Enter a local road race, and you might get a water bottle. Make it to Districts in tennis, and you get a t-shirt. Qualify for the Olympics, and you get a whole shopping cart full of red, white, and blue swag.
Before every Olympic Games, U.S. athletes must attend Team Processing, not just to pick up their opening ceremonies outfits and other gear, but to be briefed on what to expect in Beijing. It's like freshman orientation, even if some of the athletes are Olympic veterans.
This year, San Jose State University is hosting Team Processing. As the university's freshmen attend their own orientation, walking in large groups around the sun-splashed campus, Olympians disguised in street clothes walk from buses to dorms to the dining hall and to the undisclosed campus building housing most of the processing activities.
So why is Team Processing being held here? For the 2004 Olympics in Athens and 2006 Turin Games, Team Processing was held in the host cities. U.S. athletes were flying from many different airports to Europe prior to both Olympics, and the host cities were the one central location where they would all end up.
For the 2008 Olympics, San Francisco International Airport is serving as the primary gateway to Beijing for U.S. athletes. From here, most board a United Airline's flight for the 12+-hour direct trip to Beijing.
SJSU is about an hour south of San Francisco's airport, and the university has its own Olympic history, including 18 medal winners (1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos are SJSU grads).
"This is a great set up," says Nancy Gonsalves, the U.S. Olympic Committee's director of Team Processing. "It's convenient. Everything is located here - housing, a cafeteria, training facilities. The ballroom is big, and the weather is consistent."
The USOC orchestrates Team Processing, which opened July 18 and wraps up August 6. Buses and vans meet athletes flying into the San Francisco and San Jose airports and bring them to SJSU.
On July 29, over 100 athletes, coaches, and other team personnel from eight sports were scheduled to attend Team Processing. They flew in on 37 separate flights landing from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m., and women's basketball drove in from their training site.
If flights are late? "We adapt," says Scott Cronk, the USOC's manager of new media who wears about 20 different hats during team processing.
From the buses, the athletes and coaches pick up their dorm room assignments - most stay on campus for one night. The dorm rooms are Spartan but clean multi-bedroom suites, with one athlete per bedroom. Linens are provided. For entertainment, athletes can hang out in a common room with big-screen TV and a few computers. One of the volunteers, a guy named Joe who was helping in shipping, brought in his vast collection of DVDs - over 300, he said - for the athletes to watch.
After check-in, the athletes grab lunch in the cafeteria, where chefs have prepared the food according to recipes provided by the USOC. Some food has also been shipped in. The dining hall is decorated in balloons, with 8-8-08 written in gold balloons hanging over the fireplace.
After lunch, they begin team processing. Every athlete is asked to sign "San Jose Salutes the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team" banner. They also pick up credentials, have individual and team photos taken for media purposes, are measured for the Olympic rings and leather jackets, and finish any medical paperwork.
The highlight is apparel distribution, held in a ballroom-size hall lined with boxes and tables. The clothing arrived in six semis and took eight people more than 30 hours to unload.
Athletes and coaches pick up an orange shopping cart - donated by Home Depot - and sign in, where they're each given a clipboard listing every item of apparel that they are required to pick up.
It's not just an outfit for opening ceremonies. Nike and Ralph Lauren have created over 40 items for Team USA - everything from Olympic T-shirts to sports bras and socks. Some is podium-wear; other items, village-wear; and everyone is measured for opening and closing ceremonies attire.
The team uniforms worn in competition - like the gymnastics leotards and cycling skinsuits - are handed out by their sports' governing bodies prior to Team Processing.
As athletes make their way down the lines of tables, they fill their carts with hats and shoes - flip-flops and two pairs of athletic shoes made by Nike, an outfitter and sponsor, and parade shoes from Ralph Lauren, the official outfitter. In between, they try on cargo pants, training shorts and shirts, track pants and jackets, rain outfits, hoodies, and several T-shirts and polo shirts.
"Does this look cool on me?" one asks.
"Yeah," responds a teammate.
"The sleeves fit better, but it's long," one gymnast tells another.
At checkout, volunteers pack a Nike suitcase - also part of the Olympic collection - with the clothing each athlete needs to take to Beijing. Other items are packed in a duffle bag. Any items the athletes wish to ship home are boxed, addressed, and sent from a shipping center in the dorms. The suitcases going to Beijing are labeled and stacked, and will be taken to the airport in trucks, to be reunited with each athlete in Beijing.
"It's like being a kid in a candy store," said gymnast Raj Bhavsar, who was named to the men's team after Paul Hamm withdrew. "It's all part of the honor and opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games. It's some of the nicest apparel I've ever been given."
"It's like the best Christmas ever," commented Hanna Thompson, a fencer who competes in women's foil, after trying on all the shoes. "Everything is awesome."
Next stop is alterations, a room filled with tailors and seamstresses, sewing machines and irons, pins and tape measures. Opening ceremonies outfits are tailored to fit everyone from 6'8" LeBron James to 4'8" Shawn Johnson.
"It's very overwhelming," said Shani Marks as she waited outside the alterations room for her teammates. Marks is a two-time U.S. triple-jump champion who will compete in her first Olympics. "It's like Christmas times ten. The grocery cart, you can't fit another thing in it!"
The last stop is an hour-long team briefing, held in a lecture hall. The athletes are told what to expect in Beijing - from how long it is from the airport to the Olympic Village to a few tips for dealing with the media. Then a fellow Olympian - 1988, 1992 and 1996 basketball player Katrina McClain - shared her Olympic experience and talked about their responsibilities as Olympians.
Gonsalves wrapped up the briefing by reminding the teams, "Once you are an Olympian, you're an Olympian for life, you're never a former Olympian."
The briefing ended with a video of Dr. Maya Angelou reading her poem, "Amazement Awaits," that she wrote for the 2008 Olympics. Everyone left the hall with her last stanza in their heads:
"Ah ... We discover, we ourselves
Are the Amazement which awaits
We are ourselves Amazement."
The next morning most would be on a flight to Beijing.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.