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With 3 And 4 Olympics Under Their Belts, What Advice Would These Athletes Give To Olympic Rookies?

By Peggy Shinn | Dec. 21, 2017, 1:06 p.m. (ET)

Going to PyeongChang, at least 17 U.S. Olympians and Paralympians are aiming for their fourth and even fifth Games. Over half have already won Olympic and Paralympic medals. Others are world champions in their sports and are hoping to win medals at the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

These athletes have a wealth of experience competing on the world’s biggest sports stage. And we wondered what they would say to their first-time Olympic and Paralympic selves, if they could go back in time. What words of wisdom would they impart on 2018’s Olympic rookies?

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We asked 10 of them at the recent Team USA Media Summit.

* * *

Erin Hamlin began her Olympic journey in 2006, finishing 12th in women’s luge. Two Olympics later, in 2014, she won a bronze medal. It felt like gold after a disappointing finish in Vancouver in 2010, when she came to the Games as the defending world champion.

If Hamlin could go back to 2006, she would encourage her first-time Olympic self to stay positive and to embrace the bad days.

“The more bad runs you have, the more ways you know how it didn’t work,” she said. “You can take that and figure out how to do it right.”

At the start of her four runs in Sochi, she had confidence that she could get down the track fast, no matter how she entered or exited each corner.

“Experience was the biggest part of that,” she explained. “So just keep going because experience is what pays off.”

Last month she qualified for her fourth, and final, Olympic team in 2018 — when she hopes to finally win gold.

* * *

In biathlon, Lowell Bailey also believes that experience is key to success. He exceeded his expectations in his first Olympic Games in 2006 finishing a career-best 27th in the individual race.

Four years later, the pendulum swung the other way, and he was devastated. He did not finish in the top 30 in any race, and in the relay, the U.S. team ended up a disappointing 13th (after several top-10 finishes in world cup races that winter).

“I think you have to go through that [pendulum] swing, and you have to learn and experience what it’s like to not reach your goals and not be where you think you ought to be and work through all that as an athlete,” he said.

Bailey no longer approaches biathlon as his defining characteristic but instead as one of his defining characteristics. In the 2014 Games, he finished a U.S.-best eighth in the individual race. And in 2017, he became the nation’s first biathlon world champion.

He now hopes to win Team USA’s first Olympic medal in biathlon in PyeongChang.

* * *

American downhiller Steven Nyman also learned about managing expectations in his first Olympic Games in 2006. Still a young alpine skier — it was his first full season racing on the world cup tour — he had finished fourth in a downhill right before the Torino Games. Then in Torino, he finished in the top three in the downhill training runs.

“I can win this thing,” he told himself, “I know I can win this thing.”

Instead, he finished 19th.

So what would he tell his 2006 Olympic self? “Don’t worry about the result, focus on the task at hand.”

Since then, Nyman has finished on the world cup podium 11 times, including his first win a few months after the 2006 Games. He has also come within three-hundredths of a second of winning a medal at world championships. And he finished third in the PyeongChang downhill test event.

“The force of the Olympics is huge,” Nyman concluded. “There’s so much energy behind it, and that’s what I didn’t realize. Use that energy for good and not to pressure you down.”

Returning from a torn ACL, Nyman hopes to make his fourth Olympic team in 2018.

* * *

Through four Olympic Games, snowboarder Kelly Clark has also learned a lot about pressure. With no expectations at her first Olympics in 2002 (she was not expecting to even make the team that year), she won a gold medal in the halfpipe.

After the competition, one of her teammates said, “Aren’t you so glad it’s over?”

It was a strange comment, Clark thought, and it made her realize that she had had the right mindset. Rather than focus on the magnitude of competing on the world’s stage, she had enjoyed just being part of the show.

“We can get wrapped up in four years of intensity for 30 seconds [of performing on the Olympic stage], and we make it into something that defines us, we make it into a destination,” she said.

Clark would advise younger athletes to enjoy the opportunity of competing at the Olympic Games.

“You don’t need to make it a destination or something where you need a T-shirt that says, ‘I survived the Olympic Games,’” she said. “Instead, think, ‘I got to do this wonderful sport.’”

Clark won Olympic bronze medals in both 2010 and 2014. If she qualifies for PyeongChang, it will be her fifth Games.

* * *

Oksana Masters would give her first-time Paralympic self similar advice to Clark’s. She has competed in three Paralympic Games to date, each one in a different sport (rowing in 2012, Nordic skiing in 2014 and cycling in 2016).

