Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Virginia magazine.
Ah, the games of summer. Cavaliers have shined there. With the Olympics around the corner – Aug. 5 through 21 in Rio de Janeiro – we tracked down some of the University of Virginia’s medalists for a bit of been-there-done-that advice for today’s hopefuls.
Turns out that the road to the Olympics isn’t the only hard one. Most of the winners said they had trouble coming off that mountain. At a young age, they had achieved the pinnacle of sport – accomplished something that will be in their obituaries.
Where do you go from there?
To a person, they were polite, intense, well-spoken. They talked about lifelong friendships made through the Olympics, and the responsibility they still feel to live up to the Games’ elite image.
About how it’s surreal to have your own Wikipedia page. And nice to have time, finally, for a social life, including romance.
Almost all expressed fond memories of Charlottesville. Don’t wish away your time at UVA, they said. Those years were some of the best of their lives.
Still, for athletes following in their footsteps they were happy to share some insight. For the few who will actually make it – from the few who really know the meaning of “going for the gold” – here’s what to expect.
WYATT ALLEN (College of Arts & Sciences ’01)
37, Hanover, New Hampshire; Head coach, men’s heavyweight rowing, Dartmouth College
Gold in rowing, Athens, 2004; Bronze in rowing, Beijing, 2008
Some advice: “You’ve got to balance being focused – doing everything to make sure you perform at your best – with remembering this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Try to spend a little time every day stepping back and really appreciating where you are, what you’ve earned.”
Favorite flashback: Standing on the victory podium: “Everyone always talks about all the sacrifice and this and that. I always felt kind of the opposite – like I was doing a purely selfish thing, pursuing something I was really passionate about. I just felt incredibly lucky.”
A few more words: “I made it there twice, and they were such vastly different experiences. At my first Games, it was almost like I was in shock the entire time – star-struck with the other athletes and the Olympic venue. I mean, one day you’re stressing about making the team and the next thing you know you’re going through credentialing. It turns into a blur. And after you win? Nonstop publicity events and parties. I barely remember anything.”
ANGELA HUCLES (College of Arts & Sciences ’00)
37, Los Angeles; Sports broadcasting/analysis; president of Women’s Sports Foundation; founded Empowerment Through Sport Leadership Series
Gold in soccer, Athens, 2004; Gold in soccer, Beijing, 2008
Some advice: “Know yourself and what you need to succeed. And try to find those opportunities to mentally relax. Anything that’s a key element for your comfort? Take it with you. For me, that was my coffee press.”
Favorite flashback: “In Greece, after the final match, our team hit the streets of Athens, walking around, going to the tourist sites, wearing our medals. I could never see myself doing that now, but it was so much fun with all my teammates. People came up to us, wanting to take pictures and see our medals.”
A few more words: Take plenty of your own pictures. The Olympics copyrights and fiercely protects its images, including its iconic rings logo. “If I was ever going to get a tattoo, I always thought it might as well be the rings. Funny thing, though. I had an opportunity to be on LA Ink, but they couldn’t do what I wanted – at least not live – because they couldn’t show the rings on TV.”
MELANIE KOK (College of Arts & Sciences ’07)
32, London, Ontario, Canada; Postdoctoral fellow, Cerebral Systems Laboratory, University of Western Ontario
Bronze in rowing, Beijing, 2008
Some advice: “There’s a McDonald’s in the athletes’ dining hall, all you can eat for free. Our coach warned us beforehand, ‘Don’t eat your way out of a medal.’ But some people – especially from other countries – were just overwhelmed by the amount of food. It’s so tempting!”
Favorite flashback: Getting lost, alone, in the rain in Beijing. “Up comes this Chinese lady on a bicycle, and motions for me to get on behind her. I tried to refuse, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. I finally hopped on and she pedaled me all the way back to the Olympic Village. I wanted to repay her, but I didn’t have any cash, so I offered her my satchel, one of the things we’d been given to use during the games. She didn’t want to take it, so I finally just shoved it at her and walked away. I still think about her. There are good people everywhere.”
A few more words: “I tried online dating a couple of times, and well, when do you mention that you’re an Olympic medalist? At what point in a new relationship do you bring it up? It’s such a big thing. Awkward.”
MATT McLEAN (College of Arts & Sciences ’11)
27, Columbia, South Carolina; Volunteer assistant coach, University of South Carolina; still swimming competitively
Gold in swimming, London, 2012
Some advice: “Skip the opening ceremonies. As cool as it would be, it’s not practical to go stand for eight hours before the biggest race of your life. Maintain your willingness to sacrifice. That’s what separates you: making the difficult and, at the time, unpleasant choices.”
