Thinking about giving up your Olympic dreams? Don’t abandon them – adjust them!
The third season of “Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful” is looking for male and female athletes age 14 and older to try new sports with the ultimate goal of representing Team USA.
This year there are six sports: bobsled, cycling, rowing, rugby, skeleton and weightlifting. Fifty finalists will be selected to travel to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where recruiters put the contestants through a series of general and sport-specific tests. The winner chosen for each sport then is invited to a national team camp.
While the scouts are scouring for talent, the athletes are looking for the right fit.
Mike Dionne of USA Bobsled & Skeleton said that in doing combines around the country, “I see a lot of good athletes that don’t necessarily have the speed that we’re looking for, but they’re really strong or powerful so rugby or weightlifting may be an alternative they didn’t know existed.”
Sometimes a Next Olympic Hopeful athlete is a match for more than one sport, in which case JD Stephenson of USA Rugby said, “That forces us to have some hard discussions. At the end of the day, it’s what’s best for that athlete.”
Here’s a look at the six sports and the physical and mental qualities athletes should have to compete in them at the elite level.
Bobsled and Skeleton
“It feels like you’re getting stuffed in a metal garbage can and kicked down a rocky hill,” said driver Elana Meyers Taylor, a three-time Olympic medalist. “But once you get used to it, it’s fun.”
Oh, and it’s really cold, too. Men compete in two-man and four-man bobsled while women compete in two-man and monobob, which is new for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
Now imagine being almost completely exposed except for a glorified cafeteria tray under your torso. Then go headfirst down the track with your chin barely an inch above the ice. That’s skeleton. (In luge, which is not part of the Next Olympic Hopeful, the sliders are on their backs).
The twisting, banked, iced tracks usually have more than a dozen turns and a trip down takes less than a minute at a top speed approaching 80 miles per hour.
Each bobsled has a driver and a brakeman (one and the same in monobob). The four-man sled also has two other athletes who help push the sled at the top, giving it velocity. Then they all must load into the sled and ride as relaxed as possible in a bent position to keep the sled balanced and aerodynamic.
It takes years to develop into an elite driver, but USA Bobsled & Skeleton is always looking for push athletes.
Skeleton sliders must power a sled weighing about 75 pounds by sprinting in a bent-over position, then steer with subtle shifts in body weight.
Mike Dionne, a coach and director of athlete development for USABS, puts a premium on speed both for bobsled and skeleton.
In Next Olympic Hopeful testing, athletes run sprints of 15, 30 and 45 meters from a standing start. Dionne said he emphasizes the 30-meter sprint, with the ideal time for a woman as close to 4 seconds as possible and 3.65 seconds or better for men.
He can assess the athlete’s explosiveness from lifting – specifically the power clean and squat – and from throwing a shot put.
“We know where our past Olympians have been, those parameters,” Dionne said, “and we look at those athletes who are close to those standards.”
Football players – most famously Herschel Walker – and track and field athletes have most commonly made successful transitions to bobsled, but the U.S. bobsled team has also included softball players, volleyball players and rowers.
At the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where the final NOH competition takes place, athletes push a sled weighing about 150 pounds a distance of 20 meters.
“We get an idea of what kind of power output they have pushing an object,” Dionne said.
Bobsled and skeleton also require certain mindset.
“Chances are a lot of these really good athletes have never done any type of extreme sport,” Dionne said. “Maybe they’re not a daredevil. It’s really hard to just ask that question to an athlete and know if they’re going to be good or not. They have to go experience the sport.
“I relate it a lot to the military. You can practice all you want teaching them how to be a soldier, but until they’re under live fire, you don’t know what kind of soldier they’re going to be.”
He said once they’re at a track, standing in the cold, he can start to get a feel for whether or not these athletes have the potential to suit up for Team USA.
It’s easier for Dionne to differentiate between a bobsled candidate and someone who should try skeleton. It comes down to body type and weight.
“You’re not going to have a 200-pound-plus male that’s going into skeleton,” he said. “He’s going to have to go into bobsled. For skeleton, you can’t have big broad shoulders that stick off the sled.”
Most people learn to ride a bike as children, but not everyone is cut out to be a track cyclist. For starters, it takes place in a velodrome, and riding on banked turns at top speed while drafting off the person in front of you is not the same as pedaling down the street of your neighborhood.
Although there are several track cycling events, USA Cycling mainly recruits for the team sprint, which is the easiest entry point to the sport because no strategy is involved. There are three cyclists to a team in the men’s race, which covers three 250-meter laps, and the winner is determined by time.
