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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.