Annika Sorenstam 3Athletes experience two deaths: Long before they confront their biological demise, they face an only slightly less traumatic end called retirement. Once brilliant performers, they are forced to surrender their careers at a stage in life when most professionals are just reaching their peak. The subject of retirement is an especially timely one on the LPGA Tour at the moment, with Annika Sorenstam and Nancy Lopez facing the subject from opposite ends of the age spectrum.

Nancy Lopez 3

On the one hand, there is Sorenstam, who has been temporarily sidelined with a neck injury. Only a year ago, Sorenstam won her third U.S. Women’s Open title and seemed prepared to add limitlessly to her 10 major championships. Now she’s trying to recuperate from ruptured and bulging disks, the type of ailments that could mean playing in pain, and which prompted Andre Agassi to end his tennis career last summer. Rehabilitation and motivation may be especially problematic for a 36-year-old who has accomplished nearly everything she set out to do in the games, and whose intense drive may be lessening as she explores fresh interests, such as her new golf academy.

Annika Sorenstam 1

Whatever Sorenstam‘s thoughts on retirement are, she should care­fully study the experience of Lopez, who is still strug­gling with the idea at age 50, and who offers cautionary lessons about comebacks. Even after Lopez announced that the 2002 season would be her last, she was never reconciled to quitting the game she loves and has played in 25 events since then. She recently dropped more than 30 pounds and declared last March that she still feels capable of competing against young studs like Paula Creamer. “I know I have to get in real good shape to try to compete with the young girls,” Lopez said. “But I think I still have the mental capac­ity to go out there and play good golf.” It’s a noble sentiment, but the problem is that Lopez hasn’t finished in the top 10 since 1998. In April she entered the Ginn Open and finished dead last in the field with rounds of 83 and 80.Nancy Lopez 2

Fans have a tendency to want their beloved stars to go out on top, becomingly, so that we can preserve our visions of them of them in their prime. We don’t want to see them battle with  physical decline. But that isn’t necessarily fair to them. Athletes are in the business of exhausting every last possibility in them, and it can’t be easy for them to reverse their competitive engines.

Annika Sorenstam 2Many champi­ons find that the effort to stave off the inevitable becomes a contest in itself. After retiring twice from the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan played two relatively ordinary final seasons with the Washington Wizards, which may have disappointed his fans, but which gratified him personally “An itch to scratch,” he called his desire to keep play­ing. Asked if the comeback would be a letdown if he failed to make the playoffs, he simply replied, “Nope.” Kareem Abdul­ Jabbar enjoyed his last two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, but once they were over he described retirement to me this way: “Your pride and vanity get in the ‘ray of dealing with it.”

Chris Evert was 34 and still a viable player when she decided to quit; she was tired of the Nancy Lopez 4pressure and wanted to start a family. Her retirement was relatively graceful, but even she found that life after competition felt aimless at first. “In the beginning, you want to be missed,” she told me. Once, when she was working as a broadcaster, she went out to hit tennis balls for pleasure and found herself on a court next to Steffi Graf, who was still at her peak. Evert changed courts, embar­rassed to be seen hitting less than well.Annika Sorenstam 4

She vacillated between emptiness and relief, uncertain how to feel. Then one day it struck her: “My God, I don’t have to win and I don’t have to lose today. That’s free­dom.” Gradually, Evert got used to a more ordinary routine. She spent time with her kids, cooked dinners and visited her sister. “It should be an adjustment, not a catas­trophe,” she observed.

But more often than not, retirement is not a neat, graceful completion. Rather, it’s messy, open-ended and occasionally unflattering. It’s a difficult move to slip seamlessly into ordinary life at the end of an extraordinary career.