Athletes can train for years to get to the Olympic Games.
They give it their all, bleeding and sweating for their sport in hopes of one glorious moment where they might stand on a podium at the most prestigious international athletic event in the world.
But what do they do when the competition is over?
For some of Canada’s most well-known Olympians, London 2012 marked the end of their athletic careers, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be letting go of their sports.
Canadian cyclist and speed skater Clara Hughes, for one, isn’t about to let her retirement get in the way of her physically active lifestyle.
“I’m no longer an Olympic athlete but I’ll be an athlete all my life,” Hughes said on Friday, over the roar of the thick crowd gathered at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Square, the last stop on the Olympic Heroes Parade route.
“Movement is the key to keeping my head, my heart, [and] my body strong. I love running, that’s the easiest thing to do … and it’ll always be incorporated into my life.”
Coming off of her bronze medal victory in the 5,000-metre speed skating event at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games, Hughes failed to make the podium in London, finishing 32nd in the road race and fifth in the individual time trial.
Though the 39-year-old is retiring without a fresh medal around her neck, she believes that her experiences leading up to the Olympic Games have been priceless.
“If you give your heart to what you do and if you allow yourself to be engaged in the process and really live each moment of the way, the end result really doesn’t matter,” the Winnipeg native said. “You have the whole experience of having lived the pursuit of it and I think that for me, that’s been the most valuable.
“I think when you’re engaged in every moment of the way, what’s at the end is rich no matter what and that’s been my experience, including in London.”
Whereas Hughes ends her athletic career with six Olympic medals in her possession, Brent Hayden ends his with one.
But according to the 28-year-old, that’s all he needed.
Having won bronze in the 100-metre freestyle at the London Games, Hayden can triumphantly hang up his swimming trunks knowing that he finally accomplished what he had longed to do years earlier.
“I had already gone through two failed Olympics,” the Mission, B.C. native said after signing autographs for fans at the end of the parade route. “Being the old guy in the 100m freestyle, looking in the program and seeing that everyone is five years younger than you, you start to see that your chance of getting a medal is fading a little bit.
“Being able to [win bronze] was just kind of, I don’t know, I can’t really find a word to describe it.”
Tired from a five-hour long red-eye flight from B.C. to Toronto the previous night, Hayden perked up when speaking of his first (and last) piece of Olympic hardware.
“This is exactly what I dreamed about as a kid,” he said with a smile. “It really is a realization of that childhood dream.”
With nothing but time on his hands now, Hayden has a few new aspirations for the next chapter of his life.
“I want to get my photography going a bit more,” he said of his retirement plans. “Also, my wife has an album coming out in a couple of months. She has been a huge supporter of me with my swimming career so now I’m going to be supporting her.”
Despite wanting to delve into a more artistic lifestyle, the pool isn’t far from Hayden’s mind.
“My wife and I are hoping that somewhere down the road, we’ll be able to open up our own swimming school together,” he said.
Though thoughts of what’s next fill the minds of these two retiring athletes, both took a moment to mention the enthusiastic crowd surrounding them at the Olympic Heroes Parade.
“I really had no idea how many people we were going to be seeing out here,” said Hayden as he overlooked the crowded streets in front of the Air Canada Centre. “We all worked so hard at the Olympics so for everyone to come out and support us has been phenomenal.”
Hughes reiterated the words of her fellow Olympian.
“To see everybody come out to celebrate the Olympic movement and support the athletes today was so special,” she said.
“I’ll never forget every little flag, every face, every smile, and every thank you that I received today. I’m just really proud to be Canadian more than anything.”