How Olympians handle the big-moment jitters

Chad Hedrick is not one who lacks for confidence. During the Olympic speed-skating trials, he predicted that he would break the world record, and then did it. No less a person than Eric Heiden - the only speed skater to win five gold medals at an Olympic Games - says, "What sets [Chad] apart is his mental toughness."

Yet Saturday, two hours before his first Olympic race, he climbed the stands, looking for his family, weeping uncontrollably. Before the Olympics, "you start to think about things that you normally don't think about," he said later. "The thoughts that go through your head are much harder than the race itself."

For Hedrick, the release was just what he needed, pushing him to a gold medal. It was a stark example of how all athletes will spend the next two weeks searching for the means to master the most pressure they may ever face.

Every four years, the athletes' battle against their nerves is arguably the single most powerful plotline of the Games - an episode of "Days of Our Lives" on clap skates. There has been the fearless figure skating of Sarah Hughes, and the almost unbearable melodrama of Dan Jansen's speed-skating stumbles.

Each Olympian has a different way to cope - from biathlete Jay Hakkinen's Zen calm to snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis's channeling of utter terror. But for all, the battle is the same: to turn fear into focus, and to let a lifetime of training turn one performance into an achievement for the ages.

"They have to train themselves to be better able to say: 'Your whole dream is right out there in front of you. Now you just have to go out there and not think about it,' " says Daniel Gould, a sports psychologist who has worked with Olympians.

Athletes talk about it as going on "autopilot," and when they speak about it their faces change perceptibly, as if they were savoring a filet mignon. Salt Lake Olympic alternate Jill Krause can still taste it: those moments when her conscious self simply evaporated, and her skiing and shooting - two tasks that require completely different skills, megawatt energy and church-pew stillness - blended in seamless perfection.

"Ninety-five percent of the time I never get there," the biathlete says. "I've had years when it never happened."

Hakkinen nearly becomes a hermit before the Games, trying to avoid conflicts and "stay very, very calm." Luger Tony Benshoof listens to Jimmy Buffett before every race, while most halfipipe snowboarders keep their iPods on during their runs. Snowboard-cross rider Jacobellis knows things are going well when she feels terrible. "I get this horrible feeling in my stomach," she says. But once the race starts, "it just turns to aggression."

The point is, it doesn't matter how athletes get to their best mental state for competing - just that they know how to get there. "Find out what works, and then try to make that happen every time you do it," says Dr. Gould.

Increasingly, national Olympic committees see this as an integral part of athletes' training. In its desire to perform well in the 2008 Beijing Games, China has hired 33 sports psychologists, for example.

In the Olympics, after all, there's no "wait 'til next year." It is the one opportunity every four years - for American winter athletes in particular - to add recognition to a sporting life largely ignored. That creates unique pressures. The intent of sports psychology is not to make mogul skiers learn Freud along with back flips, but to give athletes tools and tips to help them find their autopilot.

In some cases, it's a part of training. To get over the nervousness she felt in her first Olympics, speed skater Bonnie Blair tried to make herself nervous in practice to get used to the sensation, Gould says.

In other cases, athletes have to shift on the fly to deal with the unexpected. "The best athletes are able to turn pressure into a positive because they have a variety of coping strategies," says Shane Murphy, a sports psychologist who used to work for the United States Olympic Committee.

Crying was a coping strategy that Hedrick didn't even know he had - and he credited his sports psychologist with telling him it was all right to let go of his emotions before the 5,000 meters.

It was the buildup that came from arriving at the Games 12 days early to train, he said - "12 days of rolling around in your bed with nothing to do."

Teammate Joey Cheek can relate. The 2002 bronze medalist says the Salt Lake Games were fun the way a roller coaster is fun: an exciting ride, but don't have the meatloaf for lunch.

He couldn't sleep, either: "My biggest problem is overthinking things," he says. And then there was the inescapable realization that his life's work was about to be weighed in a few unforgiving seconds. "You go up to the line - it's the moment you've envisioned all your life, and suddenly you're there - and then it's over," he says.

Yet even that is part of why he loves his sport. He smiles, and his words flash with the flair of a bullfighter. "Putting so much energy into something with no guarantee of success? That's a way to live life."

With races Monday and Saturday, it's time for another ride on the roller coaster.

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