Mike Rowbottom

"You wouldn’t turn up to an Olympic final without training. So why would it be different for what you do after?"

It’s a very good question. Particularly when it is posed by someone who has personally turned up to two Olympic finals, finishing them with a gold and a silver medal - British rower Mark Hunter, who is now spending his time trying to help elite athletes prepare themselves for that often devastating moment when they become ex-elite athletes.

There a bit in the Superman II film that resonates with Hunter - the bit where Superman decides it’s time to get rid of his superpowers. "After about 20 minutes he wants them back again," Hunter observes with a chuckle.

"Many elite sportsmen and women lead a kind of Superman life, where they are funded, and have a clear sense of what they are working towards.

"At some point the curtain comes down, the lights go out and your sport moves onto the next person.

"It doesn’t matter what success you have, what Olympic or world medals you have, or even what money you have earned. You have dedicated yourself to follow a dream, and now it has come to an end.

"We call this ‘cliff edge trauma'. And it’s a very real thing"

Hunter knows whereof he speaks.

At Athens 2004, while Matt Pinsent, James Cracknell, Ed Coode and Steve Williams were maintaining the British men’s gold standard in the coxless four, a 26-year-old Hunter was in the lightweight four that finished 13th and last in its competition.

Mark Hunter, left, with Zac Purchase after winning gold in the lightweight double scull at the Beijing 2008 Games ©Getty Images
Mark Hunter, left, with Zac Purchase after winning gold in the lightweight double scull at the Beijing 2008 Games ©Getty Images

As part of his work he recently attended a mental health first aid course. It was illuminating - and a touch chilling.

"It took me a couple of days to come to terms with, to be honest.  It made me realise that I had been at quite a dangerous point myself back then," he said.

"Finishing last wasn’t good enough. But in retrospect some of our preparation wasn’t right. There was no sense of anyone saying to us - ‘you have been let down.’  You were just out. Your funding was cut, and it was a case of, 'Sort yourselves out'.

"For a while I was in a really dark place. It was my worst experience as an athlete. Competing at the Olympics had been my dream, but it had gone wrong."

As far as Hunter was concerned, he had the talent, perseverance and, eventually support required to return to the Olympic arena, winning lightweight double sculls gold with Zac Purchase at Beijing 2008 and silver at the London 2012. The latter race left Hunter virtually comatose in a boat from which he was tenderly lifted by Britain’s five-times Olympic champion Steve Redgrave, who had swiftly quit his BBC commentary position.

But when the curtain came down on his own career, Hunter also faced times of uncertainty as he sought to find a new way to access the drive he had previously devoted to sporting goals.

Six years on, he is working for Ernst & Young, the global tax, transaction and advisory business, on the EY Personal Performance Programme - centred on athlete care and development. The Programme is  headed by former Luton Town goalkeeper Scott Ward, who had to retire due to injury and has since required numerous operations including spinal implants, hip surgery and more recently cardiac surgery.

Their introductory leaflet offers a graphic picture of the challenges retiring athletes can face. According to their data, "40 per cent of athletes divorce within five year of retirement, 95 per cent athletes surveyed want a development programme, and 40 per cent of athletes are bankrupt within five years of retirement.

"A total of 80 per cent athletes surveyed do not understand translation of skills to other areas - and two out of three athletes can suffer from mental health challenges."

It’s a scenario that has been increasingly raised, often by retired athletes themselves. Dame Kelly Holmes, for example, found a way to utilise the drive and ability of former sportsmen and women in helping develop young people’s pathways through her Trust.

"Since launching in 2008, we’ve reached over 300,000 young people (aged 14-25) from diverse backgrounds and supported over 400 athletes," the Trust introduction announces.

The Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, set up in 2008 by Britain's double Olympic gold medallist, has sought to find ways of supporting retired elite athletes for over a decade ©Dame Kelly Holmes Trust
The Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, set up in 2008 by Britain's double Olympic gold medallist, has sought to find ways of supporting retired elite athletes for over a decade ©Dame Kelly Holmes Trust

Hunter and Ward are addressing the issue in a more technological fashion by preparing bespoke online, interactive programmes for a variety of different sports. Before that can happen, dialogue occurs with sports federations or agents who fund the initiative.

Retired athletes are a big part of the focus - but the key issue, Hunter insists, is to get athletes thinking and processing on future options before they leave the cocoon of the sporting life.

"We are trying to upskill people before this big change comes in their life," he says. "And we encourage them to look at different options of moving forward, rather than just hoping on sport 24/7.

"We tend not to work with one-off, face-to-face meetings. If you’ve been training, all you want to do is go back home and rest ahead of the following day’s session, because you know what’s coming. The last thing you want to do is to go into a room with a lot of others and listen to someone preach at you.

"What we are working on is a very flexible way of learning new things.

 "It’s more a case of drip feeding than a one-off hit."

Among their current clients is the West Indies women’s cricket team. Here the focus is on developing the athletes’ confidence and ability to communicate effectively - something that is seen as being good for them going forward, and a good way of selling a sport that, in that region, is coming under increasing pressure from other attractions such as basketball.

Hunter believes the direction is correct - although he doesn’t kid himself that everything is going to change overnight. Dark places are still being inhabited.

"Some sports are very good at painting a great picture, but when you look under the bonnet there’s no substance," he says.

"Very often, in terms of funding, we are giving support to the sportsman or woman, but not to the person."

Hunter likes to envisage a time when working on personal skills and development beyond sport is part of the package everyone signs up for when they become eligible for, say, National Lottery funding.

"That’s my dream," he says.