The leader after the first lap drops off (by riding up the banking), leaving two riders. The next leader drops off after the next lap and the third rider sprints the final lap alone. In qualifying, only one team is on the track at one time, but in subsequent races, two teams start on opposite sides of the track.
The women’s race has similar rules, but with only two riders and two laps.
“It’s really not skills we’re looking for so much as physical capabilities and attitude,” said Scott Schnitzspahn, vice president of elite athletics for USA Cycling. “Track cycling is a very explosive sport, so we’re looking for a good vertical leap, good power in the squat and the bike-specific testing, which is on a stationary bike so it doesn’t involve a lot of skill – just an ability to put a lot of power to the pedals.”
Good sprint cyclists can be drawn from any sport that requires a lot of speed and quickness, from football to lacrosse and track and field.
The same athletes would also be matches for bobsled and weightlifting, Schnitzspahn said.
“We don’t expect people to walk in the door being proficient on the bike,” he said. “That’s something we hope to teach the right athletes, so the tests are really important in finding them.”
In the past, USA Cycling measured all-out efforts in stationary bike tests lasting 6 seconds and then 30 seconds. Schnitzspahn said this year the drills will be modified slightly but will still require “as-hard-as-you-can-go type of efforts.”
Female track cyclists can reach speeds as fast as 34.5 miles per hour and male athletes can go 40 miles per hour.
Schnitzspahn said that while vertical leap is a pure representation of the athlete’s ability to generate power, evaluating attitude is much more subjective.
“It’s how they interact with their teammates, how they interact with coaching staff and the effort they’re giving throughout the week in terms of giving their best effort and not complaining,” he said. “It’s somebody we want to have on our team.”
Schnitzspahn added that while team sprint is a good starting point, USA Cycling hopes riders can eventually develop into contenders in the match sprint (a tactical race in which the athletes sometimes come to a complete stop with the intention of forcing the competitors to break first), and the keirin (in which competitors initially follow a pacing bike and then sprint the rest of the way).
Although it looks like an upper-body sport, rowing is a total-body workout. The strength of the rowing stroke actually comes from the legs. It’s a great aerobic workout, much like cross-country skiing, while being low-impact on the joints. The sport boasts that its athletes have been called the world’s most physically fit.
Events are divided into two disciplines – sweep rowing and sculling – and there are two categories within those, lightweight and open. Sweep rowers have one oar while scullers have an oar in each hand.
Pairs and fours sweep boats may or may not carry a coxswain, while the eight always has a coxswain. A world-level eight can move almost 14 miles per hour.
Stroke rates can be as high as 50 strokes a minute and the rowers in the shell must be in sync.
There are three sculling events: single, double and quad.
Athletes of any weight can enter the open categories, with the average woman standing 6-foot-2 and the average man 6-6. Lightweight women cannot weigh more than 130 pounds and lightweight men cannot weigh more than 160 pounds.
Races are 2,000 meters, or about 1.25 miles.
The best-selling book “The Boys in the Boat,” about the 1936 U.S. Olympic Rowing Team that won the gold medal, has “brought the rest of the world into the strange sport of rowing,” said Cameron Kiosoglous, director, coaching development for USRowing.
He said that in Next Olympic Hopeful candidates he looks for endurance and how much power they can generate.
A shuttle run, or repeat running test, is a good indicator of overall athletic ability, Kiosoglous said. “How far can you go in that period of time is a pretty good test of not only endurance, but also of mental toughness. We can see how hard they can push themselves to go to that next level.”
The power element is demonstrated on a stationary bike with tests of 15 seconds and one minute.
Cross-country runners, swimmers and cyclists make good rowers because of the endurance component. However, Kiosoglous said he also finds transfers from water polo and wrestling.
“They grow and change shape and find that they’re in the wrong sport and rowing would be the right sport for them,” he said. “Particularly in America, there isn’t typically a one-size-fits-all path to rowing. People find rowing in so many different ways.
“They may drive past a boathouse every day for their whole life and didn’t know it was a boathouse.”
Athletes with long limbs catch Kiosoglous’ eye.
“Obviously, the taller the better,” he said.
However, Kiosoglous said the character component is just as important as the physical attributes.
“How do they work with others?” he said. “Communication and cooperation are a huge part of what goes on in the sport of rowing, since it is primarily a team sport, and just what’s motivating these individuals?
“It’s one thing to see the numbers on paper; it’s another thing to actually look at them and go, ‘We know we can work with this person.’”
While cycling, weightlifting and rowing were on the program for the Olympic Games Athens 1896 (with rowing canceled due to bad weather), rugby sevens made its Olympic debut in 2016.
