A behind-the-scenes look at the sacrifices, heartbreak, and strength necessary to compete in the Olympic Games
It’s a difficult road to get the gold.
The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang have marked watershed moments for women, with figure skater Mirai Nagasu and snowboarder Chloe Kim shattering world records.
But millions of viewers don’t see the years of practice, sacrifice, and struggle to get there. Moneyish asked four inspiring Olympic champions to share their journeys, and the hurdles they overcame to achieve Olympic glory.
Prepare to sacrifice parts of your personal life.
For swimming champion Misty Hyman, 38, becoming an Olympian started as a way to counteract a disease. “I started swimming when I was five years old,” the gold medalist from the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney told Moneyish. “The physician told my mom that swimming was the best sport for asthma, so my mom signed me up.”
Little did her mom know that, by age 21, her daughter would become an Olympic superstar. “There were tough choices,” along the way, Hyman admitted, “because I wanted to be an Olympian so badly… I did still have a social life, [but] my mom would pick me up on a Saturday morning from sleepovers so I could make it to 8 A.M. practice. I would pack up my bag and sneak out while my friends were sleeping… My high school friends knew I wasn’t going to…talk on the phone for three hours.”
The stakes are even greater sometimes — such as putting off starting a family, in the case of track and field star Jenny Simpson, 32. The Olympic champion became the first woman in Team USA history to medal in the 1500-meter race; she left the 2016 Summer Games in Río de Janeiro with the bronze.
But she’s not done smashing through records yet. Simpson told Moneyish that she’ll be back on the track at the 2020 Games in Tokyo — and to focus all of her energies on her training, she and her husband have decided to delay having a child for another two years.
Build up deep reserves of internal motivation.
“I didn’t dream of being an Olympian. I was not one of those stories,” said swimmer Betsy Mitchell, 52, today the athletic director at the California Institute of Technology. At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Mitchell won the gold and silver medals for the backstroke in two separate relays, and achieved another silver four years later at the 1988 Games in Seoul.
As a 15-year-old swimmer growing up in Ohio, Mitchell’s coach once told her, “You know, you have an incredible physical gift, and as soon as you figure out how to harness that and work really hard, you will be an Olympic medalist.”
Sure enough, he was right — and she credits discipline and rigorous training for getting her there. “It was two hours in the morning, two or three hours in the afternoon; we would do that three or four days a week… and then the other two or three days, we just did a single training session,” she shared. “If you’re not internally, intrinsically motivated to simply be the best you can be — if it’s not following your passion — it’s going to be a hard go.”
Get ready to face heartbreak.
If you dream of standing on that Olympic podium, you should be ready for major setbacks. Swimming champion Hyman remembers hers: At age 17, eager to represent Team USA at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Hyman entered the pool for her qualifying races at the Olympic trials a few weeks before the Games.
When she emerged from the water a few minutes later, her dreams had drowned. “I missed the team by about three one-hundredths of a second,” Hyman said. She was devastated.
“It was [crushing]. At first it seemed like an eternity to have to train that hard again and try that hard again. But in the end… I realized how much I loved getting in the water, how much I loved pushing myself.”
Four years later, Hyman did make the team. She went on to defeat reigning champ Susie O’Neill from Team Australia in the 200-meter butterfly, simultaneously setting the new American record in the event.
If you achieve Olympic glory, pause and enjoy the moment.
On Feb. 13th, Team USA snowboarder Arielle Gold, 21, earned the bronze in the Women’s Halfpipe Snowboarding final. It’s something she’s been dreaming of since she was a little girl in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
“I remember doing goal-setting when I was eight years old and saying that, not only did I want to go the Olympics one day, but I wanted to medal,” she recounted. “And I remember one of my coaches saying, ‘Wouldn’t just going be a huge experience for you?'”
But no — that wouldn’t be enough. So Gold started competing at age 13, leaving school early two days a week to spend long afternoons on the slopes. She spent many late nights racing down the local mountain in her hometown, too, in order to get in extra hours of practice, the track illuminated by glowing floodlights high overhead.
Four years ago at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Gold — then 17 years old — thought her big moment had arrived. She and her family made the trip to the Games when, on the day of her first scheduled event, she dislocated her shoulder. Unable to compete, she departed Sochi with no medals and broken dreams.
But last week, that all changed. Even then, Gold had to remind herself to stay in the incredible moment: “Being able to listen to the US national anthem was amazing,” Gold told Moneyish of the medal ceremony in Pyeongchang. “During that whole experience, I kept reminding myself to stay present and just enjoy it, just try to focus on every minute of it and not get wrapped up in everything else.”
Her advice for youth athletes who look up to her? “No dream is too big. Just work hard for what you want and don’t listen to what anybody else tells you.”
In the end, it’s all worth it.
Track and field star Simpson remembers, crystal clearly, the moment she crossed the 1500-meter finish line in Río and earned her bronze medal — something no American woman in Team USA history had done before her.
“I felt like that moment was for my 10-year-old self that dreamed of this… Who I was for the last 30 years of my life was marching toward [it],” she said. “It just felt so incredible to be the woman who could take us to that place.”
Being the first in any achievement, Simpson added, represents something profound. “It’s an opportunity to be a breakthrough for a whole generation of young women, and embrace the idea that there are little girls sitting on their couches, watching the television, seeing what you’re doing — and one of those little girls will be you someday.”
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