I’ve spent the past 16 years of my life in pursuit of one overarching goal: ski in the Olympics.
It all started when I was 10, skiing at my home mountain of Sunday River in Bethel, ME. My first weekend in the freestyle program was rocky. I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t as good as the other kids, and perhaps worst of all, I wore a full-face motocross helmet while skiing. I guess my parents didn’t like the out-of-control, straight down the mountain technique I’d developed at age 9, so they slapped a motocross helmet on me for extra peace of mind. I remember crying in my group on the first weekend of skiing with a team, but for some reason the next week was different. I started following the other kids off the jumps, made some friends, and soon the motocross helmet became something I was proud of, something that made me stand out amongst a group of little rippers.
From there my passion for skiing grew exponentially. I idolized the pros at the time, and my buddies and I would constantly push each other in hopes of one day becoming as good as them. My dad made a rope tow in our backyard, and after skiing from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the resort, we’d race to my house, build a jump, flip on the floodlights, and lap the rope tow until it was bedtime. This is the environment where I built my foundation and love for the sport, and it’s where I first dreamed of skiing in the Olympics.
Fast forward 16 years and I found myself named to the 2018 U.S. Olympic Mogul Team. I wish I could somehow capture all I learned along that journey, but it would be well beyond the scope of this article. What you should know is that after 16 years of competitive skiing, 8 of them at an elite level, skiing has shaped the person I am today. I’ve traveled to Australia, Austria, Canada, Chile, China, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Norway, Spain, and Switzerland all for the sake of training or competition. I spent every day over those years in some way working towards my one goal. Whether it was in the gym, on-snow training, meeting with sports psychologists, emailing sponsors, or fundraising to afford the whole thing, there was never a day that went by where I wasn’t, at some capacity, working toward getting better at skiing. A lot of people outside the sport look at that amount of work, or the time commitment, and think of it as a huge sacrifice. From my perspective, it was the opposite. I loved every minute of what I was doing. To me, it never seemed like a sacrifice but more so a blessing that I had the opportunity to do what I did. I’m aware of how lucky I was to travel the world with the U.S. Ski Team and know that not many people get that experience.
This past year was one I’ll never forget. I entered the competition season ranked 6th in the world, landed on the World Cup podium in China before the games and then earned my spot on the Olympic team. I traveled to South Korea with great friends and teammates, folks who had gone through the same process I had and were just as amazed to be there as I was. The whole thing was surreal. Getting your Olympic uniform, walking in opening ceremonies, standing on top of the of the Olympic mogul course...was this all really happening? Those couple weeks flew by, and when they were over, I had represented my country in the highest level of international sport. I’m one of 23 men to ever represent the United States in Olympic mogul skiing. That’s an accomplishment I’m very proud of.
Up until February, everything I did was focused on getting to South Korea. Sure, I took an online class here and there, but school, a career...all of these things were on the back burner until I accomplished, or at least came as close as I could, to making my dream a reality. After the games were over a teammate and I flew to Japan to ski powder on Hokkaido and decompress. It was in those magical forests surrounded by the deepest snow I’d ever seen that I slowly started to realize that I was ready to transition. I had poured everything into competitive skiing up until that point, and I never regretted a minute of it, but I knew that it was time to move on. I’d gotten so much out of mogul skiing, discovered who I was as a person, learned from amazing mentors and coaches, and traveled the world and made countless friends. In a way, I finally felt like I’d tapped it out. I’d gotten everything I was ever going to get out of it and it was time to find a new challenge, a new vessel for personal growth. Learning is a central part of my personality, and I needed to start learning something new. So there, in the forests of Hokkaido, I had made up my mind: I was going to retire from competitive skiing.
I’ve seen many athletes in my sport who danced around the decision to retire for years, always half in and half out. This never made sense to me. I believe that to be successful, you have to be 100% committed to whatever you’re doing. Anything less isn’t going to cut it. When I was competing I never burned out, I was never anything less than 100% committed, and for that I’m grateful. My first urges to move on from the sport came at the perfect time. I’d just accomplished my life goal, I had learned immensely, and I was able to hang up my mogul skis on my own terms.
A quick google search will bring up numerous articles about the struggles elite athletes endure post-retirement. Many feel lost, unsure of what to do next after having dedicated all their time and energy in pursuit of one thing. For me, this couldn’t be further from the truth. My experiences since retiring from competitive skiing have been nothing short of amazing. I thought, perhaps, my approach to this transition could help others going through a similar process, or really any life transition. So without further ado, here are some of the things that have worked for me in staying happy and productive in life after competition.
