So, You’re an Olympian, Now What?

by Casey Barrett

Three weeks of pride and madness before the Games… 

The chosen ones have moved on. After touching the wall and confirming a dream come true, it’s been a double rainbow of bliss ever since. They’re in the midst of coming down from that high right about now. Time to sober up and get straight. The Olympics are just three weeks away.

What happens after you make the Team? It goes something like this:

Realize that you’ve made it, outpouring of unrestrained joy. Climb from water, find a microphone and a television camera shoved in your face before you’ve caught your breath. Try to say something halfway eloquent. Walk ten steps and find more microphones and more cameras waiting. Keep trying to say the right things. Then a strangely serious man or woman will approach with the air of a CIA spook. No worries, that’s just the drug tester. Sign his clipboard, confirm that you’ll report to testing when told. Buzz kicks in again, stronger this time. It’s sinking in. You find your coach, your teammates waiting in the warm down pool. Hugs, tears, high fives, assorted ‘fuck yeahs!’

Then there will be a medal ceremony, more interviews, autographs from throngs of young swim fans… There will be your official Outfitting. This takes longer than you might think. Olympians are given an Olympic amount of SWAG. Talk about a misnomer – this term stands for ‘Stuff We All Get’. For these purposes, maybe we should change it to SOG. (‘Stuff Olympians Get’) In any case, there’s a lot of it. It takes about three hours to get measured and outfitted for all the things you’ll soon be getting as an Official Member of the Team. (Still makes you giddy to hear, doesn’t it? Yes, the buzz is still pumping…)

After the meet ends, there will be a brief respite, a chance to go home for a few days, enjoy the comforts of your own bed before boarding the crazy train bound for London. It won’t be relaxing, don’t kid yourself. It’s going to be another whirlwind of hugs and back slaps. Then you’ll kiss your family and friends goodbye, and head to… Knoxville, TN. At least that’s where Team USA is headed right about now. First stop on the Traveling Camp of No Distractions.

All up to date? Good, because now comes the hard part. Time to set Trials aside.

Three weeks, that’s not enough time to do much. Physically, what’s done is done. It’s not like you’re going to get in better shape over the next few weeks. Too late for those skin-deep, muscle-bound concerns. You either did the work, or you didn’t. Chances are, if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve done all the work and then some. But below the surface, or to be more specific, below the skull? There is still plenty of time in there. In fact, three weeks is an eternity.

“I can’t do a damn thing about their bodies,” said the Olympic coach. “There’s not enough time. But I might be able to help their brains a bit.”

That’s the coach’s job at this point. This is the time when great coaches go Zen and guide those fragile yet enormous egos onto Olympic podiums. This is also the time when less-than-great coaches lucky enough to coach monster talent tend to screw up their swimmers something fierce. This happens every time, at every Games. I don’t need to name names. Think back…

Before the U.S. Trials, one top coach emailed me and made a very wise observation. He pointed out that you will never see more over-coaching at any meet than at the Olympic Trials. It’s when coaches are as nervous as their athletes and they just try to do too much. They won’t stop talking, won’t stop tinkering with strokes, won’t stop trying to get everything exactly precisely perfect. Too much of that and your athletes feel it. They feel restricted, start second-guessing themselves. We know where that leads.

I’d go one step further with this coach’s assessment: You’ll never see more over-coaching than in the period between the Trials and the Olympics. Most countries have had months to adjust to that heady making-the-Team high. In the U.S., for myriad reasons (some good, some questionable), the Trials are pressed right up against the windshield of the Games. This leaves zero room for error.

These are high stakes and heavy highs we’re talking about. The sort of things that crack fragile minds in a million pieces… Sure, there’s pressure at the Super Bowl, the Finals, the World Series, whatever big time annual sporting circus you want to name. But these events come around every year. There’s always next year. Not four years later. In every other case, you have a whole game, a crew of teammates, days or hours over a course or a court… Enough room to make mistakes and overcome. That’s not the case with Olympic swimming, where four years of life can come down to twenty-one seconds on stage.

This makes for some fabulous theater for those watching from the sidelines. It can also make these Olympians one stiff breeze from a straight jacket in the weeks leading up to it.

Sometimes the real drama is off stage in those times in between, at tucked away training camps, when newly minted Olympians come down off the Trials high.