The aftermath: Kiwi Olympians reveal challenging realities of life post-Tokyo

There are three parts to an Olympian’s journey – the dream, reality and the aftermath.

The dream can be a lifetime in the making – it’s the goal, the plans and the training.

The reality is what happens on the day – things either go as planned and the dream comes to fruition, or, it fails.

Then comes the aftermath – a time of reflection and potentially, the beginning of the next cycle.

For the Kiwi athletes who competed in the Tokyo Olympics, it’s been a process made much more challenging due to the pandemic.

Two weeks in MIQ followed by a nationwide lockdown left plenty of time for them to reflect on the Games.

And no matter which end of the success-scale they fell, once the dust had settled, they all faced the same task: to pick apart everything that went right, everything that went wrong and to decide on their sporting futures.

Kiwi rower Shaun Kirkham spent the better part of 10 years working towards his dream of Olympic glory.

He was part of the men’s eight who claimed gold in Tokyo on an historic day for New Zealand rowing.

It topped off what had been a challenging journey for the team.

Failing to qualify the boat in 2019, they were forced to race in a last-chance regatta six weeks out from the Games.

Then when in Tokyo, they struggled to find form early, missing out on a spot in the final before racing in the repechage event. Winning that, they then progressed through to shock the world and claim gold.

Kirkham said they spent much of their time in MIQ reflecting, realising how a series of unfortunate events became their key to success.

“All these things sort of lined up, we were just amazed at it,” he said. “At the time, it was really hard working through those massive obstacles … we all saw that initially as a bit of a setback, but everything benefited us in the long run.

“It really hardened us. By the time we got to Tokyo, any little upset or issue we had over there just seemed like nothing.

“We really enjoyed reflecting on that journey.”

The reflection time inspired Kirkham to start a

in hopes of inspiring everyday people to be more resilient, have less self-doubt, and how to deal with failure.

And it led to a rather wholesome MIQ experience.

Just a few doors down, however, the mood was very different.

The New Zealand sailing team were instead debriefing one of their worst campaigns to date.

The numbers weren’t pretty.

The team of six crews finished 11th of the 16 teams – a stark contrast to their fourth placing at Rio.

Yachting stars Peter Burling and Blair Tuke failed to defend their Olympic gold from Rio, finishing with silver.

Paul Snow-Hansen and Dan Willcox finished a frustrating fourth in the men’s 470 class, while Molly Meech and Alex Maloney struggled to come back from a devastating start, where a capsize saw them ruled out of race one.

Laser sailor Sam Meech also failed to medal in his second Olympics campaign after claiming bronze at Rio.

He said debriefing the event was tough.

“We had pretty high expectations of ourselves,” Meech said. “You spend so much time working towards that one goal that if it doesn’t go the way you think it’s going to go and it goes badly, then it can be quite hard to sit with.

“Coming back into MIQ definitely made it a bit harder and that was something we expected… we knew it was going to be a little bit hard to deal with.”

Meech added the acceptance of failure proved far easier said than done.

It’s one of the reasons former Black Stick Brooke Neal published an open letter to Olympians last month outlining some of the mental health struggles that came with life after the Games.

Neal, who retired from hockey last year following the postponement of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, posted the lengthy message on Instagram titled “Dear Olympian, a letter I wish I got post-Olympics”.

Part of it read: “So you might be a little confused right about now. You’ve just competed at the world’s biggest sporting event and yet, this is one of the lowest times you’ve ever felt.

“You have been in this bubble, your own little world, with 10,000 athletes who are at the top of their game. You have poured blood, sweat and tears to get there, but you weren’t really prepared for the day after. For the week after. For the months after this huge spectacle.

“On one hand, you think, ‘Yeah, that was frickin epic. What an experience” but on the other hand, your heart has been ripped to shreds from the rollercoaster you’ve been on and you’re on the verge of tears over the smallest things. Like you’re a tree that hasn’t put its roots down and the smallest gust of wind could knock you over.”

Her final advice stated the feeling would pass and that athletes needed to remember they were exactly where they needed to be.

A post shared by Brooke Neal (@brookeneal1)

Acknowledging Neal’s letter, Meech said with the help of their support team, they were able to change their tone and see the Games with a fresh perspective.

“The further you get away from the event, the more you appreciate just having been out there and having participated,” Meech said. “Immediately after, if you’re disappointed with the outcome, it can be pretty hard, but I think it’s just about realising why you do the sport and appreciating being able to compete at that level.

