Olympic gold medalist Mary Wayte Bradburne talks about the Olympic athletes' psyche and provides an insider's view on the journey to the podium.
While the Opening Ceremony enraptures a global audience and bottles its excitement, the event also ignites a rare breed of dry-mouthed, sick-to-your stomach nerves for athletes at the Olympic Games. Because, let's face it, there is only one Michael Phelps. Many Olympians get only one shot, which lasts mere minutes, to prove themselves to the world. In my case, it was less than two minutes.
The burning question that so many sports fans ask is how? How did that athlete get to the winner's podium?
Somewhere along the way, the sprinkled experiences that comprise a child's life begin to take shape into a passion and then an obsession. Every detail, whether physiological, psychological, or physical must all line up. Talent is rarely enough.
Carpools, coaches, teammates, technique, parental commitment, nutrition, sleep, no family vacations during training time, and no broken hearts at inopportune times. Don't forget body type, fast-twitch muscle, slow-twitch muscle, internal and external motivation, the ability to handle pressure, and vicious jealousy.
What most people don't appreciate, including those who aspire to be Olympians but fall short, is that every single workout is a race for the gold. If you aren't completely focused on winning that race perfectly each day, your competition somewhere around the world is. The emotional battle is as exhausting as the physical one. And because bad days are not allowed, everything must be compartmentalized in your head so that you don't lose your mind.
Some athletes find that their quest for gold is over before the Games begin. These competitors make the mistake of focusing their dreams on simply making the Olympic team. They don't realize, until it's too late, that the few weeks between Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games is not enough time to readjust their mindset from winning a berth on the team to winning a gold.
For the rest, the road from Olympic Trials to the Olympic Games becomes a complicated dance of navigating through the minefield of distractions. Countries with large contingencies often send their teams to train in the most beautiful places in the world. Presidents, prime ministers, rulers, and royalty meet with their respective teams to wish them luck. The media hovers. Team romances bloom and wilt. The food is, well, foreign. And then, you are shipped off to the Olympic Village.
Both the Village and competition venues make the entire experience larger than life. About one to two weeks before competition, each country is allowed to practice at the Olympic venues during prescribed times, staggered with the other teams. For the rookies, this can be particularly intimidating as it is the first time they come to face to face with their international competition.
Competition day is harrowing. If you can't set aside the overwhelming fact that this could be your only shot at Olympic gold, nerves will consume you. I firmly believe that the people who win are those who believe they can, despite all improbabilities.
The media predicted that I would not make the Olympic team. When I did, they thought third place was a stretch. However, three years prior, a time when making the team was an impossibility, I put in writing the results of my Olympic race. I read those results twice a day, every day, in front of a mirror just to convince myself it could be done. I won that race thousands of times in my head before earning my spot on the team.
The most incredible element of winning an Olympic gold medal, with all the pomp and circumstance that surrounds it, is actually winning the event itself, knowing that despite the impossible odds, everything in your life lined up so perfectly that you won the right race, on the right day, at exactly the right time.
Mary Wayte Bradburne, Cisco executive communications manager for Brian Marlier, SVP, U.S. Enterprise sales, is an Olympic medalist in swimming. Mary won two gold medals at the Los Angeles 1984 Games and a silver and bronze medal at the Seoul 1988 Games.