Why do Olympic athletes do it? Why do they struggle through thousands of hours of workouts every year? In most Olympic sports, they will never become rich. Hardly any will be famous. They will flash through our lives for a couple of weeks every four years and then fade into obscurity.
You can see how a potential NFL or NBA athlete can get motivated. The pot of gold is available for hundreds of athletes in those sports, not just a handful. But a triathlete? A swimmer? A weightlifter?
Over the past few months, I interviewed more than a dozen U.S. Olympic athletes to find out how they motivate themselves as they head into the Summer Games. The answers largely reflect one reason why so many of us find Olympic athletes endearing.
They often compete for the same reason most high school athletes do – they love their sports. They have a hard time imagining their lives without them. They want to win medals, of course, but more than that, they want to achieve that moment of bliss that comes when you do something you love better than you ever have.
For Ricky Berens, who grew up swimming in Charlotte and just made his first Olympic team, the idea that every day might be better than the one before is his fuel.
“It is not always about the winning or becoming rich and famous,” Berens said, “but just pushing yourself to your extreme, to see how fast you can go for as long as you can. Every day in practice I just want to get faster and faster.”
For swimmer Cullen Jones, the former N.C. State standout and current Charlotte resident, motivation is occasionally a problem. Said Jones: “Sometimes I have to slap myself and say, ‘This is what you really like to do. So get it in gear!'” A feeling that he had allowed too many distractions into his life led to Jones' move from Raleigh to Charlotte in April. But every time Jones gets into a pool with kids – particularly those who share his African American heritage – he finds extra motivation. Jones came close to drowning when he got trapped under an inner tube at a Pennsylvania water park at age 7.
“I could have been a statistic,” Jones said. “So the biggest thing I want to do is to encourage kids to swim. I want it to be like the Tiger Woods syndrome – the ‘Oh, Tiger can play golf, now let's all go play golf.' The Olympics will help give me a platform to do more of that.”
Gymnast Shawn Johnson is one of the rare Olympic athletes who is poised to cash in after these Olympics. If Johnson wins the women's all-around title – and she is a favorite – that gold medal could be worth millions. But at 16, the 4-foot-9 gymnast can't really comprehend the money involved. What she does understand is her work: four hours a day in the gym Monday through Friday, then six hours Saturday before getting Sunday off.
“For me,” Johnson said, “it's more the thrill of the ride.”
Her teammate Nastia Liukin – also a rival for the women's all-around title – agreed. “I don't do gymnastics for the money,” she said. “That's never been in my head. I do it because I love it and I want to achieve my personal goals.”
Mark Lopez, a taekwondo entrant for the U.S. from Texas, would like his 15 minutes of fame. He does photo-friendly back flips on the mat after big wins. “I'd like to get a little of what Steven has gotten,” acknowledged Lopez, the younger brother of two-time Olympic taekwondo gold medalist Steven Lopez.
Then there's Melanie Roach, a 117-pound weightlifter from Washington state. She and her husband Dan have three children under 10 and run a gym. The middle child, Drew, has autism.
“Whether I win a medal or not,” Roach said, “I'll still go home to a son who has autism and will for the rest of his life.”
That's a wise perspective, but how does it allow you to push through yet another lonely workout? Roach explained: “Weightlifting is such a unique sport. If you put 100 kilograms on a bar, it's always going to be 100 kilos. So your opponent never changes. One day you can do 100, maybe the next day you can do 102. There's always a weight you haven't done. I love that.”
Some Olympic athletes didn't discover their passions until late. One was Phil Dalhausser, a 6-foot-9 beach volleyball player regarded as one of the world's best. Dalhausser grew up playing tennis and baseball. He thought volleyball was for girls.
“But the second I stepped on a volleyball court – my senior year in high school – it was all I could think about and all I wanted to do,” Dalhausser said.
Most athletes don't make a lot of money performing. Said U.S. triathlete Jarrod Shoemaker: “It's an intrinsic thing. I'm trying to better myself. In our sport, the very top guys are making some money, but that's it. I was 13th in a World Cup meet in Japan earlier this year, and the prize money didn't come close to paying for everything.”
And then there's the rare athlete like Michael Phelps, who has become very rich by making himself the world's best swimmer. Still, he has trouble sometimes getting motivated. Then, he relies on longtime coach Bob Bowman for support.
“I'm definitely not a robot, that's for sure,” Phelps said. “When I get tired, when I get grouchy…. That's the time when my coach pushes me even harder. He tries to make me uncomfortable so I can be ready for anything that comes my way.”
A lot will come their way this month.
The spotlight. The pressure. The moment.
And then most of them will start over again, preparing for 2012 with hardly anyone watching at all.