Millions of Americans watch as their nation’s best athletes go neck-and-neck with international Olympic competitors, but for the athletes, preparations begin long before the games officially start.
This year, four Hillsdale alumni tried out for a spot on an Olympic team for the Rio games: Kayla Caldwell, ‘13 in pole vaulting, Amanda Eccleston ‘12 in the 1500-meter run, Maurice Jones ‘15 in the 400-meter hurdles, and Emily Oren ‘16 in the 3000-meter steeplechase.
While none of them made the team, all plan to compete in the Olympic Trials again for a place in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Before then, these athletes will pour thousands of hours into their training.
Caldwell, Eccleston, and Oren were among more than 1,000 athletes to compete at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field. Jones competed for a spot on the Great Britain team.
Even with rigorous training and preparation, the Olympic hopefuls who compete in the trials face many environmental challenges even before their event begins. Jet lag, unfamiliar locations, and severe weather can prevent athletes from performing their best.
“You always see results, but the biggest part is just getting into the meet,” Caldwell said. “Anything can happen — what you’ve jumped previously doesn’t really have any bearing on that day.”
Even on a good day, athletes still must contend with the tough competition present at the Olympic Trials.
“The American trials is considered in some events to be harder than the Olympics,” Jones said. “You have some of the fastest people running in the trials, but they only take two or three of them. In the Olympics, you have people from other countries who make the team on lesser times.”
Both Oren and Jones said they learned a lot from their first experience at the trials, and will continue to train for the next Olympics. Oren said running in front of 22,000 spectators was much different from her previous races with smaller audiences.
“Four years ago, I would never have thought that I’d be competing in the trials, much less hoping to go to the Olympics,” Oren said. “It’s completely different to run at that level compared to what I’ve been doing, so it was good to have that experience.”
For Caldwell, who said she has wanted to be an Olympic athlete since the age of 5, the trials were comparable to her other pole-vaulting competitions.
“It just felt like another meet, really, because the girls I jumped with at the trials are the girls I jump with at all the big competitions throughout the year,” she said.
Oren said apart from competing, she enjoyed watching Eccleston’s race. Eccleston was only 0.03 seconds slower than the third-place qualifier.
“Probably the most exciting part of it was watching that, just because it’s someone from Hillsdale who’s doing what I want to be doing,” Oren said.
Each alumnus watched the Olympic events they competed in at the trials, and many also watched their friends who went on to compete in other events at the 2016 Games. Caldwell snapchatted an Olympic pole vaulter the morning he won bronze, and Jones had international friends competing for many countries from Sierra Leone to Sweden.
There are many significant races before the 2020 Olympics, including the 2017 London World Championships in Athletics. Between now and then, Olympic hopefuls must continue to persevere in their training.
“You have gold medalists in the Olympics still working day jobs to pay their way because there aren’t million dollar deals being done every day,” Jones said.