Retiring from professional sport was a big shift – but Greg Rutherford is happy to have swapped pain for playtime. By Gabrielle Fagan.
For many world-class athletes, retiring from professional sport – and transitioning from intense training regimes and the rush of competing to ‘normal’ life – is a struggle.
Olympic long jumper Greg Rutherford proves an exception to the rule. He happily reveals just one small change alone made his retirement last September worthwhile.
“At times in the past, I was in so much pain from injuries and the wear and tear of competing in such a high-impact sport that I couldn’t even sit comfortably on the floor and play with my kids. That was hugely frustrating as well as upsetting,” says the devoted dad, 32, who has two sons – Milo, four, and Rex, two – with his fiancée, Susie Verrill.
“Fortunately, although my body’s still not amazing – I still suffer a lot of aches and pains – it’s finally slowly recovering. Every morning after getting up, it used to take half an hour just to get myself moving properly, but that’s getting better too,” he adds. “It’s brilliant to be able to fully enjoy being a dad.”
That’s just part of the price he paid to become one of Britain’s greatest field and track stars (Rutherford won gold at the 2012 Olympics and bronze at the 2016 Rio Games – and “every major title there is in the sport” in-between).
The enormous punishment to his body also resulted in an operation on his stomach, a string of hamstring problems, groin reconstruction, and four surgeries on his right ankle and one on his left, which has never fully recovered.
“The ankle and the pain from it was the final straw, which really made up my mind for me. I wanted to step away while people still considered me pretty good, rather than holding on too long and becoming a forgotten man of my sport,” he says, during a talk at his home near Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, the area where he grew up.
While he admits he’ll miss competing, he says that “at the moment, I don’t feel a need to go out there and be the very best in the world at something new. I’m just content with who I am.” Although, he reveals in the next breath that he’s already tentatively pursuing the potential of competing in track cycling.
“I did BMX as a kid, have been a mountain biker all my life, so track cycling kind of fits, but I’m just testing out my capabilities at the moment,” he says with a grin. It’s just one possible avenue, including TV sport commentating, he’s currently pursuing.
“I literally want to smell the coffee! I trained as a barista in 2012 and would love to open my own coffee shop,” he adds. “I lived such a regimented life for so long, that it’s wonderful to have freedom to sort of start afresh. I feel very settled and contented.”
Central to that contentment is his Susie, 30, a writer with a hugely successful parenting blog.
Rutherford calls her his “absolute rock” who’s supported him wholeheartedly throughout his career, and self-deprecatingly describes her as “the intelligent one” and himself as the former sportsman.
“She’s coped brilliantly with all the demands of my career – for instance in 2016, I was away for around six months of the year – and that’s tough to be single parenting for all that time,” he says lovingly.
“Susie never made me feel bad about my absence and coped brilliantly. Now it’s her turn to be able to go off and enjoy herself a bit more while I stay with the kids, something I totally enjoy anyway.”
Fatherhood, he says, is “more important than anything else I’ve ever done in my life and being able to be a proper dad at home is amazing. I try to be the strict ‘bad cop’ but often I just can’t help laughing at their antics, which spoils the effect, and Susie gets exasperated with me!
“There won’t be any pressure from me for them to pursue a sporting career,” he adds. “I just want them to be happy and enjoy sport, but I am determined that they do well at school. I just messed around at school and played the clown, which I now regret. I was lucky I was good at sport, but I want them to have more choices.”
If those glittering sporting accolades had gone to his head – Rutherford is refreshingly modest and down-to-earth – his young son, Milo, recently grounded him – by telling him he believed his dad was a professional footballer.
“I had to get my Olympic medals out of the drawer to explain and show him what I did,” Rutherford shares, smiling.
He also reflects that he gets questioned far more about competing on Strictly Come Dancing in 2016 than his 12-year sporting career. “Sport comes into focus for the Olympics, and that’s just the way it is” he says philosophically.
While his medals aren’t on display at home – “the wonderful memories I have my head are irreplaceable, so I don’t need to see the medals every day” – Lego is strewn across the living room floor.
And that’s not just because Rutherford is currently promoting the LEGO City Hero Academy campaign, to encourage children to develop skills such as creativity, problem-solving and teamwork through creative-play – but because he wants his children to share his childhood love of the toy.
“The first thing I did when Susie got pregnant the first time was go on eBay and buy the Lego I had as a child, so I’d have it ready for him,” says Rutherford. “It helped stimulate my imagination, and later in life that led to the ability to visualise, which is key in sport.
“The year before I won gold in 2012, I repeatedly rehearsed in my head a scenario where I stood on the podium and was given the medal. It all helps boost your self-belief.”
Although no date’s been set for the wedding yet – Rutherford romantically presented Susie with a ring in May, while they were on holiday in Arizona – he says they would like more children.
“We’re definitely thinking about more. Sadly, Susie suffers from hyperemesis gravidarum (a complication of pregnancy characterised by severe nausea and vomiting) and she was in and out of hospital when pregnant with Rex. It’s likely she’d go through that again, so she’d have to mentally prepare herself to face it.”
Apart from staying active running after his sons, Rutherford also works out regularly – which he says is one element of his strategy to look after his wellbeing and ensure he stays balanced and positive following the major life change of retirement.
“I’m much more mellow and relaxed these days. In a good way, I’d say, I’ve always been a bit blasé about things and taken them in my stride. After a change in life, there can be a pressure to succeed again quickly, but I’m trying to pace myself and enjoy the moment,” says Rutherford.
“When I was competing, I thrived on high-pressure moments, huge arenas and big crowds. But now I’m adapting to a new rhythm to my life, and so far I’m loving every minute of it.”
LEGO City is working with Greg Rutherford on the LEGO City Hero Academy campaign to encourage children to develop skills such as creativity, problem-solving and teamwork through creative-play.