Letting go is usually the hardest thing an athlete ever has to endure. Hanging up the skates, storing away the shoulder pads, or folding a beaten-up jersey can be one of the hardest goodbyes.
In fact, some athletes never say goodbye. Maybe they retire from competitive or professional play, but love and support for their niche talent does not drift just because scores are no longer medal-winning or trophy worthy.
When it comes to Olympians, these athletes spend years, even decades, physically and mentally preparing themselves for the adversity of such high caliber competition. And that doesn’t just go away once you deem retirement.
Many Olympians have gone on to promote their sport through teaching, through fundraising, through supporting their fellow athletes who still delve in the sport, as well as revisiting the trajectory of their careers through memoir writing or even documentary filmmaking.
Check out these decorated Olympians — what they accomplished during their careers and how they evolved since. Many of the following haven’t forgotten where their story started, and better yet, have turned their lofty athletic experiences into foundations for good character.
Michelle Kwan – Figure Skating
The USA’s most decorated figure skater, Michelle Kwan is a former Olympian and a two-time Olympic medalist. She earned a silver medal at the 1998 Nagano Games and a bronze at the 2002 Salt Lake Games. She is a five-time World champion and a nine-time U.S. champion.
The now 41-year-old Kwan competed at the senior level for over a decade, during which she debuted a change of edge spiral, which became her signature move. She retired from the sport in 2006.
Kwan currently serves as President Biden’s U.S. ambassador to Belize. She is also a treasurer and a board member of Special Olympics International. Kwan became the first Public Diplomacy Envoy in 2006 and spent large amounts of time with youth outreach programs to educate young people on distinctive societal issues. She has served as an Advisor to the Office of Global Women’s Issues for the U.S. State Department, a member of former President Obama’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, as well as a campaign surrogate for both Hillary Clinton and President Biden’s campaigns.
Lindsey Vonn – Alpine Skiing
Four-time World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn competed in four Olympic Games throughout her career as an alpine skier, including the 2002 Salt Lake Games, the 2006 Turin Games, the 2010 Vancouver Games and the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. She earned three Olympic medals throughout her quadruple appearances at the Games. She was the first American woman to win the gold medal in downhill at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
With eight World Cups, five super-G and three combined titles under her belt, Vonn has the second highest super ranking of all skiers, both men and women. The ski star is one of only six women to have won World Cup races in all five disciplines of alpine skiing.
Vonn retired from the professional side of the sport in 2019 after a number of injuries, making the Pyeongchang Games her last. She did not compete in the 2022 Beijing Games, but she still tears up the slopes in her free time.
Since retiring, the now 37-year-old former Olympian has filled her life with other joys. A TV documentary called Lindsey Vonn: The Final Season was released shortly after her last Olympic Games. Vonn hosted the reality show The Pack in 2020 and wrote a memoir, “Rise,” which was released in January of 2022.
Scott Hamilton – Figure Skating
Four-time U.S. and World champion Scott Hamilton was best known for his figure skating backflips and footwork. He competed at the 1980 Olympics where he was the flag bearer and placed fifth. Hamilton ended a 24-year drought for men’s Olympic figure skating after clinching the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. Hamilton was inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990.
He performed in the Ice Capades for two years and then set out on his own tour for 15 years, called, “Scott Hamilton’s American Tour,” before retiring in 2001.
To his dismay, Hamilton was diagnosed with testicular cancer and three brain tumors all over the span of 20 years, starting in 1997 with his cancer diagnosis and ending in 2017 with the shrinking of his brain tumor without chemo.
Hamilton turned his successful yet challenging life into something beautiful — the written word. He is now a well-proclaimed author, having written three publications: Landing It (1999), The Great Eight (2009) and Finish First: Winning Changes Everything (2018).
Now at 63, Scott’s aim has shifted from winning gold medals to paying it forward. The Olympic Hall of Famer has gone on to do extensive charity work after having been through such melancholic times with his illnesses. He is the founder of the Scott Hamilton Cares Foundation, a foundation that assists with cancer patient support.
