With just a hundred days to go before the Winter Olympic Games open in Russia, even many gold medalists are still fighting for a place on Team USA. Justin Olsen, a bobsledder from San Antonio, Texas, helped the U.S. win a historic gold medal four years ago in Vancouver, but he’s struggled to overcome injuries in the lead-up to Sochi.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
With 100 days left before the Winter Olympic Games begin in Sochi, Russia, the U.S. Olympic Committee begins its countdown in Times Square today. they’re bringing ice and snow into the middle of Manhattan where temperatures will be in the mid-50s so the athletes can show off their skills. But in these final months, there’s still a lot of scrambling to figure out which athletes get to compete in the Games.
North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann went to Lake Placid, New York where high stakes contests are sorting out who will make Team USA and who will be left behind.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: In a gleaming weight room at the Olympic Training Center here, bobsledder Justin Olsen from San Antonio Texas is loading thick metal discs onto a bar.
JUSTIN OLSEN: You’ve built up all this strength and now you’re going to direct it and you’re going to become explosive.
MANN: In a single motion, he jerks the loaded barbell above his head and hurls it to the floor.
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MANN: The idea, Olsen says, is to train his body to be a kind of quick-start engine, capable of launching a bobsled weighing more than a thousand pounds down that icy, winding track.
OLSEN: The first two steps, you’re going from standing still to trying to crank it up to 20-plus miles an hour.
MANN: Four years ago, Olsen – who tried bobsled racing on a whim – shocked everyone by winning a place on America’s top four-man team known as “Nighttrain.” With his help, that crew dominated the Europeans at the Winter Games in Vancouver with lightning fast start times.
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MANN: “Nighttrain” made history, capturing the first U.S. Olympic gold in the four-man bobsled since 1948.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Justin Olsen!
MANN: Olsen says that moment, standing on that podium was beautiful and crazy. But here’s the thing. Even with that gold medal hanging on his wall, he’s not guaranteed a spot on this year’s team.
OLSEN: Everybody’s fighting for their spot. Everybody wants to do well. And the only route is to, you know, not pace yourself. Go hard every day.
MANN: Nancie Battaglia is a sports photographer and journalist from Lake Placid who’s been covering the Winter Olympics and the build-up to the games since the 1970s.
NANCIE BATTAGLIA: This Olympics will be my 11th Olympics and it will be my 9th winter Olympics.
MANN: Battaglia says people don’t realize how much uncertainty there is for these young athletes. Four years of training between Olympic Games and many like Olsen will be chewing their nails right up to the last minute.
BATTAGLIA: Right now I think they’re jockeying for position, both on their team and in their mind. I’m sure they all have kind of the willies in their stomach, wondering if they’re really going to make it.
MANN: Justin Olsen has struggled since that big win back in Vancouver, trying to heal a nagging muscle injury in his leg. He’s also an active-duty member of the U.S. Army, which means he had to take time off from sledding to complete his basic training. Then, this fall, the partial government shutdown meant weeks of uncertainty for the Army’s federally-funded soldier-athlete program.
OLSEN: It kind of happened right before we supposed to go to Utah, so it made us a little worried. I want to make the Olympic team, so I’m going to find a way even if things in Washington are having trouble.
MANN: Olsen says he’s made up a lot that lost training time. He says he’s healthy and focused. Now he has 100 days of time trials and races to prove to his coaches that he’s the guy who can help take the U.S.A. to that medal podium in Russia.
OLSEN: Some people might be at their peak right now, but now doesn’t matter. It’s February – it’s the guys that can be at their peak in February.
MANN: Olsen says all the down-to-the-wire uncertainty can make you crazy. But he also says it keeps athletes pushing hard, fighting to shave tiny fractions of seconds off those explosive starts. For NPR News, I’m Brian Mann in Lake Placid, New York.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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