The Olympic journey is an emotional journey, one heightened by expectations, fierce competition and an overwhelming pressure to perform. The lifelong sacrifices to make an Olympic team are not only demanding and intense but filled with overcoming self-doubt, setbacks and physical struggle. So what happens once you make the team and travel to the competition? What’s going on in the minds of the athletes on the eve of the Olympic Games?
Every experience is deeply personal and filled with a range of thoughts, fears, hopes and sometimes even heartache. Life still continues to happen while you are preparing for the Olympics, both the good and the bad.
From my own experience of competing at the 2008 Olympic Games, I was dealing with a breakup the week leading into the opening ceremony. Not just any breakup, but a breakup with an Olympic teammate who I was forced to see every day at training and during team meetings. I was experiencing my dream come true in swimming but it was tainted by the emotional bruising that accompanies heartache. How could I perform at the Olympic Games while carrying this burden of heavy emotions through the water? I was terrified that I couldn’t handle the pressure or that I would breakdown behind the blocks but I was able to push through with the help of our Olympic sports psychologist and my closest teammates. I was able to get in my zone from years of experience racing. For me, racing is where I have always felt the most focused and the most alive.
My Olympic teammate Caroline Burckle relied on bodywork to handle her nerves of performing. She reflected on her experience the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Nothing compares to that pressure, you have to prove yourself. It’s a really hard place to be in…
…but it’s pure and utter excitement to be on an Olympic team. For me, it was also body centric, the massage, stretching and meditation helped to calm my body and it helped me calm down. At that point, you are in autopilot mode and everything is such a blur.” Burckle was one of the most supportive teammates I have ever had, her strength and calm presence was contagious and allowed our team to win the bronze medal in the relay.
Olympic gold-medalist water polo player Maggie Steffens visualized every detail of their winning game the night before, she remembers thinking “my eyes are closed. Down by one. They are in an aggressive press, we need to break it down. My stomach is in turmoil. I make a hard release, Kiley passes me ball, I enter it to Kami. Kick-out. We’re up. We need this goal. Stay controlled, stay calm, we can do this. I get the ball and I see an opening, I get hit! Stay on your legs. I make one more pass to Rachel, she shoots. Boom. Goal. Tied. Semi-final is on the line. Remember your training, remember how hard we have worked, how much our team wants this. Remember your family in the stands. Breathe. Defense. One possession, time to finish this game with a win. We will do it. I lay in bed, continuing to imagine this situation. My stomach tossing and turning with anticipation. The only thing I can do right now is visualize situations tonight, so if they happen in the game tomorrow, they are no big deal.”
Olympic ice dancer and gold medalist Meryl Davis looked back on her first Olympic experience “Most of us have dreamt of the Olympics our whole lives and it feels so surreal, for me it was a great realization that we are prepared.” Olympic mogul skier Jaelin Kauf also uses the power of visualization. She has been visualizing her Olympic course for this upcoming week and she sees herself coming home with the gold medal “I am excited to just feel the atmosphere and just be there with all the other top winter athletes in the U.S. and share that experience with them.” Every athlete goes deep into their minds to envision the best performance possible and no matter what happens, it’s always an experience of a lifetime.