PORTLAND -- We've watched them night after night, focused, determined athletes competing against the best in the world. It’s the highest many of them will ever climb in their athletic careers, something they've trained for all their lives. And then it’s over.
“After your event there's such a huge let down, a huge emotional and physical let down," says former Olympian Mac Wilkins.
At 61 years old, Wilkins has had a lot of time to look back on his own experiences in the Olympics. His athletic career spanned 23 years, four Olympics, four world records in the discus throw and a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics.
“There's no way to fight it," he says. "You have a huge peak, you're going to have to have a huge valley after that physically and emotionally."
Now a coach at Concordia University in Northeast Portland, he understands how hard it is on the athletes when the Olympics come to an end.
“They're gonna have a tough summer. It'll be real difficult," Wilkins says. "What you've been focused on for at least the last nine or 10 months, if not the last two or three years, is building toward this one day. And now it’s gone. What do I do now? I don’t have a goal."
In London, thousands of Olympians and fans jammed Heathrow Airport on their way home. A lobby decorated with a special Olympics theme gave one more reminder it’s really over.
“It’s a loss,” says sports psychologist Brian Baxter. “The more you focus on something and become attached to it--and it becomes who you are--the harder that is to let go of."
Baxter believes many Olympians suffer real grief when the games are over.
“I think these athletes may be going through the five stages of grief. So anytime there's a loss, there's a psychological principal of the five stages of grief,” he says.
The last stage is acceptance. But it can take a while to get there. In the meantime, Baxter says, the feelings are normal.
“Athletes should know it’s okay to be sad and depressed for a couple days, and to kind of go through it," he says. "Talk with people, get it out, write about it. And really, just accept that the end is part of the process, and the transition back into daily life."