It's a powerful thing. When one hears The "O-Word", it usually evokes some kind of emotion related to awe. To utter it can cause goosebumps, and it tends to lead to eyes widening and jaws dropping. There are no questions asking what it means. It's a world-wide ideal.
By definition, Olympian means "one who is superior to all others." Actually, the first definition that pops up on a dictionary search is "Of or relating to the greater gods and goddesses of the ancient Greek pantheon." That's pretty awesome stuff...and not awesome like, "Oh, yeah man, that's rad," but awesome like it leaves you in awe. The Olympians weren't just gods (which is cool enough). They were the gods in charge of the gods.
Athletes have often been described as having "God-given" talent, strength or stamina. Regardless of whether or not you observe a religion, it's a common phrase that is used often. Athletes push themselves to limits that others can't. They do things with their bodies that physiologically aren't "normal". An athlete usually has a stronger will than others, and they have a stubborn determination not to quit. These qualities are what makes athletes gods among men.
Those who have competed in the Olympic Games are the greater gods; by definition: the Olympians. Every four years they come into the public spotlight. Every four years they dazzle us with their feats of greatness, of overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles. Every four years, they bring the world together in a display of sportsmanship, competition and strength. Every four years we marvel at what they do.
The first Olympic-related memory I have is as an 8-year-old, watching US gymnast Kerri Strug vault her way into history in the 1996 Atlanta Games. I recall asking my mom why Strug was hopping on one leg when she landed, and I remember how surprised I was to hear that she had done the vault on a sprained ankle. In doing so, she had essentially guaranteed a gold medal for her team, but the landing damaged her ankle to the extent that she had to be carried from the arena.
This is the kind of athlete an Olympian is. They train and work and struggle and suffer for years to possibly make an Olympic team. If they get to the Games, they'll be damned if a sprained ankle is going to stop them from competing.
Let me reiterate: this isn't normal.
Olympic athletes have something inside of them that I don't think anyone can explain, even the athletes themselves. It's some bizarre mentality or drive that keeps them pushing forward no matter what happens. It's rare, and not everyone can handle it.
A physical effort only goes so far. It's the mental capacity and strength that takes them above and beyond the common man. There are many people who would, who have, and who will crack under the pressures brought on by the Olympic lifestyle: the training that can break one down to within an inch of disaster before strength is found and built. Constant travel during the season can bring about weight loss and broken equipment and jet lag and headaches. The lack of finances is a constant issue, and it's nearly impossible to hold down even a part-time job because training always looms overhead. Goodness knows how many weddings, graduations, and birthdays are missed because of competition scheduling conflicts.
But this is what extraordinary people, what Olympians, do without hesitation. They rise above adversity, make the sacrifice, and keep moving forward because with such big hardships, there are equally big successes. There's nothing like the feeling of watching the Stars and Stripes rise when standing on a podium for the first time in an international race, or when a veteran wins their first overall World Cup medal, or when a retiree comes back to compete and immediately shows the new kids who's boss (but seriously, Noelle, you're awesome).
I'm new to this whole scene, at least to the athlete side of it. I'm not an Olympian. I am what you would call a "hopeful", someone who dedicates their entire young adult life to the pursuit of a shot at Olympic glory.
When I tell someone I'm an Olympic hopeful, I'd like to think their unsuccessfully hidden double-take and incredulous-sounding, "Really? You?!" is not because of my scrawny arms and small build and the fact that I'm a Southern California native competing in a winter ice sport. Instead, I hope it's because they're aware of the rarity of such elite-level competitors.
A little over 3,000 athletes are predicted to compete in the Games of the XXII Winter Olympiad in Sochi, Russia in February 2014. There are just over seven billion people in the world today. That means that Sochi Olympians will make up 0.000000421429577% of the world's population. That's four ten-millionths of one percent. So when someone says, "Oh, I know that Olympians make up less than 1% of the population," not only are they right, but they're so right you have to move the decimal seven places.
That's a mind-boggling number. Look at it again. I mean, I was going to try and come up with a comparable figure to try and bring it home, but saying there are more species of ants in the world than Olympians is kind of a downer because then I start thinking of those ants and what would happen if they suddenly decided to wage war on the human population.
The point is, Olympians are a rare breed. I am trying to become one of them.
Why spend your life, energy and money on something that, quite possibly, could never happen, you ask? I'm not sure I'm the most qualified to answer that question yet, but I'll give it a go. I can't speak for my fellow athletes or for my teammates with US Bobsled and Skeleton, but I want to push my body to the limits. I want to see what I'm capable of, mentally and physically. I want to travel to countries and places I've never been and compete against the best of those countries. I want to wear the red, white and blue on my back because I'm proud of being an American. Put simply, I want to be the best. I want to be part of that four ten-millionths of one percent.
When someone hears The "O-Word", they know it's a big deal. They know what it means and what it stands for. They know, or think they know just how difficult it is to be an Olympian. The accompanying gasp or burst of delight stems from the knowledge that Olympians are elite. They are the best of the best of the best (with honors). They are the gods of athletics.
Lauren Salter is a development skeleton athlete and Olympic hopeful. Salter claimed a medal in her first competitive season during a North American Cup race in Lake Placid, N.Y. in 2012. She most recently finished third at U.S. National Championships in March. Read more from Salter by visiting her blog here.
*Athlete blog entries are the sole opinion of each individual author and may not be representative of the USBSF or its athletes.