Dorothy Hamill – Figure Skating
Figure skater Dorothy Hamill, otherwise known as “America’s sweetheart,” rocked a bobbed hairstyle and started the “short and sassy” fad in the 1970s while she was dominating the ice. She is best known for her creation of the “Hamill camel,” a skating move that combines a camel and sit spin.
Hamill was the 1976 Olympic champion during the Innsbruck Games, the 1976 World champion and the U.S. champion from 1974-76. After her Olympics debut, Hamill became a headliner for the Ice Capades in 1977 and continued on for seven more years.
At age 40, Hamill was diagnosed with osteoarthritis and despite responding well to medication at first, eventually the former Olympian had no choice but to hang up her skates. She continued to skate in shows, but more leisurely, and even competed in the sixteenth season of Dancing with the Stars and Food Network’s Chopped. Hamill is currently 65, living in Vail, Colo. and has been published twice with two autobiographies — On and Off the Ice (1983) and A Skating Life: My Story (2017).
Samuel Bode Miller – Alpine Skiing
This former World Cup alpine ski racer is an Olympic and World Championship gold medalist. He is a two-time overall World Cup champion, after winning in both 2005 and 2008, and he is considered the most successful male alpine skier of all time. He is one of only five men to have won a World Cup event in all five alpine ski disciplines.
During his Olympics trajectory, Miller clinched six medals, which happens to be the highest number for any U.S. skier. In the 2002 Salt Lake Games, Miller won two silvers, one in giant slalom and one in combined. During the 2010 Vancouver Games, he won a gold in super combined, a silver in super-G and a bronze in downhill. He also clinched the bronze in super-G during the 2014 Sochi Games.
While attempting a comeback for the 2015 World Championships, Miller crashed into a gate during a super-G race, resulting in a torn hamstring tendon. He withdrew from competition.
After having six World Cup titles and four World Championship titles under his belt, along with his six Olympic medals, Miller retired from the sport in 2017.
Now at 44, Miller is focused on being a husband and a father. And despite retiring from skiing, he still delves in the sport, currently acting as an ambassador for Big Sky Resort in Montana.
Debi Thomas – Figure Skating
This former figure skater was a 1986 World champion, a 1988 Olympic bronze medalist and a two-time U.S. national champion. Thomas was the first Black athlete to win a medal at the Winter Olympics after coming in third in ladies’ singles during the Calgary Games.
Fun fact — Thomas had a rival during the 1988 Games. Her contention against East Germany’s Katarina Witt was infamously known as the Battle of the Carmens. The name came from the idea that both women were supposed to skate to the music of Bizet’s opera Carmen in the long program event.
The Poughkeepsie native was not just a decorated figure skater, but also an intellectual who had dreams of becoming a doctor. Thomas studied at Stanford University and graduated in 1991 with a degree in engineering, and then went on to study at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in 1997, where she earned her medical degree. She went on to practice surgery as an orthopedic specialist.
Unfortunately, the skater went through a mental illness, two divorces and a failed medical practice, which threw her life for quite a bit of a loop. But the adversity was no match for Thomas who, now at 54 years old, lives happily with her fiancé and two sons in southwest Virginia.
Eric Heiden – Speed Skating
Eric Heiden was the first skater to win gold medals in all speed-skating events, and he did so during the 1980 Lake Placid Games.
The Wisconsin native also set four Olympic records and one world record during the Lake Placid Games in 1980. He holds iconic status in the speed skating community for all of his accomplishments, but also for his lineage.
Heiden has family competing in the 2022 Beijing Games, including his niece, two-time Olympian Joanne Reed. Joanne is the daughter of Heiden’s sister Beth Heiden Reed, who is also a former Olympic skater and 1980 bronze medalist.
Heiden was more than just a five-time Olympic gold medalist. He was also an extremely well-decorated cycler. In fact, Heiden was inducted into the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame in 1991.
The former Olympian also completed his medical degree in 1991 and acted as the team physician for the U.S. Olympic speed skating team in 2002, 2004, 2010 and 2014.
Now at 63, Hieden and his wife Karen run their own medical practice, Heiden Orthopedics, and reside in the Beehive State, Utah.