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Why the US Olympic Trials are so fierce

Why the US Olympic Trials are so fierce
Why the US Olympic Trials are so fierce


You are a basketball player and grew up in the United States. Your dream, you tell anyone who will listen, is to be part of the NBA. Plain and simple.

That's far from being the case. But every year, the NBA organizes its draft this year, it begins on June 26. The league welcomes around sixty new players into its ranks. Of course, rookies still have to make their team's roster and earn playing time to say they've truly achieved their dream. And American players must compete with international talent for spots; these players seem to get better every year.

But even if you go undrafted, you can enter the league as a free agent, immediately or after playing overseas or in a minor league. During the last NBA season, 572 people played at least one game in the NBA.

On the other hand, you are a 100m sprinter who grew up in the United States. Your dream, you tell anyone who will listen, is to participate in the Olympic Games. Planned and simple.

Read more: Your guide to the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics: when and how to watch and what to expect

However, the process of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic track and field team couldn't be more cutthroat. Once every four years, it's worth repeating: Every four years, three 100m sprinters make the U.S. Olympic team for the individual Olympic race. No 60-round repechage for the Olympics.

Additionally, the United States is holding trials to build its Olympic roster; track and field trials begin Friday in Eugene, Ore., and run through June 30. It doesn't matter if you're the reigning world champion or if you've been setting record times all season. Or if you're feeling a little sick the morning of your race. Either you finish in the top three or your dreams are postponed. If it's not totally destroyed.

The math of the dream is so unfair, says American hurdler Kristi Castlin, who won bronze in the 100m at the 2016 Rio Olympics. That's why every day you're out there, you just have to put your blood, sweat and tears on the line. Because once you get to these Olympic trials, it's like the Hunger Games.

This week and next week, four of the most watched sports on the Olympic program – diving, swimming, gymnastics and track and field – hold their quadrennial trials. I've talked about it with friends who play other sports, and they say, 'It's crazy,'” said American heptathlete Anna Hall, the reigning world silver medalist, referring to the system. 'tests. In diving, athletes compete for position through June 23 in Knoxville, Tennessee; during the swimming events, which also take place until June 23, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the calculations are even crueler. In most races, the top two finishers, at most, compete in the Games.

The American gymnastics selections begin on June 27 in Minneapolis. Only five women and five men succeed.

Read more: Fred Richard is Team USA's next Olympic hope in men's gymnastics

Talk about pressure. It's a mental war, says Castlin, who didn't reach the finals of the trials in 2012. Physically, they were all on the same level. It's time to walk from the warm-up floor to where they stage you under the stadium until you come out and the gun goes off. This is where the race is won or lost.

In 2016, between the semi-final and the final of the trials in Eugene, Castin focused on fashion, in order to put her in a positive state of mind. The first thing I did was change clothes, Castlin says, referring to her final outfit as her Beyoncé uniform. These people are going to see you wearing this on Hollywood Boulevard. Feeling confident in her look, Castin turned to viewing her latest race. It helped that she won her first round and semi-final. I feel good, she said. Negative thoughts couldn't even enter my mind. Castin finished second, punching his ticket to Rio.

Athletics thrives on tension. The runners line up in the blocks and the crowded stadium falls silent seconds before the gun goes off. These moments build anticipation among fans and leave athletes vulnerable to counterproductive thinking. We forget that in this type of sport our body will be terribly tense, explains sports psychologist Shayne McGowan. It destroys us. Athletes have to find their way to a state of calm, he says, when you're relaxed, you control your breathing, and when you're standing there at the starting block, you're looking at the finish line, that's mine.

Read more: Sunny Choi heads to Paris for her sport's Olympic debut. Don't call it “breakdancing”

American Justin Gatlin, Olympic gold medalist in the 100m at the 2004 Athens Games, has competed in four Olympic events. He made the team in 2004, 2012 and 2016, but missed Tokyo three years ago after aggravating an injury in the 100m trials final. (He was serving a doping suspension in 2008 and won bronze in London and silver in Rio, behind Usain Bolt.) Gatlin, who currently hosts a track-themed podcast, trained at the Olympic trials before to participate in the Olympic trials. I would put myself in scenarios where I would take a few of my training partners and I would say, 'Oh, in my mind, you're Tyson Gay,'” Gatlin says. In my mind, you are someone else at that moment running fast. And I would think about how I will face them in the final.

When testing, he says, control the variables you can control. In the popular 2020 ESPN documentary The Last Dance, Michael Jordan's camp floated a theory that Utah Jazz fans tampered with a pizza delivered to his Park City hotel room before Game 5 of the NBA Finals 1997. In the now legendary Flu Game, Jordan fell ill but still scored 38 points, leading Chicago to victory. It was food poisoning, Jordan said.

While a Utah man, claiming to have made the pizza, came forward and denied contaminating it, in fact, said he was a Bulls fan. Gatlin said the point still stands. Get your food from trusted places. Do your best to stay out of public places, where you can catch a bug.

You go to Oregon, there's a lot of trees, Gatlin said of track testing. So there will probably be a lot of pollen. Make sure to pack Claritin, Zyrtec or whatever you can.

After all, every sniffle can cost you a millisecond and an Olympic bid.

Sometimes you can't do anything. Alysia Montao entered the 2016 Olympic Trials as the favorite to make her second consecutive U.S. Olympic team. But as she prepared for her final charge in the 800m final with some 75 meters to go, accidental contact with another runner caused her to fall onto the track, eliminating her chances completely.

She didn't do anything to deserve to lose. But the tests do not allow us to start again.

I think I still struggle from time to time, said Montao, who crossed the line fifth in London but was re-awarded a bronze medal a dozen years later after a second Russian athlete who finished ahead of her was stripped of her medal. . Russian track and field athletes were excluded from the Rio Games; it was Montao's last best chance for a real podium.

However, she found a way out. She published a book, Feel Good Fitness, in 2020. She focused on advocacy work for female athletes. Montao, who competed in the U.S. championships while eight months pregnant in 2014, wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times in 2019 criticizing Nike's sponsorship policy for pregnant athletes. After a public outcry, Nike extended its protections. I put energy into the things I'm really good at, which goes way beyond just running, Montao says.

And despite all the stress, most Olympic athletes will tell you that the pursuit is worth it. The Olympic selections changed my life, says Castin. It just gave me the courage and the will to keep moving forward and making the story happen. It prepared me for life after sports.

Athletes who fail the trials, in the overwhelming majority, should actually have no shame. There will be a day when you can talk about this experience, sitting down with your colleagues, your friends or your family, and say, 'Yes, I qualified for the Olympic trials,' says Castlin. And few people can say the same. Just getting there and competing is an accomplishment in itself that everyone should be proud of. Because the United States of America is the hardest team to put together.

Real words. But little comfort, over the next few days, for Eugene's fourth places.




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