What does it mean to be an Olympian? What kind of person does it actually take to be in this elite group? They are the cream of the crop, the best of the best athletes in the world. And as one person in this inner circle states: “Once an Olympian, always an Olympian.”
Today, they’re our next-door neighbors, our teachers, our coaches, our motivational speakers. But whether they competed in the Olympics 10, 30 or even 50 years ago, their drive, passion and athleticism didn’t stop when they left the Olympic Village. It followed them right back home.
Olympic Games: 1996 in Atlanta, Ga.
Medals won: Gold in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay
Outside, it’s a typical muggy day in the South. Inside the stadium, the U.S. Swimming Relay Team has its sights set on bringing home the gold. Team anchor Ryan Berube, a senior at Southern Methodist University, is poised for the most-anticipated 50 meters of his life. Before Berube hits the water, he watches teammates Josh Davis, Joe Hudepohl and Brad Schumacher take and then lose the lead — before closing in on their closest competitor, the Swedes.
In a world outside the pool, Berube hears the collective roar of 15,000 American fans. Years of tireless training, dedication and focus fuel every fiber of his being toward the finish, where he emerges victorious.
“It’s hard to explain the feeling,” Berube says. “It was a huge rush and the most incredible experience.”
Growing up near Palm Beach, Fla., swimming came naturally to Berube. It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he considered the Olympics a possibility. “I was never the biggest or the strongest — I swam for fun,” Berube says. When he was 16 years old, he qualified for his first National Team and began experiencing the intoxicating thrill of high-level competition. He returned with renewed focus on a previously unbelievable goal — representing the in his sport.
“With that changed mindset, I just trained and trained to be the best I could be,” he says.
Berube calls 1996 a “Cinderella year.” Not only did he qualify for and anchor the ’s gold medal-winning 4×200-meter freestyle relay, but he also was named NCAA Swimmer of the Year after winning four events at the NCAA championships.
After the Olympics, life was a whirlwind as he attended parades and traveled, accepting speaking engagements and an invitation to the White House. As things wound down, however, there was bittersweet resignation.
“I knew this was my retirement party,” says Berube, who swims recreationally if at all these days.
“You hear of [retiring] athletes experiencing depression. Swimming had been my identity for so long, I felt it — more than I expected to,” he says. “But you decide what else is important to you, and you re-identify yourself.”
Now a wealth manager for Credit Suisse Inc., he has found a new direction, managing financial portfolios — this, in addition to a concentrated family focus.
During college, attending classes and training 25 hours a week 50 weeks out of the year left little time for romance — but Berube managed to meet Michele, the girl of his dreams.
“There were times when she would say, ‘Hey, you want to go to this party?’ and I’d say, ‘Sure, but I need to be home by 10,’” Berube laughs. “She’d just say: ‘Never mind. I’ll go with my friends.’”
But his consuming schedule didn’t deter the girl. They’ve now been married for 11 years and have a 3-year-old son, Jack. Will Jack follow in his father’s swim strokes? Only time will tell, Berube says. The family traveled in June to Omaha to watch the Olympic swimming trials — and when the Olympics air this month?
“The whole house kind-of shuts down, and we watch it all.”
Olympic Games: 1992 in Barcelona, Spain; 1996 in Atlanta, Ga.; 2000 in Sydney Australia; 2004 in Athens, Greece
Medals won: Two silver in 2000; 100-meter individual medley and 200-meter freestyle
It is a cold day in January 1976. Two young parents, both resilient athletes, stand helpless and afraid as they watch their premature pneumonic daughter through the thin glass of an incubator. As the 4-pound baby clings to life, her mother chants: “She will live.” Then, mustering her faith, she says: “One day, we will watch her swim in the Olympics.”
Even today, says Martina Moravcova, now 32: “My mother cannot talk about my earliest days without crying.”
Moravcova has met and surpassed even Mom’s lofty hopes. This month, the Slovakian swimmer will compete in the Olympic Games for a fifth time.
A teenager living in the former — now — Moravcova witnessed the overthrow of Communist rule and became part of a generation whose newfound access to the rest of the world meant a universe of new possibilities.
The dynamic Moravcova emerged as one of her country’s most celebrated athletes, competing when she was just 16 in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, , before accepting a scholarship to Southern Methodist University and moving to Dallas.
The struggle to survive as an infant coupled with the optimistic political climate of her homeland, Moravcova says, may have contributed to her drive and resultant near-superhuman success.
But she couldn’t have kept it up, she says, without staunch support from her coach, SMU’s Steve Collins, and her family, including husband Martin Valko.
She started swimming as a child because she was hyper, and it was a good way for her to expend energy, she says. Plus, both of her parents were professional swimmers, “so it sort of ran in the family.”
But before she came to the Unied States, Moravcova felt as if she had hit an athletic plateau of sorts.
“I got faster and faster, then suddenly didn’t feel like I was improving,” she says. “But when I decided to come to SMU, I got a second wind.”
The rest is history. During her time at SMU, she brought home 14 NCAA titles and a slew of other awards. She has collected 67 medals, including 22 world and 43 European; her most successful Olympic run was in Sydney, , in 2000, when she won two silver medals. She has set three world, 16 European and hundreds of Slovakian records. And she was recently the first woman inducted into SMU’s Hall of Fame.
“If I had not come to SMU, I would not be swimming today. I have definitely enjoyed a lot of success thanks to them.”
