There’s something truly unique about the opportunity to represent one’s country on the international stage. Many athletes get too emotional to even begin to describe what it feels like to stand on the podium with the American flag slowly being lifted into the air and the national anthem resounding in the background.
For Team USA athletes at the Pan American Games, the competition is about much more than the opportunity to win a medal. It is about the chance to compete for your country. The chance to wear the red, white and blue proudly on a world-class stage.
The chance to make your dreams come true.
Most of the athletes at the Pan American Games have not been to an Olympic Games. For them, this is the first time they’ve been to an event where the community is so actively engaged in the Games and its results.
Competing under the lights and next to the chanting crowd makes that American pride swell up even more.
“It’s incredible. It’s the stuff you dream of,” wrestling’s Sarah Hildebrandt said. “Those moments with the flag behind your back taking a lap, [I’ve spent] years and years dreaming about that. Getting to experience that as well leading into Tokyo 2020, just makes me all the more hungry, all the more motivated.”
In addition to the added feeling of gratitude, there’s also much more weight on one’s shoulders when an athlete feels like they are representing something far greater than themselves.
“Every day there are thousands and thousands of guys overseas fighting for us,” trampoline gymnast Jeffrey Gluckstein said. “They have the same flag on them as we’re wearing. So, I’m just grateful to wear it.”
One of the hardest things to do when a person is in the middle of a memorable experience is to take the time and soak it in. Humans are often so entrenched in the moment that those opportunities are fleeting.
Swimming’s Drew Kibler won a bronze in the men’s 200-meter freestyle. Even though the race lasted under two minutes, Kibler found time for reflection.
“During the last 25 meters of the race, I was just completely thinking about how I wanted to represent our country well,” he said. “I earned this spot, and I wanted to do it justice for people that are watching back home and everyone that has supported me. So, it’s a big deal to have my name on a cap and the flag on that same cap. I just want to represent the USA well.”
The majority of the athlete uniforms say two things: their last name and Team USA. A common trend among U.S. athletes competing at this level is an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for one’s family and the goal to represent them proudly.
“Going out there, showing what your country has, what it has to offer, proving what you can do for it, not only representing the U.S., but you family, everybody else, it’s a dream,” trampoline gymnast Ruben Padilla said.
The veteran athlete presence at the Pan American Games is another aspect that makes competing for the U.S. feel all the more real and all the more significant.
“I’ve worked so hard this season, harder than I ever have,” Swimmer Alex Walsh explained. “And to be able to come here with the veterans, some of the best that the world has ever seen, it’s crazy.”
Following the Pan American Games, many of these young athletes will continue to have remarkable careers in their sport. Their memories of their first international competition may begin to slip away. But one thing is certain: the feeling they had the first time they stepped on the podium with their hand over their heart is one they will never forget.