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“I don’t know who I am. I can’t call myself Gail Emms, Olympic badminton player any more.”
Thirteen years ago, Gail Emms MBE stood on the podium in Athens and had a stadium cheer and applaud her as she accepted her Olympic medal, after she and Nathan Robertson won mixed doubles silver.
Now, Emms is struggling. In an emotional article on The Mixed Zone, the 40-year-old spoke about the difficulties of finding work as an ex-athlete.
Here, she tells BBC Sport about her experiences of life after professional sport – and the impact it has had upon her and her family.
‘It’s like rejection whacking you in the face’
Emms had a successful career in badminton, with an Olympic medal the pinnacle, along with World Championship mixed doubles gold in 2006 and two Commonwealth golds.
However, nine years since she retired, Emms has been surprised and dismayed by the difficulties of finding a job – and, as a mum of two sons, it has affected her family life.
“All these things that I want to do with them and I can’t. It makes me feel like s**t – even more s**t than normal,” she said.
“My son, his best mate has gone to Tenerife for two weeks in the school holidays. I’m like ,’Yeah, we’ll put a tent in the back garden, that’s our holiday.’ That’s the most we can do.
“School holidays, I can’t send them on football camps. They ask me if we can go to the cinema and you’re sitting there thinking, ‘Oh no, that’s £20.’ Or, ‘Let’s go to London today,’ and I say, ‘No, because we can’t afford the train fares right now.’
Emms has spoken openly in the past about her struggles with depression when she retired, and her recent situation has brought back those emotions.
“When you first retire, you go through the whole transition and the whole grieving process, and it’s horrible. You don’t know where you are and you don’t have an identity,” she said.
“It’s like I’m going through that all over again. I look around, I think ‘I’m 40, I should be in a much better position.’ I was driving a better car when I was 23, 24, than I am now. It’s like failure and rejection whacking you in the face.
“In sport, you do anything to overcome that. That’s what defines you – when you lose, you learn from it, and you train to get better. And I am just struggling with what to do. How can I train myself for this? I’m in a world I don’t know.”
‘Everyone assumes you are made for life’
Emms admits that she was arrogant when she first retired, expecting the job offers to come rolling in – and for a time, they did.
An experienced motivational speaker, and an area of work that she loves, Emms found that as time went on, the reality of her situation began to sink in.
“People offer you really good money to go and speak at conferences, or after dinner – and this happened to me. You start doing these events and you think this is brilliant, get one of these jobs two or three times a week and I’m getting really good money,” she said.
“It’s not a long-term strategy though. Don’t get me wrong, I love my motivational speaking, but as time creeps on your name is not the first people think about. You are way down the list.
“The reality, what really needed to happen, was that I was asked, long term, what I wanted to do. Sport isn’t an option any more – what do you want to do?”
As a mother, motivational speaking was flexible for Emms, but now, nine years down the line, the doubt that she will find an alternative career has kicked in.
“I turned 40 last week and I have no career path. Yes, I can keep doing the motivational speaking but when your bookings are very short and low on the ground – and this is the situation I’m in – that’s the reality of it,” she said.
“Everyone assumes that just because you are an Olympic medallist, you are made for life. People assume I drive a fast car.
“I’m driving a Ford Fiesta 03 plate, which is rattling. I got it for £500 off an old man because that’s all I can afford. I turn up to events in this – I’ve just come from a golf club, I couldn’t find my car because it was so hidden amongst all the massive Range Rovers and Bentleys.
“I get to go to events, I get to do great things, but I need to build, I need a job, I need a career for me and my family.”
‘When you need help, who do you go to?’
It was the self-doubt that has crept into her life that inspired Emms to write the article.
She wants to work in sports PR or marketing, and has sent endless emails to people. However, replies have been sparse and, when she has had meetings, the experience has been demoralising.
“The guy I mention in the article – you could tell he just didn’t want to talk to me. When I got home, he had no idea how he’d made me feel,” she said.
“I cried my eyes out at the kitchen table, going, ‘I am so lost right now. I have no idea what to do.’ I couldn’t take any more rejections.
“I wrote it down because writing has been so therapeutic. I pressed ‘send’ before I could even think about it. I thought, if I’m not honest right now, I don’t know what the hell to do.”
Life after sport is not something that crosses most athletes minds, but more and more have spoken out about the difficulties they’ve encountered, and Emms feels sport can do more to help out athletes.
“I retired after the Beijing Olympics and I was entitled to three months of athlete services,” Emms added.
“For three months I wanted to party! I didn’t want to think about anything else; I was thinking, ‘I don’t have to get up for training! I want to drink, I want to eat a burger.’
“The last thing I wanted was to think about what I’m going to do when I’m 40. It’s laughable. There are some sports that do very, very well – hockey I know do the transition well. Anything where there’s a club, a sense of identity and belonging, seem to do it very well.
“In other sports, you’re kind of left to your own devices. And when you do need help, who the hell do you go to? This is where I think UK Sport need to up their game.
“I need help right now. I’m retired nine years and I still need help. More and more athletes are saying they’re struggling and you can’t ignore this any more. It’s become so apparent.”
A statement from UK Sport read: “Elite sport has a real responsibility to care for, develop and support its athletes.
“The Performance Lifestyle service, delivered by UK Sport’s subsidiary the English Institute of Sport, is available for every for every athlete to ensure that there is an appropriate balance between the pursuit of performance and the care for the person behind that performance.”
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