Whoa. I’m an Olympian. Just 20 years, the belief of a thousand people, and a few Goodwill Hawaiian shirts for my fiercest, and almost earliest, ambition to become reality (earliest was saving the world’s bats. So… save the bats from the White Nose Syndrome!).
Nothing could have prepared me for the journey to arrive in Rio. Guidance and advice from every corner, but this I had to endure, everyday, in the face of a thousand injuries and millions of meters to know just how much I wanted to be here even if I never quite understood why. Gradually it had changed from a nacsent dream to a determined mindset that defined my life. At a certain point, every other goal gave way as I shifted into Olympic Mode.
One of the hardest sides of this ambition is that it demanded I live moment by moment. I had enjoyed planning high school and college, knowing the next few steps while trying my hand at a number of activities. Eventually, however, I had to forgo a concrete plan for the next decade, year, day in favor of a set of principles that guided each day. I had to commit to one goal, to making an Olympic Team, even if that meant giving up the chance to pursue areas where I, perhaps, had more potential.
The prospect of missing Rio, while it loomed, just wasn’t processed. I owned each moment and the days had been handed to the man known, occasionally, as Paulo Sousa (usually as things unfit to print); but the future I couldn’t control, so it could handle its own damn self. At least that was the idea, and it seemed smart at the time.
And it came. I qualified. I had been focused on that goal for so long, that even after I had earned my spot it was hard to grasp how much closer I was to fulfilling my ambition. A wave of realization might break from time to time, but the approach to training and the desire to be at my best was unchanged.
It started to feel real during the Olympic processing event in Houston, only a couple weeks before our actual departure to Rio. There we received our Olympic clothes and attended the Ambassador briefing, which was essentially 2 hours of “don’t be an idiot and try to avoid making Zika/crime jokes.” Apparently some people missed it. While I could itemize all the super swanky gear we received, it boiled down to us leaving Houston as such:
Here’s a real picture from the event:
The qualification gradually solidified the more I noticed how much other people began to care about what I was doing. All of a sudden random strangers were handing me nice stuff and I was barely begging! The number of interviews also dramatically increased. I’m not running for president, so they were mainly softball questions (for those who haven’t seen me play softball, this means I swung really hard at easy lobs and struck out a lot). I could tell, this was as legit as I’d imagined.
During one interview, I was asked if my result would make the last 4 years of dedication worthwhile. It was a routine question, maybe worded differently, but it surprised me. While now I’d trade essentially anything to rerun my race, I didn’t need anything else to make the last 4 years meaningful. I was given the opportunity to meet incredible people. There is no pursuit in which you meet as many individuals who, through exceptional focus and ambition, have made their delusions of grandeur simply grandeur. That company makes possible the arduous process of qualifying, of having an aim worth whatever sacrifice and every painful investment to improve. Each moment had the possibility to be extraordinary and to find the best of myself, no matter how good or bad.
After Houston, I had a couple final weeks in the US to finish my preparation. Along with the entire US triathlon team, I skipped the opening ceremonies in order to continue in a familiar location (for Aloysious Maloy and me, Powadise). At no point in time was I seriously tempted to attend – I was flying to Rio for a purpose (not bats) and until the race was over nothing else was on my mind.
Finally, 5 days before race time, we arrived in the land of beach workouts and bikinis.
If you are here, reading this blog, you presumably know my result was less than ideal. At my WTS races bookending the Olympics I was among the top ten exiting the water and made the bike breakaway – in Rio, I came out at the back of the chase pack and couldn’t find my way onto a wheel, meaning my day was over 20 minutes into the race. If I would have told my younger self that he’d grow up to finish 37th at the Olympic Triathlon, he’d say something to the effect of “Was I sick? Did I crash? What’s a triathlon? That sounds pretty bad.”
Was he right? Was it a failure? For a variety of mundane reasons, I was at 99% when I needed 100%. This meant the difference between being in the race and missing the chase pack by a second to spend 40 quality kilometers riding in a duo with Bryan Keane. That was nothing but an embarrassing disappointment (not riding with Bryan Keane. His hair alone is inspirational. More the being wayyyy back part).
