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It's All in Your Head

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Every 1,461 days. It’s a rare occasion that few people live to see come back to the same place twice. When it comes, it doesn’t come alone, it brings a sea of people all unique in physique, talent, and culture. The people of the world, like awaiting the next number on Glee, are filled with anticipation and excitement. Regardless of war, politics, tragedy, and drama, it’s the event that brings the entire world together for 15 days. The Olympic Games.


For the viewers, that four year gap is long and torturous. To the athlete, it’s even worse. They train a lifetime for that one moment, whether it be for a ten second race or a one hour swimming relay. But that one moment trumps all other significant moments in an athlete’s career, as the Olympic podium is the ultimate prize. As the location moves to the different places of the world, the Olympian must climb over the countless barriers of the body, the media, the culture, the environment, and the mind.

Citius-Altius-Fortius. This is the Olympic Motto that every Olympic athlete lives by. Faster. Higher. Stronger. The motto itself motivates the athletes to put that one Krispy Kreme donut down and go to the ever familiar gym. The top athletes of the world push their bodies to the limit, and do absolutely ridiculous workouts in preparation for the Olympics. Meb Keflezighi, American distance runner and Olympic Silver Medalist is no exception. As Keflezighi describes his 6-hour training days prior to the 2004 Athens Olympics, he casually adds in, “The longest run I did was 2 hours and 40 minutes, non stop.” To most, a third of that time would surely leave anyone gasping for
air, and struggling to regain feeling in the legs. So it seems fit that a future Olympic medalist would take it just one step further as he explains, “For the Olympics in 2004, I probably did the most. I did it at altitude which is 7 to 8,000 feet high, and I trained very hard, 120-127 miles a week. I did my intervals, I did my tempos, you know I tried to be as fit as I could.” Indeed, Meb trained day in and day out to be the fittest he could be for the biggest stage in all of Sport. But he wasn’t the only one.


The Baltimore Bullet. The Flying Fish. Superman. Michael Phelps, perhaps the most decorated Olympian of all time, goes by many names. But he didn’t get 14 Olympic Gold medals from sitting around on the couch all day. After his amazing sweep of eight straight Gold Medals at the 2008 Olympics, the biggest question of all was indeed, how? CNN’s Anderson Cooper searched for that answer in an exclusive interview with both Phelps, and his coach Bob Bowman. Bowman explains that, “What’s happening is just a reward for a guy who’s been training non-stop since age 11. His teenage years were spent swimming lap after lap, thousands of hours staring at the black line of the bottom of a pool. For about five years he did not take one day off.” Phelps literally never took days off, training on his birthdays and during Christmas in order to prepare for the most grueling test ahead against the worlds’ elite swimmers. Phelps reveals the tough road to the Olympics consisting of, “horrible, horrible workouts. When you see them on paper, you’re like, I can’t do this.” Merely thinking about what Phelps did would leave you speechless as he discusses how he would swim, “10,000 meters for [a] time, which takes about two and a half hours nonstop.”


So it seems the days prior to that opening ceremony are rather robotic. Tempos. Eat. Sleep. Run. Eat. Sleep. Swim. Eat. Sleep. The routine is universal for all athletes preparing for the Olympics, but every athlete knows that the training isn’t the only obstacle.


As the training looms onto 6 hours a day, and the countdown to the opening ceremony starts up, so does the media and the speculation. Pressures brought on by the media, the expectations of an entire country, and even the thought of a totally new culture can become just another burden weighing down on an athletes’ bulky shoulder. The high standards of the millions of a nation can truly get to an athlete’s head. There are 50 nations that have never won an Olympic medal, thus an athlete may go into the Games with no pressure, with nothing to live up to. Just doing your best is all that matters to the nation. But for countries such as the United States, Austria, Norway, and Russia, countries with the most Winter Olympic medals in history, greatness is expected. Doing your best may not be enough.


Though athletes sweat pounds in the gym to be the fittest they can be, the mind becomes their one-way ticket onto the podium once that race begins. Meb Keflezighi puts it simply as he describes it as a 90%-10% matter. “Preparation is 90% physical and then 10% mental. But when it comes to a race day, it’s 10% physical and 90% mental.” Once your race, game, or match starts, your mind must be ready to answer the thousands of questions zooming through your head in a matter of seconds. For the marathon runners of the Summer Olympics, there are dozens of questions to be answering as you are in a 2 hour race. Keflezighi gives us an idea of what exactly runners must think about as he says, “If somebody makes a move, you have to say oh should I go with him, should I not? Or when somebody’s making a surge, do you say, I’ll get him later or should I make it now? You have to be smart and wise to make a decision.” An example of how badly things can go at the Olympics if you let your mind wander is with Dutch speed skater, Sven Kramer. During the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Kramer was competing in the 10,000 meter race, the longest and most important event to both him and his home nation. In the final laps, he was supposed to switch into the outer lane according to the rules, yet listened to his coach who told him to stay in the inner lane. Though Kramer knew he was right in thinking to switch lanes, he made a decision that cost him the world record and the Gold. During an interview with a reporter Kramer explains, “You have to decide in a split second. Afterwards, I should have gone with my own thoughts, but I was brought into doubt. This is a real expensive mistake.”


At times an athlete must even ignore the excruciating pains of an injury. During the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Alpine Skier Lindsey Vonn competed through every event with a shin injury. Her husband commented on the matter with NBC reporters saying, “It hurt and she knew it would hurt…But when you’re getting ready to race in the Olympics, you can’t feel anything. The Olympics are the ultimate numbing cream.” Without a doubt the Olympics are exactly that; the ultimate numbing cream. And if your not able to numb yourself enough… well you know what happens.


The Olympic Games, where the mind is racing with a million thoughts, the muscles are bulging with every forceful move, and where a billion eyes watch as you compete in the event of your life. The Games is where athletes dream of a small rare medal gently swaying around their neck, as they walk around waving their hands at the elated crowd before them. But to be frank, you could be fitter than the Greek Gods and still find yourself miles from the podium because your mind went blank, your heart pounded out of your chest, or because the chip on your shoulder pulled you into a slow Olympic death.





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