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Doug Reese: Travel Can Be Nightmare for Olympians

Any kind of change or modification can upset the flow and mental preparation of a world class athlete who is so regimented and disciplined in their day-to-day training and lifestyle.

Overseas travel and competition can be a nightmare for the athlete who lives by a regimented, disciplined lifestyle. Simple advice can be summed up as: "Expect the unexpected, be prepared for anything, and keep your entire focus on the competition."

The most decorated Olympian of all-time, Michael Phelps, was thrown for a loop in the London Games when he qualified for the 400-meter individual medley and was assigned lane eight, a less-than-desirable position because he had the slowest qualifying time in the field. Lane eight is a lane that Phelps has never competed in.

During his record-setting eight-gold-medal performance in Beijing, Phelps competed in lanes 4, 5 or 6 in all five of the individual events he swam. The same was true in 2004, when Phelps won four individual gold medals and one bronze in the Athens Olympic Games.

All of the top qualifiers swim in Lanes 4 and 5 in the final, where they can spy competitors on either side of them, more easily gauging their progress and don’t have to deal with the “wake” of the other swimmers. Also the outside lanes tend to be a bit slower because of water roiling off the walls.

Elite swimmers don’t ever want to compete in lane eight.

In the finals of the 400-meter individual medley Phelps finished fourth, his first
Olympic race that didn’t net him a medal since he was age 15. Was the result due to an aging Olympian, a position of technical disadvantage, or did an out-of-the-ordinary starting position in the pool affect the superstar mentally?

At the 1999 FILA-Junior World Wrestling Championships in Bucharest, Romania, there were a number of potential problems that hit both the U.S. Greco-Roman and the Women's freestyle wrestling teams. The Greco-Roman team had flight problems in Paris due to overbooking of a flight on Air France. Two coaches had to stay overnight in Paris and 11 members of the party were rerouted on a Lufthansa flight to Frankfort and then to Bucharest. As a result none of the team's luggage arrived. The Greco team was forced to practice in their underwear and socks until their baggage arrived a full 24 hours later.

The Romanian Wrestling Federation put the team up in the Parc Hotel, which was substandard even for members of fraternal organizations on college campuses across the United States. With no air conditioning, the heat approaching 100 degrees, and with their rooms on the fifth floor of the Parc, few of the athletes could sleep at night even after putting in intense workouts in preparation for the world championships.

Weigh-ins for the women's freestyle wrestling were scheduled for 6:00 pm. One of the American wrestlers still had one kilo (2.2 pounds) to cut at noon. Not a problem with six hours to go. After an hour on the treadmill doing three-minute intervals, I was met by the Canadian coach who was in a panic.

"They changed the weigh-ins! They changed the weigh-ins!," he screamed.

"To when?” I asked.

"Two o'clock for medical checks, and three o'clock for weigh-ins!," as he ran off to find his over-weight 54 kilo (118.8 lb.) wrestler.

I rushed down to the lobby of the Parc Hotel trying to locate a member of the Romanian Wrestling Federation to find out if what I had heard was true. Our 46 kilo (101.2 lb.) wrestler had placed fourth in the world championships the year before—I wanted to be sure she would make weight and wrestle in the championships. My heart rate was at its maximum. I was filled with anxiety. One of our best wrestlers might not make weight—because of a scheduling change. When I found an official of the organizing committee, I grabbed the Romanian by the arm. He must have sensed my panic and directed his full attention to me.

Out of breath, I asked, "Did the schedule change? Are the weigh-ins now at three o'clock?"

The Romanian representative smiled as he patted me on the back and said, "Coach, Coach, Coach, no change, only modification.”

As a result of the "modification" many athletes failed to make weight for the world championships, including a returning world bronze medalist from Canada. Fortunately our wrestler made it, weighing in on the scale at 46.0 kilos!

The stress of forcing an athlete through the psychological barriers to continue to work out, while precious time was ticking away pays a huge toll, chipping away at the athlete’s mental and physical strengths prior to such an enormous event.

On the first day of the 2012 London Olympics the Uruguay women’s soccer team got a taste of a travel nightmare when it took them 7 ½ hours to travel 196 miles on a bus from the soccer venue in Manchester to reach London for the Opening Ceremonies.

Because of the unexpected time spent in travelling, the team slept through their practice time before their first-round match with the United Arab Emirates. Fortunately Uruguay overcame the "modification" and had a 2-1 opening round
victory.

At large, international athletic events, the unexpected is to be expected. Many times you won’t see it, and the media won’t report it or even know about it, but there are a lot of major modifications going on behind the scenes. Just a change in practice time, a meal time, or even a lane assignment can upset the flow of a world-class athlete. The favorite in an event can be broken by unexpected change. It is the focused, mentally strong athlete who has properly trained for these types of situations who often steps to the top of the podium.

 


About the blogger: Doug Reese is a 1975 graduate of and a member of the Geneva Athletic Hall of Fame. He is the author of the book "Take it to the Next Level, Performance Principles for Life." Reese is a member of the USA Wrestling national coaching staff and has coached elite U.S. teams in five world championships, the Pan American Games and was on staff for the '96 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He has also worked for the International Olympic Committee as a clinician for developing countries under the Olympic Solidarity program.

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