Most people are more familiar with rugby fifteens, an Olympic sport in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924, which has more players and longer games.
Rugby sevens has only seven players on a side and two 7-minute halves with a 1-minute intermission.
The game is rough, fast and continuous, with tackling and scrums and no pads or helmets.
The teams try to advance the ball into their opponent’s area of the field (pitch) and touch it to the ground on or beyond the goal line for a score worth five points (a try). The scoring team has an opportunity to kick the ball through the posts for an additional two points. Players may only pass the ball backwards or sideways with no blocking allowed.
“I think that rugby’s a really unique sport in terms of the cardiovascular,” said JD Stephenson, national high performance development manager for USA Rugby. “Aerobics, anaerobics and explosiveness are all required. Whereas other sports are looking at short bursts or endurance, we want to encompass all of that.”
Rugby candidates come from sports including football, track and field, wrestling, lacrosse and basketball.
The vertical jump and 10-meter and 40-meter sprints are top tests of rugby potential.
“There’s no substitute for speed,” Stephenson said. “We’re not 100 percent committed to it if it’s not a certain level, but it’s just that base level of athletic abilities to play at an elite level. If you’re a step too slow, there’s a lot of constraints there and it will hamper you.”
The shuttle tests – where athletes run five repetitions of 20, 40 and 60 meters – are good barometers of endurance.
Stephenson said a time under 4 minutes, 45 seconds would be considered good. “Some of our guys are hovering around 4 minutes,” he said.
Stephenson is also looking for EQ, or emotional intelligence.
“What can you do when you have the ball or what can you do when you don’t have the ball, which is a great majority of the time?” Stephenson said. “A good EQ allows for us to have players that understand how to self-regulate, how to adapt. We want people who do a little bit more than follow coaches’ orders, but who fill in the blanks with their play. They’re not just yes-men or yes-women.”
Stephenson said that among the sport-specific exercises, they’ll have small games or activities, such as with a soccer ball or tennis ball, to see how well the athletes adapt in different situations.
“People with ‘X’ factors have the innate understanding of themselves and the environment around them and can bring that to the game,” he said. “How do they respond to situations that we keep changing? Do they get flustered easily?”
Stephenson said the rugby federation does a lot of work with a sports psychologist, so they will see where the winner of Next Olympic Hopeful fits on their personality spectrum.
“Are they introverted? Extroverted?” he said. “We need to understand how we can operate as players and as peers.”
While many people lift weights at the gym, they are more familiar with the bench press, squat and deadlift, which are from the sport of powerlifting.
Weightlifting consists of the snatch and the clean & jerk.
In the snatch, the athlete lifts the barbell from the floor to overhead in one movement. The clean & jerk is performed in two movements. First, the athlete lifts the barbell from the floor to the shoulders (the clean). After a brief pause, the athlete lifts the weight overhead (the jerk).
Referees judge whether or not the lift is successful.
Athletes are divided into weight classes and the best successful snatch attempt and clean & jerk attempt are combined for the total weight.
“We recruit primarily from gymnastics, track and field, rugby, cheer and acrobatics and tumbling,” said Suzy Sanchez, director of grassroots programs and scouting for USA Weightlifting. “We’re looking for athletes that have really good body awareness, they’ve got good muscular development and they’re super quick and explosive.”
She said a background in strength training is a bonus, but weightlifting coaches can teach technique to those who have the natural ability to be explosive and fast.
The vertical jump and 30-meter sprint are good indicators of explosiveness. Sanchez said athletes also do horizontal jumps, such as the triple hop (two-footed jump) to test coordination.
Athletes also go through mobility exercises to see if they can get in the positions that are needed to perform the snatch and the clean & jerk.
These include the overhead squat and the snatch grip start position, which is kind of like a deadlift position with a wider grip.
“We check their ability to hold the bar in the front rack position and then actually perform a front squat,” Sanchez said.
While she said she can tell pretty quickly from the data if an athlete is well-suited to try the sport, “Weightlifting is a long-term development sport. It normally takes five to 10 years to really develop, but we can definitely tell right off the bat who has some pretty good potential.”
Sanchez said that since weightlifting has no specific season, athletes can also pursue other sports.
“With weightlifting, our actual movements are used a lot in the strength and conditioning community – the power clean, power snatch and power jerk,” she said. “We don’t necessarily encourage our athletes to be dual-sport athletes, but we present them with that option, so if they want to go down the rugby route or bobsled route, they also have an opportunity to compete in both sports.
“They’ll actually get better at those other sports if they’re doing the weightlifting movement during their regular training. That’s our unique offering to the athletes.”