Road to the Olympic Games: Insight into the Life a US Olympic Team Member

(Story courtesy of the Southwestern University website)

GEORGETOWN, Texas - Few athletes have the fortune of representing their country on the Olympic stage, but Southwestern Cross Country and Track & Field Coach Francie Larrieu Smith, the first of two five-time female Olympians and 1992 flagbearer, gives us insider information on what the athletes do to prepare.  

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On a recent television commercial Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin proclaimed “I have been dreaming about this since I was a child.”  This statement is common among most Olympians.  Many Olympians spend a good part of their athletic careers competing in obscurity until an Olympic year rolls around and their respective sports US Olympic Team trials occur.  With the recent broadcast by NBC of the track & field and swimming and diving Olympic Trials and as the Games get underway London, England, many athletes are heading into the spotlight.

Qualifying for an Olympic Team takes years of unwavering dedication and hard work mostly out of the limelight with nothing more than self-satisfaction and a pat on the back from one’s coach for a job well done on a given day.  It takes incredible drive to compete and to be the best at what you do.  Then on the day of the trials you go up against many athletes just like you and in track & field three qualify for the US Olympic Team, in swimming two.  An athlete can be the best in the world and on the top their game and have an off day in the Olympic Trials and end up sitting home and watching the games on television.  Having been on both sides of the fence my perception of how making and missing the US Olympic team is real. 

But what happens after the trials?  This is the single most crucial time in an athlete’s career.  Simply making the team is the beginning not the end and it is extremely difficult to maintain that focus that propelled one onto US Olympic Team­­­ and towards reaching the ultimate goal of winning an Olympic Medal.  Depending on the individual the demands on one’s time and attention (distraction’s from focus and training) are varied from promotional appearances for a sponsor to local media and community gathering’s.  What the athlete really must do at this point in time is maintain the routine and plan developed with his/her coach to reach the ultimate goal of performing to their optimum level at the Olympic Games.   

The road from the Olympic Trials to the Olympic Games is as varied as the different sports contested and the individual events within a given sport.  In track & field most of the athletes headed home to pack a bag and head for Europe for a few tune-up meets prior to the Olympic Games.  This is necessary in order to maintain/reach one’s peak cycle.

Prior to departure for the Olympic Games most US Olympic Team member’s process through the Unites States Olympic Team “Processing Center.”  The center is usually centrally located with easy access to a major airport and to the ultimate destination of the Olympic Games.  Most importantly each athlete completes the credentialing process and receives the clothing needed for the Opening Ceremonies and for the podium should they win an Olympic Medal.  The United States Olympic Committee has done a very good job of streamlining this process over the years.  On a side note US Olympic Team members generally receive an enormous suitcase filled with gear and goods provided by USOC sponsors.  There might be things such as razors, hairdryers and camera’s in addition to more training gear than they will need for the duration of their stay in London.  From the processing center some teams head to a training center near the site of the Olympic Games for their final preparations prior to the start of the Olympics, and as mentioned some head off to compete and ultimately return to their respective team’s “training camp” prior to the actual move into the Olympic Village.    

Opening Ceremonies

Have you ever wondered why the United States Olympic Committee does not announce who the flag bearer for the US team will be until just two days prior to the opening ceremonies?

That is because the US Team Flag bearer is chosen by US Olympic Team Members in a group meeting of the respective team’s captains.  Each team nominates an individual to be the flag bearer and ultimately a vote takes place and one person is chosen to carry the flag in opening ceremonies and one in closing ceremonies.   The respective teams do not have the opportunity to come together until the final days prior the Olympic Games when the athletes are required to be in the Olympic Village.  For the Flag Bearer chosen for opening ceremonies there is a sudden whirlwind of publicity that immediately takes place.  It is an incredible honor to be chosen to represent the USA as flag bearer for our Olympic Team, and an unbelievable feeling for the flag bearer to not only lead the US Team into Olympic Stadium; but, to look into the stands and to see many spectators waving their American flags back at the team! 

Most athletes choose to participate in Opening Ceremonies however some do not, especially those who are competing in the first few days of the Olympic Games.  While back in the day athletes worried about the long hours of lining up and parading which was an all-day affair back then however, the International Olympic Committee in concert with the local organizing committee have streamlined the process.  Each country’s team is staggered to the start of the “parade” according to their marching order into Olympic Stadium.  Teams are generally sitting in an air conditioned Olympic venue for a relatively short period of time prior to their march into Olympic Stadium.  Parading into Olympic Stadium for the first time is the moment when an athlete realizes their dedication and hard work has paid off and their quest for Olympic Gold is a reality.