Know when it’s time – We all know that elite sport is not a sustainable life-long career. At some point, we’re going to have to hang it up and move on. While I think many athletes dread this day, I was always optimistic about it. It’s not that I hated what I was doing and wanted to move on, it’s that I loved what I was doing, but believed that life after sport would be just as fulfilling. For this reason, I was very open to my thoughts when they first whispered that I should retire. I wasn’t scared and I didn’t resist. I just had an open, long thought-out conversation with myself to find the most logical decision. I was proud of all that I had accomplished and was ready to accept the next challenge. When that little voice inside your head starts to hint that it might be time for a change, don’t be scared to listen! That doesn’t mean quit at first thought, it just means be willing and open to yourself and know when it’s time to exit. Recognize that who you are and who you can be is so many different things and while one thing may have defined your life for years, there are so many other things that make us great and help us thrive.
Have a plan, at least a hint of one – When I was competing, people would always emphasize thinking about the next steps for when you retire. If you’ve got the bandwidth to focus on all of your athletic needs as well as plan for the future then props to you, but I did not. Trying to come up with a plan for after sport is super hard, and sometimes feels like it takes your focus away from what you’re trying to accomplish in the here and now. Instead of scheming up an elaborate map of where I was headed after skiing, I kept it simple: I was going to finish school, learn as much as I could, and be open to every opportunity that crossed my door. That’s what I’ve done so far, and it’s worked out better than I could have hoped. As soon as my season was over I met with an academic counselor, found a program at the University of Utah that fit my needs and interests, and then dove in headfirst. Part of what’s been so amazing about starting school full time is that it has kept me extremely busy. I’ve had zero time to think back and doubt my decision because I’ve had too much to learn and too many things to do.
Keep up on your fitness – As elite athletes, like many, we are programmed to exercise. For me, working hard on my mountain bike or in the gym is just about as therapeutic as it gets. We each work hard for our fitness; don’t let it go to waste! I’m not saying you have to keep or start working out like you’re trying to win a gold medal, but I definitely think that keeping at least some capacity of a fitness program is essential for mental health, and obviously for physical health as well.
Reconnect with old passions or develop new ones – Before my skiing got super intense I loved wheel-thrown pottery. I would spend countless hours in the studio, sometimes until 2 a.m. As skiing ramped up and I had to move away from home, I lost access to a studio. Constant travel and training wouldn’t have made throwing pots achievable anyway, so I gave it up for skiing, hoping I’d someday find my way back to the clay. Now I’m in a ceramics class at The U and am already back to where I was before skiing took over, and it’s been a blast! I also found a new passion in hockey. I joined the local adult league and have rapidly become addicted. I play hockey at least two nights a week now, something I wouldn’t have done while skiing because I would have been afraid of injury. Something about being a beginner is so liberating. There are no expectations and improvements come rapidly. So give that thing you’ve been wanting to do a try.
Have a carrot – Part of why I’ve been so optimistic throughout this transition is that I’ve always had something to look forward to. When I retired I decided I would do school through the fall semester, and then take the spring semester off to free-ski around North America. Backcountry skiing has been a growing passion of mine ever since I took my first big mountain trip in Alaska six years ago. While competing, I was always envious of the big mountain skiers who get to explore all day, skiing steep lines covered in powder. I always wanted to spend a winter this way, so this December some of my best buddies and I will be loading up a truck with snowmobiles and a camper and will hit the road, chasing storms all winter. I’ve been looking forward to doing this for so long, and it’s given me something to work toward. I think it’s always important to have something to look forward to, so find that opportunity and chase it!
HAVE FUN, LEARN, GROW – For me this has been an extremely exciting time in my life. I’ve kept the Olympic high of this past season rolling, just in a new form. I’ve skied in Alaska, explored cities I had never been to, surfed in Hawaii, spent time back home in Maine, skateboarded, mountain bike, played hockey, threw ceramics, and spent much needed time with my girlfriend without having to leave every other week. I’ve gotten to attend college classes in person, something that at 26 years old I hadn’t done until now. I’ve been planning out and chasing down funding for my winter journey. I’ve been busy, and productive, and most importantly, I’m having so much fun in the process. Life after sport goes on, and I’ve found that it is what you make it! Sure, you can look back at all of the amazing times you had and be sad they those days are over. Or you can look to the future, to all you still have to learn and experience, and jump into that new world head on. The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far in this transition is that this life after competitive skiing is fun.
To see more of Troy's skiing and life adventures, follow him on Instagram: @troy_murphy