Every athlete's experience is different. Some athletes are thrilled with the Silver medal, while others feel like it's a huge disappointment. Some cry on the podium, others smile and laugh.
Watching the stories of Sochi from the comforts of my living room is a very different experience then seeing and experiencing them firsthand in Beijing and London. What goes on behind the scenes is much different from what you see on tv. I can't help but think back about how it felt to be in that moment. One of the most frequent questions I get asked is "what did it feel like?" Well, it's really hard to put into words and there is just SO much going on.
In Beijing, I surprised even myself to win gold in the 200 breast. In my head, I was gunning for silver at best. So when I touched the wall – world record, gold medal, oh my gosh what just happened – I thought to myself, "well this wasn't what I planned!" That was the purest moment of joy and happiness for me in Beijing. That feeling of winning a gold medal, right then and there… it's almost more than the mind can digest. All I knew in that moment was that I had raced, I didn't expect to win, and I won. I wish I had known that I should stop and relish this moment, because what comes next is whirlwind.
Here's a little behind the scenes run of events from my experience of my first gold medal:
Get out of the pool. Now remember – You're on the biggest stage and you are getting out of a pool so you gotta make sure you're lookin alright… get that hair out of your face, flash a smile. Find a teammate, friend, competitor getting out of the pool with you and give them a hug… because that was just a huge moment for all of you and phew, you're finally done with it and your nerves can take a break. Then find your credentials (all athletes and coaches need to have them at all times) and get swarmed by drug testers. Sign the papers agreeing to be tested and now you have a new buddy to follow you everywhere until you go to that dark room to pee in a cup.
OK - Now to the media line…Talk to NBC – right there on the pool deck. Ahh don't forget: check the hair, make sure the suit is covering all of you, properly. Ok, ready! "So excited, oh my gosh, …" Ok done! Now take two steps to your left and talk to Universal… same thing: "So excited…". Then ABC… then Australia, now Canada, oh and don't forget local Chinese TV! 10 minutes later, you finally made it through the line, though you've really only made it about 100 feet. But still feeling on top of the world!
Pick up your sweats and maybe a towel if you're lucky, and make your way off the pool deck. You have about 10 minutes before the medals ceremony! You're thinking, "ok great, get me to see my friends, I want to see my coach and give him a hug! I want to get my sweats on and maybe fix my hair to look relatively decent. I did just get out of a pool after all, and I'm about to be on millions of tv screens."
But NOT SO FAST! As soon as you get off the pool deck, there's the print media line… winding back and forth, down the hallway, and there's no way around it. The line weaves around like the line of an amusement park ride, and no cutters allowed! So you stop at one cluster of reporters to tell the story again "So excited, oh my gosh!...", then try to squeeze by another cluster because they've already caught one of your competitors (yessss…). You ended up talking to maybe five more stops. All the while, your drug tester buddy is reminding me, "you only have 20 minutes before you have to check in" and another buddy is there reminding you "you only have 5 minutes before your medal ceremony!" and you're reminding yourself "you only have 5 minutes to get through this and try to make yourself look decent!"
Somehow escaping from media – I start the long walk back to team area. I need the proper podium sweats, and someone please find me a little mascara! On the walk, I run into Lindsey Mintenko (team manager and friend) who gives me a big hug. She coached me during my freshman year at USC, it was a great moment to finally get a hug! She asks if I want to use her phone to call home – my parents didn't make the trip to China. I tell her, no, that I'll call them later!! ("3 minutes til your ceremony!") But she persisted. So I grabbed the phone and dialed home. Waiting patiently on the phone as it rang rang rang… No one picking up! I tried another number… no reply. (Turned out that they were too busy partying and celebrating to hear the phone ring! Thanks, Mom and Dad…!)
I manage to get the podium sweats, hug my coach, Dave, do something with the hair and make it into the awards prep room, still soaking wet, half a jacket sleeve off and clutching that mascara. As if the competition wasn't enough before the race, now the three medal winners have to compete over the tiny mirror in that room to try to make themselves look decent. But this time it was more of a collaborative effort. We were asking each other how we look, "hey, can I borrow that mascara", "fluff your hair up a bit more…" (Let me pause here and say how jealous I am of the winter Olympians being able to wear hats on the podium!) With 30 seconds to spare, we are ready!
And out you go… Finally, standing behind the podium, waiting for your name, you see your teammates in the stands waving their USA flags, the crowd cheering so loud. The moment is going way too fast! Your name is announced, and you step up on that podium! Wave! Smile! Hand on the heart and listen to that national anthem. Take a deep breath… and honestly I don't remember much else from that moment.
There was no "ah ha", or "I did it". It was more a "thank-goodness-that's-over". Honestly, I was a bit disappointed for feeling this way. I thought to myself, wasn't I supposed to be crying, or feeling MORE. I'm singing the national anthem, and it's for me!
The next few hours were a blur – photos, media, drug testing, eventually finding some time to cool down… I do, after all, have other races to prep for. Finally, dinner… Finding friends in the dining hall at this late hour is less then likely, but there are a few stragglers left to hug. What can I say, I really love hugs. And finally, late at night I finally lay down in bed with that gold medal sitting in a box right on my bedside table. I felt satisfied, relieved, excited. I didn't want to go to sleep! I didn't want it to end, I didn't want another day to come because this one was just too great. But eventually the exhaustion set in…
So what does it feel like to be an Olympian? Well, in that moment I didn't know. It wasn't until a few years later that I finally started to understand… That moment came while watching the Vancouver Winter Olympics four years ago. I had the tv on, just like I do right now watching Sochi. And I was watching some men's skiing event. Until now, I didn't remember the event, the skier's name or his story, I just remembered watching him compete and stepping up on that podium. (I now know it was Alex Bilodeau, Canadian Moguls Skier). All of a sudden I felt this rush of pride and joy watching him (he wasn't even an athlete for USA, which was weird) and as his eyes welled up on that podium, mine began to also. Now, I know that many people cry watching the Olympics… but what I felt was so much more. I was taken back to Beijing, and I finally realized what it means to be an Olympian.
When I was in the moment I didn't grasp what was happening beyond me, outside of that pool deck. The hopes of a nation. The dreams of little swimmer kids everywhere. My family back home who were watching and waiting to pop that champagne. My Mom and Dad who took me to practice at 4:30 in the morning, every morning. My sister who cheered me on. All the coaches along the way. My relatives watching from the US, Hungary, and Romania. Every teacher and childhood friend. Every teammate and USC student… My school, My Family, My Country.
It wasn't about me at all. It was about Olympic Spirit and National Pride. The joys of competition and the Human Spirit.
Fast Forward to Sochi, 2014. Every athlete, every medal and every story is such a beautiful moment that reminds me of the joys of competition and the beauty of the Olympic Spirit.
I hope you are all enjoying watching the Sochi Winter Olympics and celebrating in true Olympic Spirit. And will someone please pass me the tissues…?