Launch of Snowsill 2.0
By Aaron S. Lee
Retirement can be an ugly word, especially when you are a professional athlete and just 33 years young. It was a term that Emma Snowsill had been bouncing around in her head for the better part of a year until finally she had to simply “blurt it out and be done with it”, which is exactly what the three-time world champion, Olympic and Commonwealth Games gold medallist did in July when she announced she was calling it quits from racing draft-legal Olympic-distance triathlon for the International Triathlon Union (ITU).
“It had been playing in my head since last year,” Snowsill told Sportette from her home in Girona where she lives with husband and fellow 2008 Olympic triathlon gold medalist Jan Frodeno of Germany. “It kept coming and going on whether or not it was the right decision.”
Like any athlete, Snowsill wanted the ‘perfect’ storybook ending. She wanted to finish on a high, on her own terms, but she realised that was not going to be the case and had to accept the inevitable.
“Retirement was like a race, I was planning when, where and how, and for some reason I stepped away from ‘my perfect’ and just said ‘no, just get over it and get it out’.
“I didn’t want to be trapped by my decision and just needed to voice it.”
Ironically, with all the accolades and a palmarès that rivals any professional triathlete in sport, Snowsill’s career almost ended six years ago, less than a month before becoming just the third woman in the world to win an Olympic gold medal in triathlon when she did so in Beijing in 2008.
“I was overtrained,” said Snowsill. “Three weeks out from the Olympics I had everything so planned out. Every session, every calorie, every breath was accounted for and calculated to help me reach my goals in Beijing.
“Denis Cotterell, my swim coach, never tells me to get out of the water or told me to take a rest, and even he said I needed two days off. I was like ‘no I can’t as I know what I need to do and it’s all going to fall apart if I don’t stick to the plan’ and that’s when he said that if I didn’t take some time off that I could forget about winning an Olympic medal as I wasn’t even going to make the start line. This was a big lesson for me.”
So against her own wishes, she heeded Cotterell’s advice and took some time off – sort of.
“This guy had coached some of our greatest long distance swimmers in the world and he knows what he is talking about,” said the Gold Coast native. “He had no other agenda than to see me perform well in the biggest event of my career, so I listened to him.
“But I still went for a light jog.”
It was in that small act of defiance, that Snowsill took stock of what was really important to her and what she needed to do in order to face the monumental challenge of competing on the world’s biggest stage athletically.
Snowsill told Sportette “I had this moment when I was running and I looked at the ocean with the sun shining over the water and said to myself, ‘whether I come back home with a gold medal in my hand – or any medal in my hand – I’m still gonna be here, still have a roof over my head, still afford to feed myself, still have family and friends who love me’.
“It’s times like that in your life, especially in sport with injuries or illness when things aren’t going right, when it’s really important to remind yourself it’s just a sport.”
It was a defining moment of clarity for Snowsill, who claims everything just seemed to fall into place from there.
“It was my saving grace,” she said. “I was rested and tapered for that race like I had never been before and I got the result I dreamed of.”
Snowsill had never set out to be a professional triathlete, but winning a gold medal was something she had always envisaged. She can vividly recall sitting on the floor glued to the television 10 years earlier at age 7 watching the 1988 Seoul Olympics with hopes of one day standing on top of the podium pledging allegiance to the flag with Advance Australia Fair echoing throughout the grandstand.
“I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer,” she said. “I’m not sure I would have received the same results I did in triathlon, but swimming was my passion and I loved it growing up.
“I remember watching Hayley Lewis and Susan O’Neill, just thinking one day I wanted to be like them and swim and do sport for my country,” continued Snowsill, who jokingly claims while growing up in Queensland that school was just in the way of her participating in sport. “It was a very strong memory for me. I loved every minute of competing and still do, but now I have to focus that energy on other things in my life.”
For the past 15 years, Snowsill has been obsessed with swimming, biking and running, and while she no longer has aspirations of competing for ITU World Championships or Olympic medals, she is not ruling out a return to triathlon.
“I honestly always wanted to go to Ironman and race longer distances,” said Snowsill, who’s husband has already successfully made the transition from Olympic gold medallist to non-drafting triathlete winning the 2014 Ironman 70.3 Asia-Pacific Championships in Auckland this year.
“I think if the [ITU World Triathlon Series] hadn’t started in 2009 and me wanting to continue being a part of that, I would have definitely made the switch to non-drafting long course after Beijing.
“I always say at some point I’m going to do it, but whether or not I compete as an elite or as an age-grouper is something that I haven’t thought about. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.
“At this point in time, my body needs to take a big step back and recuperate, but I am pretty sure I’ll give it a crack.”
So what’s next for Snowsill? What does a “retired” athlete do when it’s time to start anew? One thing is for certain, she is not about to let a lifetime of competitive sport go to waste. As a huge proponent of health and fitness, Snowsill is studying nutrition and wants to encourage people to live a healthy and active lifestyle.
“I am very passionate and interested in nutrition and living a balanced life,” she said. “Diet is a bit of a misconception in our society, I am not a fan of the word so to speak in terms of how we use it.
“I want to pull from my own experiences to help others, because life is difficult enough when you’re healthy, but can become extremely so when you’re not, I should know.”
Snowsill has spent the past few years battling her own heath issues after the virus Human Cytomegalovirus plagued her immune system continually since 2009 after a holiday in Bali. Since then, Snowsill struggled to stay healthy and find the form she displayed in Beijing and found herself on the outside looking in during the London Olympics in 2012.
After having missed out on selection, Snowsill appealed her omission but was turned down by the Tribunal, and made the decision to forego taking her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and instead outwardly supported the three women selected, including Emma Jackson, Beijing bronze medallist Emma Moffatt and eventual London bronze medallist Erin Densham.
“I have not had it easy, but that is what makes life so interesting and worth living. I believe performance breeds performance and that’s in everyday life as much as it is in sport,” said Snowsill.
“Going for a walk for me at one point was a mission, so if I can help others realise more for themselves then that justifies all the hard work and hardships.
“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% is what you do with that.
“Plus, now that I’m retired I have more brain energy than I’ve had in the past 10 years so I’ll be able to both learn and share a lot more,” said Snowsill laughingly.
Sharing her knowledge of health and fitness is not the only thing that interests Snowsill, who recently served as a colour commentator lending her expertise and keen insights into triathlon during the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Snowsill said she has been bitten by the media bug and looks forward to more opportunities promoting the sport.
“I’ve done post race commentating before, but never for live TV,” she said. “But I absolutely loved it.
“Calling the action can be bittersweet at times, as I am still a competitor at heart and that will never die, especially when you look across the field at athletes you have raced against personally.
“Once the gun goes off, I’m still nervous,” Snowsill concluded. “When I was racing all that disappeared and it was game on. Now, it’s different.
“I can’t say that I wish to still be out there competing as I have clearly made my decision on where I need to be at this point in my life, and to be honest I am really happy with that.
“Retirement is totally associated with the end of your career, when you are older and when you have lived your life. We should really come up with another word because for me it’s not really retirement but rather Emma Snowsill 2.0.”
Sportette guest contributor Aaron S. Lee is Sydney-based American sports journalist and a columnist for Eurosport, and can be followed on Twitter @aaronshanelee