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An Olympic 'FIRST'

By Joanne C Gerstner | May 28, 2013, 12:06 p.m. (ET)

John Orozco chalks his hands in the men's gymnastics team final
at the London 2012 Olympic Games at North Greenwich Arena on
July 30, 2012.

Documentary director Caroline Rowland admits she was quite nervous last summer, as she worked on a massive film project.

She had great storylines, following 12 first-time competitors in the London 2012 Olympic Games for her film, but Rowland no idea how things would unfold for her Olympians.

Her work, “FIRST: The Story of the London 2012 Olympic Games,” turned out to be an emotional, behind-the-scenes look at the lives of rookie Olympians. Presented by NCM Fathom Events, New Moon and the United States Olympic Committee, this exclusive one-night event in select cinemas nationwide is set for May 30, at 7:30 p.m. local time. To check for listings in your area, click here.

Rowland had complete access to their lives, chronicling six weeks of their pre-Olympic training and then taking their stories through their competitions in London.

“I wanted to really show how the Olympic experience, and what all of these athletes accomplished in London and before, can be a source of inspiration and hope for young people,” Rowland said. “All of them went through so many emotions, winning and losing, nervousness, confidence, and I watched every single one of them grow before my eyes.

“This film was a huge risk, as I had no idea how any of them would perform or respond under the Olympic pressures. But they all did, in their own ways. I think people will see that when they view the film.”

Her subjects experienced every emotion of the Games. U.S. swimmer Missy Franklin, Irish boxer Katie Taylor, and Kenyan runner David Rudisha dramatically captured gold medals, while American gold-medal hopefuls Jonathan Orozco and boxer Queen Underwood fell short of their medal goals.

Orozco’s dreams of reaching the medal stand fell short, as the U.S. team placed fifth overall and he was eighth in the all-around. Underwood, one of three U.S. women competing in London as women’s boxing made its debut in the Olympic Games, lost in the first round.

Orozco’s hope – followed by heartbreak – is part of FIRST. He regards the movie, despite his less-than-Hollywood ending for the 2012 Games, as a positive.

“I'm hoping FIRST will inspire young athletes to achieve their goals,” Orozco said. “I hope that people can understand that the journey to the Olympics is not easy, but it is not impossible.”

Missy Franklin 
Missy Franklin reacts after winning gold in the women's 200m
backstroke at the London 2012 Olympic Games on July 29, 2012.

At just 17, Franklin turned out to have the most impressive Olympic debut in terms of medals. She claimed four Olympic gold medals and a bronze in her first trip to the Games.

“I can't wait to see ‘FIRST’ and relive the exciting events of last summer,” Franklin said. “Not only am I honored to be a part of this film, but I'm also excited to experience the Olympic journeys of the other amazing athletes involved in this project.”

Other featured athletes in FIRST are swimmer Chad de Clos (South Africa), track cyclist Laura Trott (Great Britain), BMX rider Caroline Buchanan (Australia), sprinter Christophe Lemaitre (France), judo fighter Maljinda Kelmendi (Albania), diver Qui Bo (China), and pistol shooter Henna Sidu (India).

Orozco, who hopes to compete in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, enjoyed the opportunity to work with Rowland.

“I think it (the inside look of FIRST) is extremely important because people sometimes forget that we aren't robots that go in the gym and train for hours and hours,” Orozco said about the movie’s look into his life. “We are human, we make mistakes, we get emotional and we are all athletes reaching for the same goal.”

Making Olympians more human, and less superhero and unapproachable, was one of Rowland’s goals in writing, directing and producing FIRST. She once had her own Olympic dreams, hoping to swim in the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games, but freely admits she fell far short in talent.

Her love of sport, combined with a passion for filmmaking, led to FIRST. She was cognizant of the stress the Olympians were under, especially in the lead-up to London. Rowland, and her film crew, aimed to be respectful of the athletes, coaches and their families and friends, but also hoped to capture the special, smaller moments of their journeys.

“This was a labor of love,” Rowland said. “I want as many young people as possible to engage in this, see what being an elite athlete is all about. This reflects everyday life in all of us, how we have the capacity to overcome challenges, find success, grow from our failures.

“The Olympics capture the world’s imagination like nothing else. There are so many rich stories. I just picked 12, so I felt the responsibility to try to go beyond being simply at one level with them. They are deeply complex stories, and all of them are inspiring.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Joanne C. Gerstner is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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Missy Franklin

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Queen Underwood

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John Orozco