The road to gold is not for the faint of heart. With the odds of just qualifying for the Olympics astronomically bad, becoming a world champion takes unwavering dedication and a relentless love for your sport. It’s not just an athletic pursuit – it’s a job. You eat, sleep and breathe the pursuit of the loftiest of goals: to stand on a podium clutching that cherished gold medal.
Power is written into an Olympian’s DNA. They break records and demonstrate the beyond-human ability to run faster, go farther, jump higher and outperform their personal best. They can be victorious or have their chance slip away in a fraction of a second, all in front of two billion people watching on an international stage.
No pressure, though.
As the countdown to the Rio 2016 Olympics begins, three Olympic athletes – a diver competing in Rio, a speedskater training for Pyeongchang 2018 and a retired snowboarder after Sochi 2014 – weigh in on the mental and physical strength it takes to compete against the best in the world.
Do you think you can measure up?
RISE AND GRIND
There is no rest for the wicked. Athletes train at the highest intensity for four years to reach the Olympic games, racking up 40 hours of physical exertion every week for a race that can take seconds. For speedskater Gilmore Junio, it’s called the grind – and he treats it like his full-time job. “We’re training twice a day for three hours per session, then it’s rinse and repeat for six days a week. Right now, I work out for a living. My drive is showing up to the oval every day.”
Get on his level: Bike 25km, skate 15 laps, one hour of strength and one hour of plyometrics. Repeat.
ALL WORK AND NO PLAY
With dedication and determination also comes sacrifice. High performance athletes have minimal time to nurture relationships outside of their sport – in love and in friendship. For diver Pamela Ware, training comes first and going out is a hard no. Especially when the Olympics are around the corner, it’s something that doesn’t always make sense to others. “I have a different lifestyle than my friends, so it’s hard for them to understand why I’m doing this. This is my life. If you don’t understand it, sorry.”
Enter the no-fun zone: Say goodbye to post-work drinks, Bumble dates and Pokémon Go.
MIND OVER MATTER
With so many eyes watching their every move, Olympic athletes need to keep their cool. When you’re stepping up to the line, waiting for the gun or relying on a partner, nerves can get in the way. Snowboarder Alex Duckworth’s secret is to ignore her inner critic. “It can be hellish. How do you control the fact that the next 60 seconds of your life are going to determine such a huge factor? I squash the self-talk.” For Ware, it’s all about clearing her head. “Overthinking is the same as not thinking enough. I know I’ve done the dive a million times. I trust my body, I trust my mind.”
Get in the zone: Close your eyes, take a second to pause and shut out the noise.
CATCH AND RELEASE
Surprise! Olympic athletes are not bionic. It’s not all fun and games before the Olympics, but after? They like to let loose, and when you’re surrounded by beautiful people in peak physical form, there’s a great way to do it. Duckworth explains that a certain dating app was the game changer at Sochi 2014. “Every Olympics is different. Some are more conducive to the grandeur of the rumours – some are wild, but the [difference is] other Olympics didn’t have Tinder.” Junio, also at Sochi, mentions the amorous Olympian mindset. “You’re training for so many years to get to one moment, and then all of a sudden, it’s done. You can decompress. You can completely relate to another athlete. You have a couple drinks and one thing leads to another – especially in Russia, there’s vodka.”
Be safe and sound: Keep 450,000 condoms, 175,000 packs of lube and some Advil on hand.
NO GUTS, NO GLORY
Choose to walk the road of an Olympian is one of the biggest commitments a person can. But under the intense training, self-discipline and expectations, there is a human being that will one day walk away from the glorification of the sport as a retired athlete, their lifelong identity now in the background. For Duckworth, the transition from world-class athlete to regular person was a welcome change. “There was the combination of the inevitable fear of adulthood, registering risk more cognitively and being curious – move to the city, maybe get a boyfriend.” After Pyeongchang 2018, Junio will also be stepping off the Olympic ice. “Whatever challenge is next, being an athlete set me up with the right work ethic and the right attitude to pursue whatever it may be.”
So, when you’re watching athletes leaping, running and powering through their respective events in Rio and you think to yourself, “I could do that,” remember – this isn’t a hobby or even a passion. It is an ingrained-in-your-DNA lifestyle that demands the utmost of a person.
Still think you have what it takes to be an Olympian?