Favorite flashback: “Our team was such a tightly knit group. We all got along really well. Rookies had to create a skit – a way to decompress at training camp. We made a lot of fun of each other, all in a good-natured way. We just had a great time.”
A few more words: “Give your coaches the credit they deserve. You never want them to think you’re not grateful. No one gets to the Olympics without a great coach.”
ED MOSES (Curry School of Education ’04)
35, Los Angeles; Co-founder of Mojo Marketing & Media; recently launched a sports app called StatFuel
Gold and Silver in swimming, Sydney, 2000
Some advice: “There’s no secret sauce for figuring out what it takes to get there and win. When I was at UVA – and everyone else was partying – I felt I had a responsibility. Be organized, disciplined, have a plan. Prepare and know that on that day, you’ll do everything you can.”
Favorite flashback: Closing ceremonies. “Hundreds of thousands of people in the stadium, and tens of millions more watching on TV. Strangers from all over, just coming up and wanting to touch you. They might not have even known my name or my event, but they knew what those medals meant, what they stood for. It was such an honor. So humbling.”
A few more words: “People always ask what was it like to stand on the podium with gold and silver around your neck, and my answer always catches them off guard. I tell them I expected it. I’d dreamed of that moment every day and night. When it happened, I felt like I knew it would happen.”
LAUREN PERDUE (College of Arts & Sciences ’13)
24, Charlotte, North Carolina; Working in commercial real estate for The Shopping Center Group
Gold in swimming, London, 2012
Some advice: “After I made the team, we were sent home to gather our belongings for, like, a month. Being a girl, I packed a huge bag. I found out later I didn’t need all that stuff. Team USA will outfit you for the entire Games. I ended up with four big suitcases, trying to figure out how to ship them home.”
Favorite flashback: “The Olympic Village was just fascinating to me. The scale was enormous. Everything you would ever need. Little shops, coffee stands, groceries, chapels, food from every country. And you’re surrounded by the best athletes in the world, all extremely fit and competitive. The atmosphere is electric.”
A few more words: “The Olympics are such a high. It can be hard afterward, especially if you have to give up your sport, like I did, because of injuries. I felt like I lost my identity. I did put the gold medal on my resumé, but not at the very top. That’s not why I want to get hired. But when you’re interviewing, you can tell exactly where they are on the page. The reaction is inevitable: ‘Oh, tell me about this.’”
BECKY SAUERBRUNN (College of Arts & Sciences ’08)
30, Portland, Oregon; Captain of FC Kansas City; co-captain of U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team
Gold in soccer, London, 2012
Some advice: “The Olympics boils down to grit. It will tax everything – physical, mental, emotional. You’ll learn what you’re really made of. As for nerves, everyone handles theirs differently. I have to get away to recharge my batteries. I went off by myself to read or watch movies.”
Favorite flashback: “After we’d won the gold medal, we were all preparing to go out and celebrate, and I heard this voice in our suite. It was [NBA star] Kobe Bryant, stopping by to congratulate us. That doesn’t happen to you every day.”
A few more words: “It’s the Olympics, but it’s still a game – not the rest of your life. What’s so wonderful is that it’s about so much more than just your sport. All these countries coming together, and yours is entirely behind you. There’s such a sense of camaraderie. Like nothing else.”
LINDSAY SHOOP (College of Arts & Sciences ’03)
34, Miami; Assistant coach, women’s rowing, Barry University
Gold in rowing, Beijing, 2008
Some advice: “Take books. You’re going to be bored and that’s good. Take your pillow. You could end up without one. Earplugs, blanket and a hot pot are good too. Theoretically, all the food you consume will be shipped over from the U.S. or at least be Olympic-certified. But be careful using the bathrooms and brush your teeth with bottled water. I remember plenty of athletes getting sick.”
Favorite flashback: “China was just such an interesting setting for the Games – the way they set everything up. There’d be 20 people whose only job was to stand there and wave as you walked by. Tickets were given away so the stands would always be packed. And the little things. In the streets, all the manhole vents were taped over. I guess to keep in the smell.”
A few more words: “Looking back, that was a time when everything just clicked. You slept better, ate better, were focused and in the best shape of your life. You achieved the unimaginable because of all the things you did and how much you wanted it. Applying those same aspects to the rest of your life? That’s when you really embody an Olympian.”
– Joanne Kimberlin