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posted: 8/6/2012 5:00 AM

Former Olympians aren't immune to trials of aging

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  • Bruce Jenner won gold in the Olympic Decathlon in Montreal in 1976.

    Bruce Jenner won gold in the Olympic Decathlon in Montreal in 1976.
    Associated Press file photo

San Francisco Chronicle

There's a saying that elite athletes have borrowed from the Marine Corps: There's no such thing as a former Olympian.

Long after the glory of performing on the world stage has faded -- after athletes have peaked, after they've committed themselves to careers and lives beyond their sport -- much remains of the Olympic spirit.

Olympians are known for their drive and their focus, for their innate talent and hard-won skill, for their courage and competitiveness. And those traits don't disappear when an athlete retires.

But Olympic athletes, like everyone else on the planet, aren't immune to the trials of aging, and if they still have the mind of an Olympian, keeping the body of one is a different matter. So bear that in mind as we enjoy the London Olympics: Those elite athletes we admire now may have lessons for us yet as they later struggle with the passage of time.

"You have to be nice to your body and accept the fact that you can't fight getting older," said Ken Flax, 50, a San Francisco native who went to the Olympics twice for hammer throwing. "The biggest issue for me over the last 20 years has been my brain. I like to go after everything 110 percent. That's what makes me tick and got me to the Olympics.

"But you've got to face the facts eventually -- nature's working against you."

Dozens of don't-call-them-former Olympians around the Bay Area are taking a special interest in the London Games. Some of them will be a little wistful, some a little envious. Many of them, including Flax, who is a director with the USA Track and Field Foundation, are still dedicated to a large degree to a sport that once defined them.

The transition from a sports career to a so-called normal life is tough for many elite athletes, and maybe harder still for those whose performance reached Olympic standards.

Imagine, in many cases, having a body beaten up by years of intense training and competition -- and still having the drive to win, but no longer the stamina and strength to make it happen.

"I can't even tell you how many times I've said it sucks to get old," said Gillian Boxx, 38, a member of the U.S. Olympic softball team that won gold in 1996. "I hate knowing that I'm not accomplishing something to the same level I was used to. I think I've gotten better at trying to enjoy sports. But I still have to fight to not be stressed out when I'm not great."

Scientific research into the post-athletic lives of Olympians, or any kind of elite athlete, is limited, and the results of those few studies are mixed. A handful of studies have shown that elite athletes have stronger cardiovascular systems and better bone density than non-athletes, even decades after their sports careers.

Some studies also have shown that former athletes maintain a lot of their strong fitness base -- lung and heart power, especially -- over the years, as long as they remain moderately active.

But those benefits often come with a trade-off in injuries, both during their careers and after. Several studies have shown that athletes in sports that involve putting a lot of pressure on the lower-body joints have a significant increased risk of arthritis, often at an earlier age than would be expected for non-athletes.

In addition, many sports-medicine doctors say they sometimes treat former elite athletes for injuries they incur long after their careers, often from putting too much pressure on weakened joints, or simply overestimating their skills and pushing too hard in a pickup basketball game or a triathlon that was supposed to just be for fun.

"You have the people who get injured because of the cumulative abuse. And then you have the elite athletes who are still superstars in their mind, but they're deteriorating and they don't recognize that," said Dr. Jeffrey Halbrecht, an orthopedic surgeon with California Pacific Medical Center and former medical director for the Women's World Pro Ski Tour.

"The ones who do well are the ones who maintain a fitness level, even if it's not the elite level," Halbrecht said. "The ones who get in trouble, maybe they used to run a sub-10 (second) hundred-yard dash, and they haven't run for five years, and they try to race their nephew and end up injured."

After two Olympic Games, Los Altos resident Flax didn't mind giving up his hammer-throwing career, but as a self-described "adrenaline junkie" -- who happened to be dealing with injuries lingering from his track and field days -- he struggled with reining in his competitive drive.

Shortly after his second Olympics, in 1992, Flax tore a ligament in his knee while playing flag football with friends, and that set off two decades of pain and limitations, until he finally had two knee replacements last year. It's been a tough lesson, he said, but he's learned that he can't be the athlete he once was.

"The knee replacement made me have to stop and reset, and adjust to the realization that while the title Olympian stays with you, the body doesn't," Flax said. "It's taken me 20 years to realize that I can't do what I want to do."

After retiring from softball, Boxx said she developed a new respect for the difficulties most people face to make time for exercise while working full time. But as a firefighter in San Jose, she had the advantage of an employer who expected her to stay fit.

Then she suffered an injury -- like Flax, a torn knee ligament, which happened during a soccer game. She was out of work for months. The injury was a major step toward putting her athletic career behind her and setting new priorities.

She remains active in softball through coaching and starting her own business in San Jose, but her motivation for fitness has changed.

"As a firefighter, not only is being in shape going to save your life, hopefully it's going to save the person next to you one day," Boxx said. "That's a whole different motivation than going for a gold medal."

Both Flax and Boxx experienced another common problem among former athletes, and even something the less talented among us can relate to -- a reluctance to let go of the past.

Sports medicine experts say that retiring from a successful athletic career can be akin to grieving. There's anger and denial, and only with time, reluctant acceptance of a new way of life.

"I have to be honest with people and tell them, for example, your knee's never going to be the same again," said Dr. Christina Allen, doctor for the U.S. Olympic tae kwon do team and a former college soccer player herself.

To some degree, most people experience a similar grieving process. It's a product of aging -- few of us embrace it and manage it gracefully.

Olympians may experience the slow downside of aging earlier, and more profoundly, than the rest of us, but it's something we all share, said Halbrecht, the orthopedic surgeon.

"Smart elite athletes who want to save their bodies know when to quit. Us lesser mortals can take a lesson from that," he said.

"The wise and mature elite athletes quit at the top of their game, and they go on to sports that don't damage their bodies. They live in the glorious past with fond memories, but they don't try to continue to push the limits."

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