As patriotic Americans, we’ve grabbed a seat to watch the Rio Olympics for the past week and half, anticipating that greatness and inspiration will blanket us with the Games-glow emitting through our tv screens. What with 75 U.S. medals won as of Monday, August 15, it’s blissful times like these — compliments of hard-working, awe-inspiring, fair-playing athletes — when many are proud to be American.
But that pride and inspiration for U.S. Olympians grows exponentially when you’ve actually had the opportunity to meet, talk and play alongside some of them. Such is the case for 14 Hope students and two professors who spent a portion of a 2016 May Term, entitled Elite Sport Development in America, at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (USOTC) in Colorado Spring, Colorado.
Led by Professors Chad Carlson and Becky Schmidt of Hope’s kinesiology department, students spent a week in Colorado — at the USOTC and at other professional sports venues like the Broncos Stadium of the NFL — to learn how elite athletes are developed and resourced. Carlson and Schmidt collaborated to create this first-time May Term to show students some ways that sporting pipelines fill and flow to produce wins and records for the United States.
“We wanted our student to get an up-close look at the multitude of ways U.S. athletes are trained to reach their peaks by national governing organizations,” said Carlson. “We saw how the athletes, on both the Olympic and Paralympic teams at the USOTC, are trained physically, psychologically, nutritionally, technologically and medically. We also heard from post-participation experts who help athletes’ transition out of their sports worlds and into the ‘real world’ smoothly. Overall, our access to athletes and coaches at the USOTC was high, and we could not have asked for a better schedule and opportunities to rub shoulders with high-level people.”
Besides one awestruck highlight of meeting U.S. Swim Team captains Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt after lunch in the USOTC cafeteria, Hope students also got to watch a sparring match between American boxers and the Azerbaijan team, were befriended by the men’s gymnastics team, shot precision rifles on the shooting range, and learned a thing or two about judo and Paralympic volleyball. (They had related academic assignments to work on, too!) While all of the USOTC experiences were meaningful and educational, junior Bryanna Howard, an athletic training major, was especially moved by her encounters with Paralympians.
“The US Paralympic athletes that I met with are some of the most down-to-earth, passionate, kind, and strong-willed people I have ever met,” says Howard. “Most of them, I learned, were born able-bodied, and something happened to make them adaptive. But their courage and strength were evident as they talked about how they proved doctors wrong, and learned to adapt and still be successful with their new outlook on life. They were awesome to meet with, and now my new goal is to hopefully work with them one day. Especially because of the suggestions by the OTC staff to apply for their internships.”
And that is one of the desired outcomes of this May Term. That Hope students interested in working in athletics would develop connections with folks in sports industries and find internships that would move them toward their dream jobs.
“One of the main mantras at the OTC is ‘bold wins gold,'” Schmidt explains, “but that doesn’t only mean athletically. It was evident there that it applies to those who are bold to step up and do something when working behind-the-scenes with athletes. So many people apply for jobs at the OTC, and it’s people who are most bold who get them. It was great to see our students not waiting to reach out to OTC staffers. They started to make connections by making introductions or sending out emails then and there.”
Now watching the Rio Olympics every second they can, these Hope students have a newer and deeper appreciation for what it takes to be an Olympic and Paralympic athlete. And they also have a newer and deeper appreciation for what it means to be an Olympic and Paralympic human.
“Before going to the OTC, I had this idea that most Olympians were these specimen athletes who were designed by scientists to be elite,” says junior history and economic double major, Joey Williams. “What I found was that, despite the fancy equipment and scientists, these athletes are at the top level because they love their sport and are willing to work towards their goals…And (I learned) these athletes are young people just like us, except they happen to be really, really, really good at their craft.”
Howard concurs and adds:
“Seeing the athletes that I talked to now on the world’s biggest stage, I cheer for them in a different light. I got to see them train, away from the cameras and the limelight; I got to see their personalities and their work ethic, and their drive to perfect their skills before the world sees them. I feel like I know them, just a little bit, because I saw them, and I talked to them, not what the media writes about them, or what they say when the cameras are on. We saw these incredible elite athletes as just normal people: sharing a meal in the dining hall, walking in the same halls as them, watching them train, and taking pictures with them after a training session.”