My husband and I enjoy watching the Olympics, both summer and winter games. He roots for Italy; I root for the U.S., and once one of our respective countries is knocked out of contention, we’ll root for the other’s team.
Summer and winter, you’ll find us on the couch: watching the Olympics. Just like a couple of potatoes. Lumpy, out of shape, potatoes.
Sure, I’ve run on a track before. But never while wearing the equivalent of a skimpy tankini, my every muscle flexed and pumping to perfection. Instead, I’ve plodded along at a comfortable pace, with squirrels and the occasional cement bug outrunning me, my baggy t-shirt billowing in the wind. It’s no wonder those Olympic athletes, so sinewy, svelte and agile, can make the average person feel fat.
But don’t let it happen to you!
A little research reveals that the Olympics should not be a source of guilt for any of us mere mortals. Here are just a few factors that go into the making of an Olympic athlete. And they’re not for the faint of heart.
They start as children.
Most Olympic gymnasts start classes around the age of five. If they show promise, they start in the Junior Olympics program, which has them training through a series of 10 levels and takes about five years to complete. Only by completing the program—and doing well in competitions—can they even be considered Olympic contenders.
Their training is a full-time job.
Olympic gymnasts train an average of 40 hours a week, usually for several hours twice a day. Gold medalist swimmer Natalie Coughlin trains five to six hours a day, six days a week. Half of that training is in the pool, while the other half she divides between weight training, running, yoga and Pilates. Olympians also sleep an average of 10 hours a night, and need power naps during the day.
They plan ahead.
In most sports, a minimum of four to eight years is needed to reach Olympic-level readiness. And this is for talented young athletes who are already engaged in competitive sports, not for 30-somethings who decide they’d like a gold medal. They plan their training schedules out at least a year in advance, with the goal of strengthening their aerobic capacity. The may even plan a full four years of training in anticipation of the next Olympic games.
Their diet is a full-time job.
Because Olympic athletes burn so many calories in training and competition, they need to eat a lot—as much as 5,000 calories a day during peak training periods—to maintain their strength and form. But that means “a lot” of lean meat, whole grains, fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy; not “a lot” of pizza, ice cream and chips.
They live with pain.
Who can forget the image of Kerri Strug, member of the 1996 U.S. women’s gymnastics team, vaulting with a hurt, bandaged ankle, sticking her landing and then collapsing on the mat in excruciating pain? But she won her team the gold medal. Even if her coach, Bela Karolyi had to carry her to the podium to join her teammates. And Strug is no exception; after years of sacrifice to reach the Olympic arena, most athletes are willing to endure the pain of injuries, in order not to miss what may be their one window of opportunity to compete.
They are the best of the best.
Remember that every time you gaze at the TV with calf-muscle envy, you are watching the world’s most elite athletes in the best physical condition of their lives. They have given up vacations, diet splurges, parties with friends and in some cases even a normal childhood, to get where they are. And for every athlete who makes it to Olympic competition, there are dozens more hopefuls—all top athletes themselves—who didn’t make the cut.
Feel better now? I know I do. I for one am not willing to give up a glass of champagne and an extra helping of dessert, much less my social life and the occasional vacation, all to have the sinewy thigh or a gracefully-muscled shoulder blade of an Olympic athlete. Instead, I’m perfectly happy to cheer Team USA from my couch. (But maybe the dog and I will take a brisk walk during a commercial break.)