Cathy Ferguson and Athletic Identity: How to Transition from Life as a 100-Meter Backstroke Champion

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From Life Magazine, October 30, 1964

Watching the build up to the 100-meter backstroke finals at the 1964 Olympic Games must have been like being in a pressure cooker. In the first preliminary heat, American Ginny Duenkel set the world record. In the next heat, American Cathy Ferguson broke Duenkel’s record. And finally, in the third heat, French women, Kiki Caron, set the world record yet again.

On October 14, 1964, three women who set three world records the previous day, were about to face off. As Ferguson wrote in the book, “Tales of Gold“, each of us had set a new world record, but only a fraction of a second separated us. In the finals, that would make the difference between gold and bronze.”

And so, in the pressure cooker of the National Gymnasium, the three record holders held even at the 50-meter mark when Ferguson began to pull ever so slightly ahead. In the end, Ferguson won the race at 1 minute 7.7 seconds, setting yet again, a world record.

You can see her crying on the podium as she hears the national anthem play, not only happy to win, but relieved it was all over.

I quit competitive swimming right before the ’68 Games. People ask me why I didn’t go on. But I knew I couldn’t win anymore, and when you know you can’t win, you can’t go on. I was only 19, but I just couldn’t get up for the races.

Most people do not understand just how much training takes out of you. It’s lonely in the pool. Just think of the countless hours in the water when you scarcely talk to another human being. All you have is that black line. It becomes your best friend. How many people can take that for more than six or seven years? I can remember being so tired at the end of the day that there was no way I had any energy left over to talk to the other kids.

Ferguson understood that her training and eventual triumph was worth it as her competitions and achievements took her to amazing places to meet incredible people. But her life, the life of a high-performance athlete can take its toll. In fact, when she was interviewed in the mid-1980s for the book “Tales of Gold“, she commented that athletes also need a program to help them transition out of life as an athlete.

I feel very strongly that we need some kind of detraining program for our former athletes. The East Germans have a program that helps their athletes get ready to move back into a normal life. It was very hard for me to be totally in the world of swimming and then, all of a sudden, to be completely out of it, then try to put that piece back in, only to find it doesn’t fit.

I felt quite empty when I left swimming. The thing I substituted for that programmed life was my first marriage. I was 19, and my husband was 26. in some ways I was probably 26 as well, but I had missed many of the experiences of being a teenager. Traveling all over the world and meeting important people was a fantastic experience, but I also needed those experiences that help one grow emotionally. When I was swimming, I was pretty much in control, but when I stepped out of that warm, secure cocoon, I didn’t control everything in my environment. I couldn’t control my husband, and I couldn’t control what was happening to me. At the time, I loved him dearly, but there was a needed growth period. Unfortunately, we both used marriage as a kind of sublimation for something else. I didn’t quite understand it then, but all I really needed was just to become “normal” again.

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Cathy Ferguson (center); Art Rickerby/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Apparently, that is something psychologists and the International Olympic Committee are coming to grips with. That the more you commit to the goal of achieving at the highest levels, the more people surrender their own personal identity to what is now being called the “Athletic Identity”. Psychologist, Chris Shambrook, explains this phenomenon in the book, The Secret Olympian.

There is a whole area of research around a concept called Athletic Identity. Athletic Identity is all about how closely my identity is allied to my performances as an athlete. If I am my results. If I am my performance. If I’ve handed ‘me’ over to that – that puts me in a very, very challenging place when the results and the performances aren’t there anymore. And it’s doubly challenging because you have to get pretty close to handling your personality over to that (mentality) in order to give yourself the best chance of winning. But it leaves you very vulnerable afterwards.

There is a fine line between the mental health practitioner’s perspective and an elite coach’s and athlete’s perspective, to be honest. As a psychologist in the world of elite sport, the mental health of people isn’t always the primary concern.

This is a hard topic to discuss with athletes while they are training as you can imagine. How can you talk about slowing down at the time they are supposed to be peaking. But the IOC has been encouraging athletes to think about this when they can. Here is a document that is part of the IOC Athlete Career Programme, “Athletic Identity and Sport Transition“.

Ferguson eventually did make that transition, becoming Dr Ferguson, working as a professor in educator administration and teacher preparation for over 20 years the College of Great Falls in Montana, and California State University, Long Beach. She also ran an NPO called Girls Incorporated of Delaware, and has played a role in a wide-variety of sports-related organizations.