About retirement, goals and happiness Just imagine if you were given the opportunity to retire by the age of 21. Most people would think you were crazy if you didn’t go for it. It’s like the American dream in warp drive. In the case of sport figures, though, things are different. Last month when Damon Bradshaw announced his retirement from motocross, the entire industry was buzzing with controversy. Some said he was a quitter. Some said he displayed an amazing degree of personal integrity by walking away from so much money. Some even hint that it’s not real, that he just plans on hunting for a new company to ride for. Whatever. I suspect that even Damon isn’t 100 percent sure whether he made the right decision or not. Knowing when it’s the right time to retire is one of the toughest parts of being a professional athlete. Back in the late ’70s, I was faced with the retirement decision. Two of my closest friends were at the same point in their lives: Eddy Merckx was reaching the end of a bicycle racing legacy that still hasn’t been matched, and Paul Van Himst was closing a career as the most famous soccer player in Belgium. I saw what they were going through in their last active years, and I don’t think either of them was very happy. Eddy, in particular, seemed down on himself. Despite the fact that no one had matched his accomplishments, he would constantly criticize himself as his victories became fewer and more widely spaced. If you heard him talk and didn’t know who he was, you would assume that he was some bum who had never done anything worthwhile. In the case of Paul, it wasn’t as bad, but he still wasn’t satisfied with himself in those years. It’s not so hard to understand. Anyone who reaches the top of his sport has to have unusual drive to succeed. So when the successes stop coming for whatever reason, be it age, injury or distraction, it’s easy to lose some self esteem. I had seen this happening to my friends and to other riders, and I didn’t want to fall into that trap. What helped was having a clear set of goals for myself after racing. In 1979 I was still winning GPs, but I wasn’t fooling myself. I was 35 years old and I knew that this wouldn’t last forever. I decided I wanted to make a transition into research and development. Suzuki, at the time, didn’t have much interest in using me in that way, which prompted the switch to Honda. In my first year there, I did a lot of R&D work while racing. That resulted in a lot of DNF’s, but still I considered the year a success, because my work on the bike helped Graham Noyce to win the championship. I decided to make the transition to full-time R&D, but I also won the last GP that year, which seemed like a good final note. I avoided the years of dissatisfaction because I was looking forward to my new career. The transition was still hard, because I was offered big start money (for the time) to continue racing. I had to look at the bigger picture. I was lucky. I can’t imagine an easier way to end my racing career. On the other hand, I certainly don’t think I was the only rider in history to be satisfied at the end of his career. There was Gorges Jobe, who won his first world title in 1980 and his last in 1992. Brad Lackey finally won the 500 World Championship after trying for 10 years. He would have continued to race if the money was there, but he achieved his life goal, so his retirement probably was easier to take. Danny LaPorte keeps setting new goals, achieving them, and then moving on. He won his U.S. title, he was on a winning motocross des Nations team, he won his world title and to this day, he’s still racing and winning rallies. Rick Johnson struggled to comeback after his wrist injury, and wasn’t happy in that period. He readjusted his goals, and now he has moved on to a new career. He’s near the top of the Mickey Thompson Truck racing game. Then there’s Jean Michel Bayle, who sets a goal, achieves it with remarkable swiftness, then sets a different goal. This was the reason he came to America–he had conquered Europe. Once he won everything he could win here, he moved on to road racing. Even though the fans didn’t like that, you have to respect the clarity of his vision. Over the years, now, I’ve seen a lot of other riders retire, and in most cases, I have understood their reasons. They might have disappointed their fans, but there are factors the crowd doesn’t see. For example, a racer has to ask himself if he enjoys it. Making a living from racing is like getting paid to do your favorite thing. It’s great. But when your salary goes up, so do expectations and responsibilities. That kind of pressure can take the fun out of anything. Injuries can bring things to a screeching halt, too. While I do believe that a rider who is determined to heal quickly, in most cases [will] heal quickly, there comes a point where it’s just not possible or practical. Then there’s fear. Even champions scare themselves sometimes. In fact, I think it’s healthy for a racer to respect danger, but if this becomes a major concern and if a rider is constantly worrying about getting hurt, he almost certainly will get hurt. He had better take up golf before it’s too late. The worst reason to continue racing is for the money. Even though we always hear about the million-dollar deals, very few riders are set for life when they retire from racing. The money usually disappears quickly to tax, silly play-things and bad investments. Some riders invested their earnings well and continued to live off the investments, but the money from racing itself would have been gone in a few years. I don’t know the financial status of all the riders from my era, but I believe they all had to find other jobs eventually. Speaking for myself, I know that I could not have kept up with the bills if I had stopped working after my racing retirement. So what about Bradshaw? Did he retire at the right time? The truth is that everyone is different. There are riders who will never stop racing–guys like Gary Jones and Dick Mann. That’s just the way they are. There are others who get everything they want from the sport early and then move on. It’s almost impossible to make the wrong decision here. If a rider starts thinking about retirement, then he probably should. If another rider wants to ride forever, then more power to him.
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