I think most athletes, no matter their talent level, fantasize about going to the Olympics. I was no different. In my early twenties, I got into bike racing and started winning on the collegiate circuit and some Northern California criteriums and track events. I lived to ride. But, put me in a road race with the likes of Katrin Tobin or Sally Zack and I was off the back like a sack of potatoes. It was pretty clear I didn't have the talent to hang with Olympians, so I had to find another way to make it to the Games. Through my career, I've ended up being fortunate to partake in the Olympic dream by working with some of the greatest athletes in history.
I became the sports scientist for the 1992 U.S. Olympic Cycling Team and dedicated myself for two years to working with the athletes and coaches to use science and engineering to optimize athletic performance. I measured oxygen uptake, analyzed blood lactate, monitored heart rates, plotted pedal forces and studied drag in a wind tunnel. I created Coach Chris Carmichael's first training log (the earliest step in the evolution of Carmichael Training Systems). We had a very talented crop of junior men, led by future pro stars George Hincapie and Freddie Rodriguez. But, the standout of the squad was a 19-year former triathlete named Lance Armstrong.
What made Lance stand out, even at that early stage of his career? Obviously, he had talent. He could generate more power at threshold than anyone else. But we had some other cyclists with higher VO2 maxes or more efficient pedal strokes. I believe what made Lance uniquely successful was the intensity I could see in his eyes. He may have been young and brash, but he had an internal confidence, a singular, unwavering focus and the intelligence to become a student and scientist of the sport. Every breath he took, every question he asked had one purpose: to become the best cyclist in the world. I think that is the same way he approached his battle with cancer a few years later.
Four years after Barcelona, I was back at the Olympics with Nike. I had spent the year preceding the 1996 Games in Atlanta working with Michael Johnson to build the ultimate track spike. We used high-speed video to study the biomechanics of Michael's running style. We prototyped and tested all sorts of lightweight traction systems. I had Michael running laps with everything from sandpaper to cheese graters on his soles. Eventually, Michael won gold in both the 200 and 400 meters sprints wearing the famous 3.5-ounce Golden Shoe.
Were the shoes responsible for Michael's world records? Nope, I think the secret to Michael's amazing double gold performance was the same intensity in his eyes that I saw in Lance. He was intelligent and willing to explore new technologies and train scientifically. It was Michael's idea to make the shoes shiny and gold - not out of brashness, but ultimate confidence. He was right.
SO, WHAT DO OLYMPIANS DO WHEN THEY RETIRE?
Athletes who become Olympians achieve certain stature in our society. They are revered and admired for their achievements. Some Olympians decide, once their days of focused training and competition are past, to use that platform to promote causes that they care about. The Lance Armstrong Foundation is a shining example, but we have some local stories you may not know about.
Suzanne King, who competed for the U.S. Nordic ski team in 1994 and 1998, helped create a non-profit organization dedicated to giving scholarships to children in Kenya. Her mother moved to Kenya in 1999 and Suzanne visited in 2000. She was perplexed by the sight of children outside of the schoolyards and learned that many of them could not afford to attend school. They started privately sponsoring the $100-$500/year that it costs for fees, books and uniforms. They realized the need was greater than their own resources and created Grandmother's Education Fund Africa (www.gefausa.org), which matches sponsors with schoolchildren. This year they are sponsoring over 140 kids and approximately two thirds of the 80 sponsors live in Bend. Suzanne, who just returned from a visit to the Nakura region of Kenya, says, "Olympic status does give me some influence and credibility that enables me to help children who are less advantaged."
Beckie Scott, an Olympic Gold Medalist for the Canadian Nordic ski team in 2002, is now a member of the IOC. She just returned from the Games in China and I spoke with her while she was still recovering from jet lag. She said a highlight of her incredible experience there was "presenting the medals to the athletes in men's and women's synchronized platform diving." She also dedicates her time to Right to Play (www.righttoplay.com), an international humanitarian organization using play and sport to improve the lives of children in the most disadvantaged parts of the world. She first became involved in the cause as an athlete ambassador in 2003 when she traveled to Ethiopia. "I was so encouraged and inspired by what I saw," she said. When she retired from competition, she became an employee so that she could help provide "the gift of opportunity" that she enjoyed to other children. Who knows? Perhaps a little girl given the opportunity to play soccer on a dirt field in Africa will grow up to become an Olympian and will return the favor some day.