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Olympics: How top athletes live the spirit after retiring from sports

Former Olympic athletes – from Kerri Strug to Eric Heiden – must find a way to replace the thrill and satisfaction of top competition.

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"There's a certain simplicity in sports," says Biondi, who now finds himself fielding parent complaints rather than requests for autographs. "[Outside sports], there's not that singular sense of purpose. It becomes a new challenge to be able to be true to yourself and to keep after your goals ... and yet be tolerant."

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For many, replacing the thrill and satisfaction of competing is difficult to do. Bill Koch, the only US cross-country skier ever to win a medal, could have easily rested on his laurels after retiring from racing in 1984. But he continued to pursue his Olympic dream, trying out for the team up until 1998 – almost a quarter century after he won his medal.

In between, he designed ski trails, launched an outdoor clothing line, and later led unorthodox ski trips on Hawaiian beaches. Was any of it ever as rewarding as ski racing? "No," he says unhesitatingly. But for Mr. Koch, now retired in Vermont, racing was never the end goal. "Whether racer, surgeon, author, cook, garbageman ... whatever we do, it's not what defines us," he says. "It's what's inside that defines us."

An identity independent of sports?

But finding an identity independent of sports can be hard in an era when the Olympics represent not just patriotism, but big paychecks. "When I was 10 and dreaming of the Olympics, it was for the uniform and USA on my back," says Picabo Street, a two-time medalist in alpine skiing. "Now it's the uniform that comes with all the patches on it that represent all the sponsorship dollars."

If the endorsements bring new pressures and demands, though, they also bring greater opportunities. Successful athletes in the Olympics can make a lot of money and set themselves up for life.

"I think as important as [the Olympics] were in the past ... they may have even become more important," says former speed skater Eric Heiden, now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. "What you do there, that can change your life." Nevertheless, Mr. Heiden remains nostalgic for the days when he and his teammates were fueled by the sheer enjoyment and camaraderie of their sport.

Money doesn't have to be a corrosive force, of course. As more of it trickles down to the athletes today, it can help them lay the foundation for a life after the pool and oval track.

"What we have now in our Olympic sports is we have kids growing up who know they can make a career of it," says Biondi. "That has elevated our sport tremendously."