That Olympic Feeling

OMAHA, Neb. — Four swimmers here made their first U.S. Olympic team on Tuesday night, and their reactions to the moment ranged all the way from A to, well … A.

“I’m a little in shock,” Townley Haas said after winning the 200m freestyle.

“I’m in shock right now,” Olivia Smoliga said after winning the 100m backstroke.

“Super excited!” said Ryan Murphy after winning the men’s 100m backstroke.

“Super excited!” said Lilly King after winning the 100m breaststroke.

OK, so, no, there wasn’t much variety to the emotions — there never is. Words fail in the moment. Few things in sports are more touching and thrilling than watching athletes make their first Olympic team. You see them trying to process it all, try to make sense of it all. “It has always been my dream,” they say.

That’s a funny word: Dream. At first it must feel that way, at first it must feel like a fuzzy dream — every child who watches the Olympics on television will say, at one point, “That can be me!” For most people, it stays there, as a far-off dream, like being an astronaut or President or star of your own reality TV show.

Then, some begin the journey. Mom and Dad switch off taking them to practice. The whole family, including sulky brothers and sisters, sit in the stands on obscenely hot days to watch them swim or run or throw a javelin. Weeks pass. Summers pass. After a while, a few start dropping time, their bodies start developing into athlete’s bodies, muscle replaces scrawniness. And then, suddenly, the Olympics are not a dream anymore, not exactly. The Olympics become possible.

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And then the athlete enters the next phase — thousands and thousands of athletes in America have reached that place of possibility. This is when the hard work begins, the painful work, the relentless quest, all with a coach shouting just how hard all your contenders are working. This is the time when a teenager has to give up some stuff, parties, junk food and free time just looking at clouds or YouTube videos. How many times does the athlete ask himself, herself, “Is this really worth it?”

But the closer it gets, the more certain the athlete becomes. Finally, the Olympics are more than a dream, more than a possibility. The Olympics are the goal. And then a whole new pressure comes crashing down, the pressure of expectation. Many athletes will tell you that’s the worst time. Suddenly everyone EXPECTS you to make the Olympic Team. And that’s fine when you’re winning, but then you have a bad meet, a bad race, a bad performance — and the questions rush in. What happened? Are you injured? Are you worried? Is there anything wrong? 

And then, maybe, your mind starts echoing the toughest question of all: What if I did all of this and I don’t make the team? What then?

So, yes, on Tuesday night, four swimmers in Omaha touched the wall first and they became Olympians, and of course they felt the same things:

  1. They felt shock.
  2. They were super excited.

What else could they feel after all that?

And it’s a reminder: This is what the Olympics are about. This is why billions of people around the world still believe in the Olympics despite the numerous problems and crises and controversies. Over the last couple of weeks, we have watched golfer after golfer pull out of the Olympics. On Tuesday, the same day as the four U.S. Swimmers made their first team, the No. 1 player in the world, Jason Day, announced he would not go because of the Zika virus, and the No. 1 American player, Jordan Spieth, sounded very shaky about his own plans. Rory McIlroy, among others, has also withdrawn.

I have a long-nurtured opinion that a sport should only be in the Olympics if the Olympic Games represent the very pinnacle of that sport. Yes, of course, it does add prestige to the Olympics when it can showcase Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, Kevin Durant and Carli Lloyd and Ruben Neves and Diana Taurasi. But those athletes have other goals, bigger goals, than the Olympics. It isn’t the same.

And this is much more true of golf, especially men’s golf, which has the four major championships and hugely important team competitions like the Ryder Cup and President’s Cup. There seems no room in men’s golf for the Olympics (it must be noted that, so far, Lee-Anne Pace is the only top female player to have pulled out of the Games).

Jason Day said it plainly: “I never grew up thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to represent my country at the Olympics,’ because there was never an opportunity to.”

People want to blame Day and McIlroy and others for not getting in the Olympic spirit, and I get that: You wish the golfers would embrace this opportunity to put golf on the biggest sports stage in the world. But Day has his point: There are some obvious fears surrounding these Rio Games — Zika, corruption, crime — and he doesn’t want to go. He’s a golfer. He wants to win a green jacket, a Claret Jug, a fat check for winning the FedEx Cup. The reality is simple: The Olympics just don’t mean much to him.

Meanwhile, in Omaha, I can promise you that nobody is pulling out of the Olympics. Here, there is no greater hope. To see Katie Meili break down in tears after qualifying in the 100-meter breaststroke, to see Kathleen Baker overwhelmed by her own smile after making it in the 100-meter backstroke, to see that is to understand what these Olympics mean to most athletes.

“I am literally shocked,” Baker said.

“I can’t put it into words,” Meili said.

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