The four-time Paralympian enjoyed a decorated career that spanned 15 years. From becoming World Champion in 2017 to carrying that Australian flag at the 2022 Beijing Opening Ceremony, Gourley achieved a lot in his sporting career. But he admits that the athlete transition process hasn’t been easy.
“You can plan for retirement as much as possible, but it’s still a process that you have to let happen,” he continued, “I’m still in that process.”
When reflecting on his career Gourley says he will have to be content knowing that there are still some goals he has set for himself in his sport that he will never achieve. But will continue navigating the transition process and is excited for the chapter of his life.
“I have a lot to look forward and be grateful for outside of sport.” He said.
Gourley has taken a big step in his professional career since retiring from sport, returning to the Victorian Institute of Sport in a working capacity. He recently applied and went through the recruitment process for a Performance Lifestyle Adviser, seeing this as an opportunity to give back to elite sport and assist athletes learn some lessons that he wishes he learnt at the start of his career.
“There’s two key standout learnings in my sport and life journey.” He said.
“One is to get the order right, do the self-discovery part first, learn about yourself, figure out who you are and what you stand for.”
“The second part is to reach out to your support networks. I was able to do this with the VIS’ support and found opportunities to try new things and gain valuable work experience.”
For Gourley, it’s been a journey filled with twists and turns and discovering what he wanted to do when his time in alpine skiing was over, and it was never easy.
Athletes often live in fear around what will happen next in life if success in sport doesn’t happen. Often dedicating your whole life to your sport, with minimal fall-back options, and funding only coming through based on results. Gourley admits that this was at the back of his mind constantly.
“I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know how to gain valuable experience or how to learn what different industries or roles were out there.”
“I also needed to learn some things about myself and what I was good at outside of my sport.”
From juggling education, training, and a bit of part-time work on the side, there is always a lot on your plate as an elite athlete so finding time to discover what you wanted to do after sport was often hard. Gourley admits that because of the nature of his sport, and being unable to fit work around that, he had “no idea where to start.”
“I didn’t understand my values or the type of work that I wanted to get into”
“I picked a university course which sounded interesting but got to the end of it and realised this is not what I want to do.”
Gourley reached out to his support network at the VIS and was grateful the Performance Lifestyle Team were able to help him understand and learn the introspective part of his career thinking.
“The VIS helped me with the self-exploration bit, around my values and where I wanted to be and how I wanted to contribute to the workforce.”
The other element the VIS could offer him was opportunities to practice some transferable skills that are useful in a lot of industries.
“I was able to do things such as school tours, which gave me some form of income, as well as deliver presentations for the VIS Performance Lifestyle Team.”
“All the experiences helped me build my understanding and my time and personal management skills, but also my public speaking and the ability to present to audiences.”
At the conclusion of the 2019 snow season, Gourley made the decision that when he returned home to Australia, he would put some time into getting some experience in the workforce.
“It was a break from competing, but It also could’ve been retirement for me, I wasn’t sure, it was a 12-month check-in with myself.”
He first applied for the VIS Performance Lifestyle role, and although unsuccessful for the specific role in 2019, it led to a path of learning and development.
Disappointed to not have successfully secured the role, Gourley knew he had to be resilient, and like his sporting career he knew it would not always be “success after success.”
VIS Performance Lifestyle Manager, Leesa Gallard, said that Gourley reached out after the process making use of the VIS network and the wider sporting community to explore and give opportunities a go.
“Learning comes from doing and Mitch was prepared to do this, he tread a path of learning and discovery that was rewarding but also challenging and uncomfortable at times,” she said.
Having already stepped into a role as an athlete representative at the International Federation, Gourley realised that working in sport was attractive to him, and the element of giving back was something that aligned with his core values. His resilience and hard work eventually paid off and he managed to land a diversity and inclusion role at Netball Victoria.
Gourley’s year off the snow quickly became three, due to the enforced COVID-19 Victorian lockdowns.
“There was a real upside for me in terms of increasing my employment experiences and my workplace experiences that came out of COVID, getting three plus years’ experience which I wouldn’t have otherwise got.”
When Gourley finished his time at Netball Victoria, he landed another job, a PWC role in graduate recruiting, developing processes so that businesses could hire more people with a disability and reduce barriers to people with disability.
But unfortunately for Gourley, and a lot of Australians, COVID cuts led to him being made redundant. Although it was another challenging time for Gourley, through some other work he had been doing with the Australian Institute of Sport in the employment space, an opportunity came up to do consultancy with the engagement team.
“It gave me a whole different experience and helped me build a lot of different skills.”
With a variety of work experience under his belt, Gourley decided that he didn’t want to end his alpine-skiing career crashing out at a World Championship with a broken wrist so decided to return to the snow. And with the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympic Games around the corner, there was no better time to return.
“I felt my body was ready to handle the training and I had some work experience, so I was feeling more confident about being able to return to the working world afterwards.”
“The fear of the unknown no longer lingered in my mind, because if I went and skied and it didn’t work out for me, then I’d still have something set aside.”
Gourley went on to represent Australia at a fourth Paralympic Games in Beijing, announcing that this would be the end of his glittering sporting career.
Earlier this year a Performance Lifestyle Adviser role became vacant again at the VIS. Gourley decided to apply for the role and this time had a longer list of skills and experiences making him the successful candidate.
Gallard insists that Gourley’s story of career exploration is “inspiring” and shows what you can do if you give different opportunities and experiences a go.
“The VIS are thrilled for Mitch to be appointed to the role of VIS Performance Lifestyle Adviser to share the experiences he has an athlete pursing both success in sport and life, and to also make his contribution to the community post his Sport.”
“Being able to move forward from setbacks in a career sense, just like in the sporting sense has enabled Mitch to grow his skills and experiences and be ready for the role he now undertakes at the VIS.”