Here are some photos:
But no. The kid who set that Olympic goal, who could only envision success as Olympic Gold also thought cheese tacos and hamburger helper were haute cuisine (cheese taco = warmed tortilla plus cheddar cheese) and you should have seen him after he lost at Risk or Monopoly. I’m amazed the boards are still in one piece.
Essentially, my 8 year old self was a naive idiot and had no idea what it meant to compete. Everyone who lines up for an Olympic Games is a phenomenal athlete, each of whom should have winning on their mind. But that’s only the goal, the motivation for the thousand decisions and moments which separate us from the finish line.
The idea of competition is to make the most of each of those seconds, to drive and be driven by other athletes to an intensity that demands all our preparation be absorbed into each instant. At each of those points we have the opportunity to create the moments that define our lives, reverberating the immense support we’ve received. The more we prepare, the better we execute, the more of ourselves we find in each of those chances. For recent examples of different scenarios, you could have a Brownlee Olympic Gold or some Brownlee brotherly-love/shoving across the finish line. Both awesome in completely different ways.
I fought. The only thing I hadn’t prepared for was the unremarkable situation of having missed the pack, the goal finally out of reach. I’d envisioned a lot of scenarios, but this was not among them. Which is fine. The only worthwhile plans are the ones that potentially have successful outcomes.
Even the fanciest words don’t change the fact that I’m mad as hell about the result and have enjoyed helping a few random objects take on duties normally associated with paper airplanes and the helmeted circus acts.
As with any goal that takes root early, too many people to name invested in my obsession, helped me push to become just a little better than before (yeah, I used to train a little, but a little wouldn’t do it, so a little got more and more, except less Mr Brownstone, more Senor Sousa). Their level of investment varied, but each played a role in my progression. For them, especially, I wish the race, that moment on the TV, had been reflective of the journey they helped me take. But all I can say is Thank You. You brought out the best in me.
After the race, however, was something which I did not initially envision as part of the Olympics. We finally moved into the Olympic Village and saw the truly remarkable scene that had been taking place behind our race. It was easy to be removed, focused, while we had trained at the Hotel Debret (USA triathlon’s lodging pre-race) but it was crazy to see the enormous village, number of competition venues, and hordes of athletes that had been around the WHOLE TIME. My biggest question is: Why didn’t the organizers put the triathlon earlier…. WHHHHHYYYYYYYY NOOOOOOOOTTTT??? I’m okay. It’s all fine. Three days was enough. I’m okay.
And I finally had those chicken nuggets I was waiting for:
Having competed, my mind feels emptier; there’s a massive void which used to hold the Olympic Dream. I’ve striven for many things, but nothing has captured my imagination for as long nor held it as strongly as competing for Team USA.
That vacuum just leaves room for the inevitable question I’ve asked and been asked – what next? Along with the fact that this blog feel outdated, my retweets have dropped and instagram likes are waaayyyy down, it’s a reminder that the Olympics have ended. Does that mean the moment is over?
Absolutely. It’s done and I’m glad. That was hard, man. Just ridiculously difficult. I mean, I’d always wondered if I was talented enough to make an Olympic Team, but that was the wrong question. It was more ‘do I possess a sufficient level of obsession and ambition to become a phenomenal exerciser?” Yes. Yes I did. Sorry future offspring, you’re just inheriting the ability to craft insane goals and obsess about them for years. You’re welcome.
More to the point, the moment doesn’t live on. It’s up to me to find a way to make the spirit that fueled the dream of Rio ignite another that builds upon everything I’ve done. Right now, I don’t know what that will be.
I do know that the drive to become an Olympian made me find triathlon, become obsessed with this unique, endlessly tiring, unforgiving sport. I believe I haven’t reached my potential, and finding out what I can accomplish still excites me. I enjoy the process of living 24 hours as a triathlete, knowing that everyday and in every moment I have the chance to perfect one of quite a few imperfections.
With the driving goal of qualification achieved, I find myself competing not for the reasons I started, but for the reason I made it here – because this is an incredible sport filled with great people who inspire me everyday. Thanks to my teammates on The Triathlon Squad, coach Paulo Sousa, and the incredible sponsors who got me here: USA Triathlon, Kestrel, Brooks, ROKA, and NYAC. I look forward to next 4 years.
To finish this pontificating, here are a bunch of pictures from Rio.