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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 November 2006, 11:56 GMT
Feet up - at 24
Ian Thorpe's feet

By Claire Heald
BBC News Magazine

Five-times Olympic gold medallist Ian Thorpe is retiring at 24, an age when most are taking their first tentative steps on the career ladder. But if you've achieved your goals so young, what do you do next?

When the pair in question are a size 17, putting your feet up for good is quite some undertaking.

Ian Thorpe has retired from swimming aged 24, saying he is old enough to do so, and still young enough to accept new challenges in life.

His unique and prodigious talent has brought him five Olympic golds - at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 - a 400m freestyle World Championship title when he was just 15 and a haul of world records.

Lost that feeling

But mired in injury and illness, he has lost the drive to build on an unparalleled nine-year career. Back in the heady days of the 2000 Games, he spoke of feeling at one with the water every time he swam. As he announced his retirement this week, his relief at leaving the laps behind was evident.

Stephen Streater
You can do the desert island for six months, but then it's the same old sandy beach
Stephen Streater
Lapsed retiree
For most people, a planned career might peak in their 40s and 50s, and the age bar for retirement is consistently raised by a government faced with an ageing population. In sport, the carriage clock day comes earlier, but 24 is still incredibly young. So what next?

He can't just sit back, says Stephen Streater, a technology entrepreneur who made more than 4m from his company Eidos before retiring aged 33. He backed Tomb Raider, one of the best-selling video games ever, before giving it up.

"I thought it would be nice to have time to take up hobbies, so I joined five orchestras," he says. But the viola wasn't enough to sustain a full-time interest and, as shift-workers know, there are few people around to play with during the day. Bored within a year, he founded a new company, Forbidden Technologies.

"My friends were all working, so although I was all right for a few months, it wasn't satisfying. You're always so busy in life, with things to sort out, but once you've painted every wall and opened all your post you think 'what am I going to do now?'

"You can do the desert island for three to six months, but then it's the same old sandy beach..."

High achievers in any walk of life need to find something worthwhile to do or, he warns, they risk joining the lowly unmotivated.

Achievers go forth

Like legions of sports stars who retired before him - and sometimes made comebacks - Thorpe hasn't lost motivation. That is embedded in his character, says sports psychologist Matt Jevon. It is merely lost to what he can do well already and he needs a second purpose.

Ian Thorpe
Saying goodbye, the weight lifts
In a life where success is measured not in times or medals, he says retired sports stars must set themselves clear targets.

"Retain an involvement in the sport, otherwise you'll miss it; make sure there are a couple of people to support and encourage you; and have fun while you're doing it."

There is now a recognition across the industry that life after competition should not just be about ex-footballers running pubs. Sportspeople today are offered far more careers advice than in past decades.

One who has made the transition is four-times Olympic Gold medallist Matthew Pinsent. Like Thorpe, he won gold at Sydney and Athens. He now works as a BBC sports news broadcaster.

Matthew Pinsent
I wasn't dropping off but I didn't want to feel my power slipping away from me
Matthew Pinsent
Olympian turned broadcaster
He has taken his no-nonsense, job-done approach from rowing to this new career.

"It was a line in the sand, mentally, to say I am changing career path. I knew in my heart of hearts it wasn't too early and I'd achieved what I wanted."

"I was 33, in athletic terms certainly well established on the plateau. I wasn't dropping off but it's got to happen at some point and I didn't want to feel my power slipping away from me."

It was the right decision, he says, and adds that with London 2012 on the horizon, it is a good time to be an Olympian in the media.

Clever operator

So what will Thorpe do? The rumour is that he will follow a media path, at Australian cable channel Foxtel.

Ian Thorpe aged just 16
Those celebrated size 17s
It is a job that allows sports stars to contribute their expertise, and Thorpe has proved himself media-savvy for years. It is one canny move to announce your retirement just days before a cricket-mad nation is absorbed by the Ashes.

And for a sports star of his calibre, the media can be a lucrative and long-lasting career choice. At 47, John McEnroe is as well-regarded in the commentary box as he was on the tennis court.

As a multi-millionaire icon, Ian Thorpe can point his size 17s in any direction he likes. Or just put them up, until he reaches his three score and ten.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

What a wonderful career this young man has had and what a wonderful career he has ahead of him. I think he has done the right thing. If his drive has gone then he should bow out at the top and be remembered as the great Olympian that he is.
Julie, Southam, United Kingdom

I used to work tremendously hard earning over 60k pa. But the stress took its toll and I chose to redress my work-life balance. I now work two half days per week for a more modest salary, and I am pursuing various business and personal goals at a more steady pace.

On one hand there's no point being a rich corpse, but on the other there's a lot to be said for retaining a sense of purpose after a career change rather than sinking into a mundane life of boredom.
Al, UK

It's not a bad position to be in. I'm a student in debt of about 9,000 - in my final year, lots of hard work to do, not secured a job yet, I would love to be in his position. Only his hard work has allowed him to take such an option. Good on him.
Saj, Manchester, UK

Oh how my heart bleeds. I think I joined the "lowly unmotivated" many years ago - but I'm still working! I'd love the opportunity to find out how long it would take to get bored "just" doing hobbies and holidays (without having to worry about money, of course).
Brian, UK

With those plates, the constabulary calls...
Jel, Swansea

Having been a competitive swimmer for years myself, and not even at Ian's level, it's very hard on the body. Training 10 times per week, and those early mornings are relentless every day - more than a normal job, I have to say as I still do early mornings now. It's a lot of strain physically. Good luck to him.
Michelle, Portsmouth

I started earning a proper salary at 24, and this guy is already retiring. Makes me feel SO old at 36.
Wahid, Slough

Well whatever he does, I hope it all goes swimmingly for him...
Simon, London

Good luck to Ian in whatever he decides to do. He has achieved so much in the world of swimming without any negative press. He's been a great role model.
Ann, London

These days more than ever, having a portfolio of transferable skills is a more viable, and in most ways more attractive, way to approach your working life than the idea of having one career for the whole of it.
Karl Chads, London, UK

I think he's done the right thing. Twenty-four is a good age to 'retire' - but more because of the fact it's a nice early age to really get into a new career.

He already has the great achievement of being a superstar in one field, now he has the chance to do so in another.
Eilidh, Dundee

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