From low wages and body issues to family difficulties and relentless pressure, London 2012 long jump champion Greg Rutherford talks to Telegraph Men about the unexpected challenges faced by professional athletes
1. Sport isn’t all about glamour and riches
“Most professional athletes never lead a lifestyle that is luxurious. A stat came out that the average (US track and field) athlete earns less than $15,000 per year so many athletes get very, very small amounts of money.
"Some people might compete for their country for 10-15 years and train hard but never have that lucky break so when they retire they will have to start another job and find a new career for themselves.
"It doesn’t set you up for life unless you really do win multiple things.”
2. Don’t assume athletes are body confident
“Earlier on in my career I didn’t always live a lifestyle that was conducive to professional sport and when I compared my body to those of other athletes I felt bad about it. I hated the fact I couldn’t get the body I wanted.
"Even today my other half Susie probably agrees that as soon as I put weight back on, I don’t become obsessed with it, but I do think: I am looking a bit fat right now. It’s just a weird thing I have because for so many years I was so conscious of it. I love being in shape but it is very difficult to maintain that shape.”
3. Your education is as important as your genes
“A huge turning point for me was working with (American coach) Dan Pfaff. He helped me to develop the skills and understanding I have now. I have also worked with (nutritionist) Glenn Kearney. When I figured out what food works for my body it was so much easier to maintain my physique. Only when you get a proper education does the whole thing click and the penny drops.”
4. We’re not good at everything we do
“I had a football trial (at Aston Villa) when I was a kid but it didn’t work out. Football wasn’t the sport for me. We’d travel up on the train and then go home. I didn’t enjoy it and I never had the impetus to train.
"Looking back as an adult, I know it would be great to be a professional footballer but I never would have enjoyed it in the way I love track and field. The thing people need to remember is that there has to be a huge enjoyment factor in what we do or you will never get the best out of yourself.”
5. Successful athletes don’t all have pushy parents
“Growing up as a sporty kid, the amount of other kids I saw whose parents pushed them to become a footballer, purely because they saw the financial benefits, was terrible. But my parents were amazing. They just saw the joy I got from track and field and were always willing to help me.
"When I went for the football trial we saw it was very cliquey. If a dad was friends with the manager, you’d get more of a look in. We were never like that.”
6. Family still comes first
“I have moved a lot of my training workouts to my home so I can spend more time with my son Milo. He is the most important thing in my life and I can’t be around him as much as I want due to competitions and commitments.
"At home I have got an annex in my back garden and I have turned it into my gym. I have a proper lifting platform in there and also a second platform which has a rack on it. It’s nice to combine home life and training.
"I love being a hands-on dad and I appreciate it when I’m around Milo and Susie. But after a few weeks of my training at home I imagine they are probably thinking: why doesn’t he go off and do something?”
7. I spend more time in the gym than on the long jump runway
“When I came out of doing Strictly people kept saying: are you going back to the jumping now? I was going back to training, yes. But it takes a long time before I’d be jumping again because I have to get my body ready. I have to do a lot of training before my take off leg is ready to handle having that kind of load through it. It sounds bizarre, I know. But there is a process of building my body up and I need to do a lot of work in the gym first.”
8. Depression in sport is not uncommon
“You have dark times and you can understand why, across all professional sports, things like depression can come in. I’ve been very fortunate that I have never been down that route but I feel so much for those people who dedicate themselves to a sport from a young age and never succeed, perhaps because of injury. It must be the most horrible and gut-wrenching thing to retire from sport and know you were never able to give your best.”
9. The only person who really thinks you can win is you
“I think for the first 6-7 years of my professional career, nobody would have touted me to become an Olympic champion. Just me. And I have manged to maintain that belief, even when things went wrong or I got hurt.
"Since childhood I maintained the belief that I could become the best and nobody could tell me otherwise. I worked hard and trained hard and I just always believed it. I hate it to sound so clichéd as obviously you need a level of ability to succeed but I have met people more talented than I am who didn’t have the desire or belief that they could win. I was very lucky to have the ability to tell myself that one day I would.”
10. The Olympics is all people remember you for
“To win an Olympic gold medal you have to be the best in the world but you also have to be the best in the world on that day. You can be the best going into the Olympics, and still not win. We are all remembered by how well we do at an Olympics. I am so, so fortunate to have won all the medals I have but really the Olympics are all that people truly remember.
"Athletes do have a fantastic lifestyle. You work hard and travel a lot and do things that people would borderline kill to do and you appreciate what you are doing is great. And in those moments when you stand on the podium and the national anthem is playing and all that hard work has paid off… it is the greatest feeling ever.”
Unexpected by Greg Rutherford (Simon & Schuster) is out now, priced £20