But no matter the sport, the pressure of competing has remained the same. She would tell herself to look at each Paralympic race — no matter the sport — as just another training session and not, “Oh my gosh, everyone single person is watching, and it’s the biggest race, and if you mess up, it’s over.”

A three-time Paralympic medalist and four-time world champion heading into PyeongChang, Masters would remind herself to approach each race with the same love that she has for training.

And to not pack as many clothes — “You’ll never use them.”

* * *

In his first Paralympic Games in 2006, Steve Cash was the U.S. sled hockey team’s backup goaltender. But he did not dwell on his status as backup. He knew everyone played a role on the team.

So what would he tell his 2006 Paralympic self if he could go back? “You’ve come this far, why stop now? Keep pushing.”

The U.S. sled hockey team won the bronze medal at the Paralympics that year. Since then, Cash has backstopped Team USA to over 77 career wins, including gold medals at both the 2010 and 2014 Games. The U.S. is the only sled hockey team ever to successfully defend Paralympic gold.

In his 13th year on the team, Cash is aiming to lead the U.S. to a gold-medal three-peat in PyeongChang.

* * *

Some multi-time Olympians would not want to give their first-time selves any advice.

At the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Ted Ligety stormed back in the slalom portion of men’s alpine combined to take his first gold medal. It was his first Olympics.

“I wouldn’t have that much advice for myself,” said Ligety when asked what he would say to himself if he could go back to 2006. “Being a little naïve back then was a good thing.”

“If I gave myself some advice, maybe I would have turned myself in the wrong direction, so I don’t know,” he added with a laugh.

Since 2006, Ligety has won 25 world cup races, six world cup titles, five world championship crowns (and seven medals total) and another Olympic gold medal in 2014. He is returning from back surgery and hopes to step on the Olympic podium again in PyeongChang.

* * *

Nate Holland in Vancouver

Although Nate Holland has yet to win an Olympic medal, the snowboardcross racer is another three-time Olympian who would not change anything from his first Games in 2006. The seven-times X Games gold medalist liked his strategy of “just go out of the gate, drop the throttle, and don’t let up.”

“I used to have a saying, ‘Wreck or win,’” he said.

Unfortunately, that strategy has not yet led to Olympic success. He finished 14th in 2006, a heartbreaking fourth in 2006 and 25th in 2014.

At age 39, he can no longer ride with such wild abandon. It takes him too long to recover from crashes these days. And although he has modified his race strategy in his dotage, he knows that his former go-for-broke style has taught him how to remain in the mix now.

Holland won the Olympic test event in 2016 and is hoping to make it to his fourth Olympic Games in 2018 — and finally add a medal to his collection.

* * *

Kikkan Randall would not change anything either. The U.S. women have yet to win an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing, and the excitement and possibility of winning a medal at her first Games in 2002 “almost took my breath away,” Randall said.

“You were grasping at that belief that maybe it could be possible,” she said. “I almost wouldn’t want to go back and ruin that excitement and enthusiasm.”

What the four-time Olympian might have changed is how she trained in her early years.

“I could probably go back and do better, and maybe that would have accelerated my ability to be at the top of the world cup a little bit sooner,” she added.

She won her first world cup in December 2007 and her first (of four) world championship medals in 2009.

Looking forward, Randall has passed along lessons learned over the past 15 years to her teammates and other young skiers who are coming up the ranks.

Most importantly, she tells them, “We can be successful, even though we haven’t quite won that medal yet.”

She hopes to change that at her fifth Olympics in 2018.

* * *

Julia Mancuso competed in her first Olympics in 2002. Trying to ease the pressure, her coaches told the 17-year-old alpine skier that she was there for the experience and “to just take it all in.”

“There was never once any, ‘You can do this, do the best you can do, like you never know, you could be on the podium,’” Mancuso said.

In combined at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Mancuso finished 13th, and Lindsey Vonn was even closer to the podium in sixth.

Four years later, in 2006, Mancuso won a gold medal in giant slalom — her first of four Olympic medals (so far).

Now aiming for her fifth Games, Mancuso would tell her teenage self to “believe in anything.

“No matter what anyone says, you really never know, you could actually get a medal,” she said. “Always just dream really big and reach for the sky because there’s really no limits.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

Related Athletes

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Erin Hamlin

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Lowell Bailey

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Steven Nyman

Alpine Skiing
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Kelly Clark

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Oksana Masters

Nordic Skiing
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Ted Ligety

Alpine Skiing
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Steve Cash

US Paralympics
Sled Hockey
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Nate Holland

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Kikkan Randall

Cross-Country Skiing
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Julia Mancuso