When the bright lights fade and the roar of the crowd is replaced by silence, many athletes struggle with what to do next. What to do with a life defined by the pursuit of excellence in their chosen sport?
For recently retired Canadian Olympic shot putter Brittany Crew, the journey has been particularly difficult.
“I was into (shot put) full-time for 10 years. Every day of my life was about going to the track,” Crew recently told CBC Sports. “So you can imagine when you retire, that identity is kind of lost, you’re kind of lost. You’re like ‘what do I do?'”
The 29-year-old Torontonian has known in her heart for some time that it was time to step away from the shot put. She got into an irreparable fight with her old coach and her body was never able to fully recover from an endless series of injuries
“I should have let it go after Tokyo. I should have just stopped at that point because the last two years have been hell mentally,” said Crew. “I lost myself to the point where I didn’t remember who I was. I’d even look at pictures and I’d see like the smile had faded. It just wasn’t the same. I stayed home a lot more I wasn’t socializing with people.
“I was literally just playing video games in my spare time. For example, I wasn’t going anywhere or talking to people. I was shutting them out.”
I can’t get past a poor performance in Tokyo
Crew flirted with success throughout her career, but aspirations and predictions of victories at world championships and the Olympics never materialized.
Heading into the Tokyo Olympics, Crew was a heavy favorite to reach the podium for Canada. Instead, she crashed spectacularly and failed to register a successful pitch on any of her three attempts.
“I still haven’t recovered from that, to be honest, and I don’t think I ever really will,” she said. “I just don’t think I’ll ever be able to get over that.”
But it doesn’t define her. She is rebuilding her life, still leaning on sports, except this time far away from the field where she spent so many hours torturing her body trying to throw a heavy stone as far as possible.
She has also discovered karate and trains six days a week at a dojo on Toronto’s east side. She said she was looking for something different. She had lost the desire to shot put, but not the desire to compete.
“It was very important that I found something else to spend my time with. If I didn’t, my mental health would definitely be affected. I would be very miserable in life,” she said.
Crew initially signed up for a free class and hasn’t looked back, finding a sense of community and camaraderie she’s been desperate for.
“It’s the best part of my day. And it’s kind of funny because towards the end of my track career that was the worst part of my day,” said Crew. “I hated going to the track. I didn’t feel welcome there. I didn’t have any friends on the track or in training.
“It’s just so different now.”
Natural athletic ability suitable for karate
After quickly mastering the basics of the old craft, Crew recently entered her first competition. It was a beginner level event, but Crew won. She hopes to keep learning, reach higher levels of belt designation (she is still years away from a black belt), and keep competing.
Her sensei, Chris Lum Lock, said Crew’s natural athleticism and strength made her a natural fit for the sport.
“She picked things up quickly and really fit in from the first day she was here,” he said. “Karate is a completely different ball game, but she has adapted quickly. I am very proud of how far she has come.”
In karate there are three types of competition. Crew teaches the first art known as kata, which is basically a rehearsed dance where participants demonstrate their artistry, strength and technique through a series of maneuvers. More advanced fighters can also participate in weapon-based and sparring competitions.
“I’ve started to get more confidence back because I lost all my confidence in the circuit, I lost it all,” she said.
“I want to participate. I want to try. I think I heard that tickle again,” said Crew.
Lum Lock said that if Crew keeps working, she can quickly move up the ranks.
“She’s not a little girl, so she would be very intimidating,” he said. “She just needs to learn control. I know she’s very determined. She’s determined to get better. She’s all in.”
Crew said she’s already learned things from her foray into karate that would have made her a better job competitor for Canada on the international stage. She started looking inwards instead of always being preoccupied with what other people are doing or saying.
“With karate, they teach that you go on your own individual journey and don’t compare yourself to other people, you just don’t even compare to yourself,” she said. “You’re just on your own individual journey and you’re just aiming for your personal best every time.”
For the first time in years, Crew is looking forward, not back. She doesn’t question what could have been, but is excited about the future where sport is once again an important part of her journey.
“In terms of filling that void, I think karate definitely saved me,” says Crew. “I just want to be happy and I’ve always wanted to be and I can finally honestly say I’m really happy now.”