“My performance wasn’t really what I was looking for and a bit of it was due to getting a little bit injured in the lead in so I’m pretty happy. And I don’t think I could have done much differently. It was just on that week that it didn’t go so well. That’s sport.”

For Meech, it took just two weeks in isolation to come to that conclusion, but for others, it took far longer.

Kiwi canoeist Luuka Jones was a challenger for the podium in Tokyo, but struggled in the K1 final, clocking a time of 110.67 to miss the medals by just under four seconds.

Jones also finished 13th in her less-favoured C1 event.

She said it was a result she struggled to accept until just recently.

“I had put so much into it and it was at the forefront of my mind for so long, so it took more than a month to stop kicking myself.

“I wasn’t paddling that well leading into the Games so I didn’t have great feelings on the water but when racing started I got into it and still had my high hopes. It’s one of those things in sport that you put everything into performing and when you don’t get there it’s disappointing.”

She too, however, found an acceptance of her performance.

“There’s always something to take from it,” she said.

“It was an amazing experience as always, so nice to be part of the New Zealand team and I guess I was just grateful to be there in what was a crazy time.”

So much weighs on results when it comes to Olympic campaigns.

Not only for the athletes but for the future of their sports.

Results play a major role in deciding how much funding each sport receives for the next Olympic cycle and what resources are eventually put in place to ensure continued success.

Fail to achieve an expected result and suddenly questions are asked.

Funding for our New Zealand sailors is expected to reduce off the back of Tokyo.

Meech said they were looking into changing the structure so there was less of a focus on results early in the cycle.

“I understand there’s a bit of a change in the funding structure to try and make things a little bit easier …which I think will make things a lot easier and more sustainable.”

Meanwhile, some minority sports are set to receive a boost.

Trampoline gymnast Dylan Schmidt caught the attention of Kiwis across the nation when he claimed bronze in Tokyo and as a result produced a fresh hype around the sport.

Schmidt said his result meant they could now build a solid case to receive more funding and develop training facilities.

“It’s just about building the profile of gymnastics in general, which is quite exciting and is something that I’m pretty proud of,” Schmidt said.

“We now have the opportunity to make a bit of a difference and get some other athletes more involved and get them on the high-performance pathway as well.”

Although an already well-supported sport in New Zealand, Kirkham said the future of New Zealand’s rowing teams still relied heavily on the success of today.

“The Tokyo result will really inspire other people to push on and to be part of that group,” he explained.

“Then we can increase the sort of the depth we have of athletes to choose from. The ideal situation is that we can have two New Zealand eights on the water training side by side, and then we pick the best eight guys from that, which is something that we haven’t been able to do in the past.”

With Tokyo postponed by a year, athletes have 365 fewer days to decide on their Olympic futures before Paris 2024.

For some, the decision was never in question.

“I’ve always been committed to the next Olympics,” Schmidt said. “Even before Tokyo. I’m definitely in for the long run.”

Schmidt said having stood on the podium once had only increased his desire to step up onto it again.

“Just to get that feeling again, now that I know how it feels, and I want to do better,” he said. “I want to win the next one. I’ve always been pretty motivated to win the Olympics.”

But for athletes such as Meech and Kirkham, having already spent years in the Olympic programme, the decision is more complex.

“I kind of want to give myself a little bit of time to make a decision around whether I’m going to try,” Meech explained. “I’m in two minds. It would be nice to try and improve on my results from Tokyo. But also I need to need to try and do something else because I’ve been doing this for 10 years now. So I’m still on the fence.”

Although already back on the water training, Kirkham said he was planning to spend some time over the summer assessing his future.

“You sort of only have the opportunity to be physically and mentally able to compete at the highest level,” he said. “So part of me wants to really make sure that when I do hang up the oars finally, that I’m completely done. And that that path has been fully exhausted.

“I’m unsure whether I’m there yet.”

Whether or not he does work towards another Games, Kirkham said he had already learned so much in the aftermath of Tokyo.

Not only things he could apply to rowing – but to his life in general.

He explained that not until the full picture of a situation or journey could be seen, would he draw any conclusions.

“The past few months made me realise the significance of our story and the path we’ve been on,” he said.

“It can feel so strange at the time, but it’s so cool to reflect and actually see how it all played out.

“You don’t realise that you’re living that story until you actually take the time to think about it and reflect upon it.”

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