games champion in halfpipe, became the youngest woman to win an Olympic snowboarding gold medal at the 2018 Winter Games; and Morgan was the No. 1 overall pick in the Women’s Professional Soccer league and has returned to play after giving birth to her first child in early 2020. All are actively competing, and Bird and Manuel will represent the USA at the Tokyo Games this year.
Throughout their careers, the four women have seen the significant gap in representation of female athletes in the field and joined forces to do something about it. TOGETHXR is focused on changing the landscape with merchandise, sponsorships, and original content across various social media channels. The company aims to challenge sports platforms to include, embrace and invest more in women while creating a space that celebrates, encourages and empowers girls and women in sports.
Although Paralympian wheelchair racer Adam Bleakney has retired from competing, his legacy lives on. He is currently the head coach at the University of Illinois, where he received his undergraduate and graduate degrees and his wheelchair racing athletes have gone on to win gold in the last two Olympic Games.
Bleakney suffered a spinal cord injury from a mountain bike racing accident in 1995. He got into his first racing chair nine months after his accident and competed in the Chicago Marathon only 15 months after his injury. During that first Chicago Marathon race, with only six months of training, Bleakney crashed a few miles from the finish line. He suffered a mild concussion, but completed the race. His racing career has included numerous events at four Paralympic Games—taking home silver in the 800m at the 2004 Athens Games 800m—as well as winning and placing at major races around the country.
While a student at the University of Illinois himself, he trained under legendary wheelchair racing coach Marty Morse, whose athletes won 52 Paralympic medals under his leadership. Three years after graduating, Bleakney returned to the University to take over his mentor’s position and has been coaching ever since. His tenacity and focus make have served him well as a coach; Illini athletes have followed in his footsteps, competing and winning at the London, New York City, Chicago and Paris Marathons.
For some athletes, their Olympic fame can inspire and introduce them to advocacy work in their post-Olympic life. But for others, like Anjali Forber-Pratt, they bring a background of advocacy to the Games; Forber-Pratt’s Paralympic experience just amplified the work she was already doing for disability activism.
Her career in international wheelchair racing competitions began in 2007 at the Parapan American Games and Paralympics, but her fight for disability equity began in high school. In 2002, she was involved in a legal battle with her high school for equal access to education for students with disabilities. Her efforts raised awareness, and as part of the settlement, the school agreed to make structural adjustments, like ramps and elevators, to allow for more accessibility. After taking home golds and bronzes at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics and making the U.S. team for the 2012 London Games, Forber-Pratt returned to her advocacy at home as an educator.
As an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in the Department of Human and Organizational Development, she focuses on disability identity, inclusion, sports and activism. After receiving her doctorate she chose to combine her passions for disabilities expertise and advocacy through teaching, though she is committed to education beyond the classroom as well. She is currently on the board of the Transverse Myelitis Association, which provides education, outreach, and support to people with rare neuro-immune disorders.
Forber-Pratt’s advocacy also extends to policy-making. In 2013, she was recognized at the White House for her efforts as a disability leader and participated in a roundtable with President Obama around disability policy issues. Since then, she has continued her work in her communities and across the nation to increase awareness around disabilities and fight for equality and access for disabled people, in sports and beyond.
Alysia Montaño is another great example of former Olympians who use their experiences and platform to drive advocacy work. The track and field athlete has competed in the Pan American Games, World Championships, and London Olympic Games. She is a record-holder, activist, business owner, and mother. Through her work with her organization &Mother, Montaño continues to open doors for women that she felt were closed for her.
The four-time World Champion’s running career began in high school, but her rise to fame can be pinpointed to 2014, when she ran the 800m at the USATF Outdoor Championships while eight months pregnant. She earned the nickname “the pregnant runner,” and has been an advocate for mothers who are athletes ever since. Montaño used her experience to highlight the potential of female athletes who want to continue their career without sacrificing motherhood—and the barriers they face—when she wrote her New York Times op-ed “Nike Told Me to Dream Crazy, Until I Wanted a Baby.” Her article went viral; it uncovered the lack of support female athletes receive around pregnancy from their sponsors and the strict contracts they’re under that make no salary guarantees during pregnancy and early maternity. Montano used her article to speak out against her treatment, and her story encouraged other mother-athletes to do the same. The op-ed sparked the #dreammaternity movement, where other high-profile athletes came forward to share similar experiences.
Not content with just telling her story, Montaño went on to create a space and sponsorship for athletes who are also mothers. She became a nonprofit entrepreneur as well as an activist when she founded &Mother. Founded in 2020, &Mother offers financial support for families, health services, and legal services. The non-profit works to create social and structural equity in sports for women, and celebrates and elevates these female athletes who continue to work and train through pregnancy and parenting. Through her work, Montaño offers other women professional and financial freedom to balance their pro athletic career with motherhood, without having to sacrifice either.
Michael Phelps is an Olympic household name, and for good reason: the five-time Olympic veteran is the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time (28 medals!) and holds the record for Olympic gold medals (23!).
After the 2008 Beijing Games, he started the Michael Phelps Foundation, which works with partners like the Boys and Girl Club of America and Special Olympics International to focus on promoting swimming and healthy living.
Phelps has also expanded his post-Olympic career to include advocacy around mental health issues. Phelps dealt with depression during his Olympic career, fighting with the pressure of being a world-renown swimmer and world record breaker. Post-Olympics, he has been open about his struggle with depression, which began in 2004 but got especially worse after the Olympic Games. His struggle has inspired a desire to increase awareness and de-stigmatization of mental health issues. The Michael Phelps Foundation offers courses and partnerships that advocate for mental health, and works to keep the conversation open. Phelps himself has served as an ambassador or chairperson on various mental health support foundations, including, most recently the online and app therapy company Talkspace. Like other Olympians, he has used his experiences from training and competing in the Olympics to drive his later work, using his platform to advocate for and invest in support and resources in the mental health arena. And his efforts have made an impact. Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka has spoken out recently about her own mental health struggles, and mentioned Phelps’ support and encouragement in adding her own voice to the discussion on mental health in sports, “Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up I may have saved a life. If that’s true, then it was all worth it.”
Whether they have used their Olympic careers to launch or continue advocacy work, inspire future athletes to great heights, or have pivoted from their athletic achievements to pursue other interests, the lives of these Olympians after the Games reflect the continuance and evolution of values and strengths honed during the Games. They have shown us the wide range of opportunities and successes—as well as challenges—available to athletes once they’ve hung up their medals. The Games are only the beginning, and here at MCAAD we are excited to see how our Olympians this year will carry their success, work, triumphs, sacrifices, and passion into their future life.