Once the 2008 Games end, Moravcova will return to her M Streets home and continue working as an assistant coach at SMU. Will she try for Olympics round six? She says she’s really not thinking about that right now.
“That just remains to be seen.”
No matter what she decides to do, her husband says she’s sure to do it well.
“She’s a tough, hardworking woman — no matter what she has her sights on.”
Olympic Games: 1988 in Seoul
You mean you need a passport to go to ? After qualifying for the 1988 Olympic Team, legal travel was Daniel Watters’ next concern.
Champion athletes often say they formed a clear vision of their goals at an early age — spending untold hours in rigorous training and focusing their formative years on little other than their sport.
Not Daniel Watters.
For years, he swam “just for fun.” But before he graduated from high school, Watters found himself at the 1988 Olympic swimming trials, where he surprised everyone, including himself, when he qualified for the Olympic team in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke.
According to an article about the Olympic trials in the Aug. 9, 1988, edition of the New York Times: “The surprise of the night was the second-place finish of 17-year-old Daniel Watters of Pensacola, Fla., in 1:02.76, his fastest ever. He finished 10th in his only previous national championships.”
“I wasn’t supposed to make it,” Watters says. “Really, there was no prayer for me. I was having a terrible season, plus, there were a lot of older, more experienced guys competing.”
Watters was so unprepared that, following a post-trials camp in Austin, he barely got his passport in time to travel to Seoul, , for the Summer Games.
“I almost didn’t make it out of the country,” he says. “It was pretty overwhelming for me, this high school kid, to be a part of all that.”
While he didn’t win a medal at the Olympics, he learned a valuable lesson about sports and life.
“Mindset is more important than you can imagine,” Watters says. “Those guys who knew in their heart they would make the team and who expected to win — those were the guys who did well.
“I gave everything I had just to make the team.”
Growing up in Pensacola, Fla., Watters played soccer in addition to swimming. It wasn’t until he went to high school that he turned his full focus to aquatics. His parents sought out a high school with a good swimming program, and Watters trained with the Greater Pensacola Aquatic Club, where he won awards, set regional records and steadily improved his time. He attributes his success to dedicated parents, who spent untold hours at swim meets and driving to and from practices and events.
The Swiss Avenue resident — along with his wife and two daughters — was back at the Olympic swim trials in July, when the U.S. Swimming Foundation honored the 1948, 1968 and 1988 National teams. Ceremonies aside, the Watters family doesn’t fuss much when the Olympic Games roll around every four years, though, he says, “the hometown newspaper usually calls for an interview around this time. They love doing those where-are-they-now-type stories.”
Olympic Games: 1992 in Albertville
Motivational speaker Vince Poscente knows how to get his audience’s attention. He asks them what they think it would be like to go 135 miles per hour on a pair of skis. And then he asks, “Why don’t we go down the mountain together?
“The sport is speed skiing,” he says. “It’s straight down. No turns. You will go zero to 60 miles per hour in three seconds — a Ferrari can only do it in 4.2. Once you hit 125 miles per hour, all heck is gonna break loose. You want to be in tight, aerodynamic tuck.”
Standing on a chair center stage, he bends his knees and pulls his elbows to his sides, demonstrating the “tuck”, and he invites audience members — all dressed in skirts and suits — to do the same.
“Your heart’s beating in your chest, and it’s working its way up to the base of your throat … you’re staring down the side of the mountain, there’s a speed trap at the bottom, 100 meters long, about the length of a football field … it will take you a second and a half to cross that distance.”
Then through a series of sound effects, yelps and red-faced expressions, he describes the rest of the race. He talks fast and crosses the imaginary finish line, screeching: “Yow! I wanna do that again.” The entire audience, crouching on top of chairs in their own aerodynamic tucks, bursts into applause and laughter.
Poscente, a Canadian native who now lives in our neighborhood, derives effectiveness from the real-life experience of racing in the 1992 Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France, where he broke a Canadian national record of 135 miles per hour — but that’s not the astounding part.
In his younger years, Poscente had dabbled in winter sports and later worked on the production of the Olympic Games “from an administrative standpoint.” At the 1988 Olympics, 26-year-old Poscente felt regret as he watched the athletes at the opening ceremonies.
“I wanted to be there. That was when I knew that if I didn’t at least try, I’d never know if I could do it or not.”
Just four years later, he was zipping down that mountain.
Poscente owes his success, he says, to mental training. In addition to physical training, he spent hours a day in the library researching ways to become faster and working on his “mental toughness.”
That leads to the core lesson he teaches corporate audiences today.
“You’ve got to do what the competition isn’t willing to do,” he says. “My competitors spent their whole lives training … they are willing to spend days and nights training physically. But show me an athlete willing to spend two or three hours at the library every day. I had to find what they weren’t willing to do.”
He says he uses stories to help his audience remember important principles. You can throw a bunch of information at people and only some of it will stick, he says, but if you attach that information to a story, it will stick.
“The Olympic story is the backdrop to the story of somebody pursuing a longtime dream.”
Another thing that helps Poscente connect with his fans — he lost. “Yeah, people don’t grasp this at first, but I didn’t win. I hit a bump during the run for the gold medal that knocked me back.
“Everyone can relate to losing,” he says, “even Tiger Woods. It’s not whether you hit a bump, but how you recover that makes you a winner.”