Every elite athlete goes through it.
At some point, no matter what sport you play, there comes a time when your body or mind can no longer compete with the best of the best.
Father Time is the undisputed, undefeated champ.
For a Chilliwack native who not long ago was among the very best speed-skaters on the planet, that time has come. This is part two of a two-part story on how and why Alec Janssens decided to hang ‘em up.
Things came to a head for Alec during the 2016-17 season.
Fully healed, physically, after two concussions and a broken collarbone, the Chilliwack native was trying everything he could to regain his former status as one of the world’s top speed-skaters. The Sardis Fliers grad left no stone unturned, but the progression that always drove him onwards and upwards wasn’t there.
All he had was frustration and the growing realization that he was never going to make it all the way back.
“The thing I always enjoyed most about speed-skating was seeing the improvement in myself,” he said. “As soon as I stopped seeing that, it was quite hard.”
Alec was barreling headlong into a wall that wouldn’t yield and felt he had no more to give.
“I saw less and less of a chance to get back into the top 20 in the world, where I was once was, and surpassing that was less and less realistic,” he said. “I was trying so hard to achieve these results and it just wasn’t happening.”
Before any concussions or broken collarbones, a quiet inner battle bubbled underneath.
He sometimes wondered if he sacrificed too much to chase his speed-skating dream and were there other things he could have/should have been doing?
Alec was always able to push those doubts away when he was fully immersed and invested in speed-skating, but the moment his passion and drive ebbed just a bit, that little voice became much louder.
To Alec, it felt like loving someone who no longer loved him back.
The relationship felt one-sided.
It felt toxic.
But how could he give it up? How can you invest more than a decade of time and effort into something, come so close to the pinnacle and just walk away?
Alec took a lesson from his business classes at the University of Calgary.
As cold and calculated as it sounds, you can’t worry about sunken costs.
“When you sink millions and millions of dollars into a large operation and it’s still not working, don’t take that into consideration when you’re evaluating the future of it,” he explained. “All the years and hard work and dedication with speed-skating has a lot of emotion attached to it, but I can’t use that as a justification to keep going.
“You have to put that aside and base your decision on your core principles and where you are right now.”
He was talking to his girlfriend at the time just before the Canadian Championships, walking his mind through that process when the words came tumbling out of his mouth, ‘I think this will be my last race.’
“And when I first said it out loud, a ginormous weight came off my shoulders,” Alec said. “I knew it was the right decision.”
Alec skated through the 2016-17 season knowing it was his swan-song, and it went well.
With the pressure off he approached personal bests and with the 2018 Winter Olympics on the horizon you’d have thought he’d be tempted to reverse course and ‘unretire.’
“It’s an odd time to retire because most people do it after the Olympics,” he admitted. “But the Olympics were never the be-all-end-all for me. Qualifying for the Olympics or winning a medal was always going to be a by-product of my personal success and not the definition of it.
“I know a lot of athletes who were tremendously gifted but never made it. I know others who defined themselves by it and came back with huge post-Olympic blues. They built it up their entire life as this life-changing moment, and it wasn’t that.
“It sounds cheesy but for me it was all about the journey and not the destination.”
Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre is the most well-known athlete who thought he could let his sport go, until he couldn’t. There have been hundreds over the years who’ve said they were done, but left the window open a sliver, just in case.
What made Alec think he could call it a career and make it stick?
The first time he saw speed-skating on TV or talked to an old teammate or coach, what made him think he wouldn’t feel that pull?
“Honestly it’s a ticking clock, and every moment I’m not speed-skating is a moment that will take twice as long to get back if I ever wanted to get back into the swing of things,” he reasoned, sounding 99.9 per cent certain. “I’m in the honeymoon phase right now, but I think life after sport can and will be very exciting.”
So what will he miss?
“Feeling that effortless speed and that in-the-zone moment on the ice,” he said, with a wistful tinge to his voice. “Being immersed in that moment of perfect movement where everything is clicking, it’s just beautiful and I won’t ever feel that again.”
And what won’t he miss?
“Not a lot to be honest, because I feel very fortunate to have experienced something at such a level that not too many athletes get to experience,” he said. “I’m happy to have done it, and not too sad that it’s over.
“I wish all my teammates well and I won’t look back on it with any resentment or bitterness.