What Does It Take To Become An Olympic Athlete? A Look Behind The Prep

The grandeur of the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games will be upon us soon, followed by the excitement of watching our most revered athletes compete for their country, Olympic records and glory. New names will become household words. Millions of fans will talk about the performances as if these athletes were their friends. But what did it take to reach this moment on the world stage?

Over my decades of experience in elite sports medicine, I have listened to countless stories from Olympic athletes. The majority of their training time in preparation for seconds or minutes of Olympic history was extensive, grueling and, quite frankly, lonely. I recall a conversation I had with beach volleyball Olympian Rob Heidger, during which he described the misconceptions he routinely faced while training for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

"I meet people and they say, 'Oh, you play beach volleyball. It must be so great to play on the beach for an hour or two and then you have the whole day to yourself.' They have no idea what my training is like," he said.

He went on to explain that he's up early in the morning, and then eats and goes to the beach for very hard training with a tough coach from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. After another quick bite, he goes to the track at 1 p.m. for sprint drills and conditioning. Then another snack and he heads to the weight room for strength training around 3 p.m. After 90 minutes or so in the weight room, he goes for medical care for his various aches, pain and tendinitis. Then he finally heads home to have dinner and see his wife for a little while before going to bed around 9:30 p.m. so he can start it all over again the next day.

"No one understands how we have to train and live at this level of training, and it can be really frustrating at times," Heidger continued. "I don't know what to do when people tell me what a great and easy life this is. They don't understand."

I usually reply to these stories, "They will never understand. You have to keep your focus and continue training with your goals in the forefront of your mind and not worry about what people think."

Athletes striving to make it to the Games have to sacrifice a great deal. It is very difficult to work, even part-time, and still train at this level. Contrary to what many believe, it's not something you could compare to a day in the office followed by even the toughest spin class. The Olympic-bound athlete has a multi-faceted training program involving extensive practice and coaching. These athletes cannot just go through the motions. They must continually improve their skills and performance. And even the subtlest coaching changes to technique can be the difference between making the team or not, much less winning.

While the average person goes to the gym, spin class, yoga or Pilates training with perhaps only minor changes once passing the beginner stage, the Olympic athlete's regimen is in constant evolution. There is strength training, conditioning, stretching and recovery efforts (cold, alternating heat and cold), hydration, rehydration, proper nutrition, sports medicine care and, of course, sleep. The training Olympian must juggling it all while straddling a fine line to avoid overtraining with its resulting decreased performance.

While most people are able to enjoy a late night at the bar with friends and still perform adequately at work the next day, these elite athletes must forego such activities and get to bed early because, without adequate sleep, they won't be able to train at the same high level the next day. And in that uber-competitive road to the Games, those who are rested will train at a higher level and potentially rise above the pack. With training load and intensity only building to a peak, it's a misstep that could have a domino effect not worth the risk.

Many track athletes have told me that October means training time again --in bed by 9:00 p.m. until track season is over. I recall one female hurdler at an Olympic Trials who was 9th overall, which means she did not make the finals by three one-hundredths of a second. After she was eliminated, and she was meeting with her coach and receiving sports medicine treatment, I asked her what she would do now. Her reply: "I haven't had ice cream since October (it was now late June). I will go out and have a sundae."

As you watch the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, please remember that these athletes have sacrificed much to reach this point, their days long and exhausting. Except for time spent with coaches, trainers and medical staff, they don't see many people. It is an isolated life of dedication without much social support and very little financial assistance, if any. They are highly competitive people who are striving to win because that is who they are. The vast majority of athletes at the Olympic Games will not leave with a medal, but they will leave with the honor of being an Olympic athlete for the rest of their lives. There is no such thing as a "former Olympian."