Beyond medals: athletes in pursuit of the Olympic spirit

The essence of the Games may be captured in hard work, a willingness to forgo financial security, and team camaraderie.

If it were Einstein's theory of relativity or Newton's second law of motion, perhaps he could explain it fully. Indeed, just down the Charles River at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Steven Tucker was trained as a physicist.

But within the confines of force = mass x acceleration, there are no words to describe how it feels to accelerate - to lean into your oars and nod forward toward the finish line. In the breadth of science, there are no formulas to explain why a physicist in his mid-30s would put aside a promising career to rise with the sun six days a week to participate in an event that will bring him neither fame nor money - and perhaps not even a medal.

It is the pursuit of the Olympian, and like all things idealistic, it must have a certain illogic when gauged by the workaday world. Yes, there are the swimmers and gymnasts who stand to become national heroes, as well as sprinters who would seemingly inject their bodies with Jell-O if it would make them run faster. But they are not the marrow of these Games.

The true story of the Olympics is in the telling - told in the letter from a Nebraska grandmother who pushes a wrestler to work harder this day than he did the last. Told in the schedule of a synchronized swimmer who, in hopes of mastering a gold-medal routine, practices 10 hours a day and sees her boyfriend only once a week. And it is told in Tucker's urge to touch the fringes of perfection with every stroke - a Lycra-suited maestro measuring every beat with metronomic precision.

"I'm going to the Games to rediscover the Olympic ideal," says John Lucas, an Olympic historian who has attended every summer Games since 1960. "It's everywhere, but because it's not accompanied by noise and negative drama, it's not noticed."

A grand lab experiment on the river

"Noise" is not a word easily attached to Tucker. His small stature and measured words bespeak a quiet thoughtfulness. This is a man who finished his undergraduate work at one of the most renowned technical universities in three years. A man who invented an onboard device to calculate data about his speed and stroke, then relay it to a Palm Pilot.

He acknowledges that rowing is, at least in part, a grand lab experiment that has spilled out onto the waters of the Charles. "My approach to understanding rowing technique is empirical," he writes in an e-mail. "I want to collect a lot of data quantifying how the seat position, oar strain, boat speed, etc., change during the rowing stroke among different rowers and try to find what is common to fast rowers."

But to stop there would be to miss the entirety of the man. While his mind unravels lengths of water with a scientific clarity, his desire is primal: Rowing "is satisfying at a very low, reptilian level, without any contemplation or reflection required."

The upper floor of the house he bought in Medford, Mass., in 1993 was occupied by pigeons and strewn with newspapers from 1972, left there by a widow who lived on the ground level for 25 years. Today, he's still renovating.

His trip to the Olympics in the men's twos event is a work in progress as well. He has been once before - in 2000 - and he won't rule out a bid for Beijing in 2008. Ask him what motivates him to keep his professional life on hold, working at Home Depot to make ends meet, and his answer is typically understated. "I want to be able to row very well," says Tucker after several hours' practice one recent morning.

Tucker acknowledges that, at one point as he was trying to survive in a sport offering only meager financial incentives, he faced $40,000 in debt. Yet he remains unfazed. "It wasn't really interfering with my life ... but it was tricky," he says.

Perhaps it is the balm of hindsight. But probably not. The path of an Olympian is rarely the path of least resistance. And wrestler Brad Vering, for one, doesn't think he could have made it to Athens if he didn't have the discipline to push back.

A hometown's work ethic

"I got that from my hometown," says the Nebraska farmer's son. "What you see is that people work hard to put food on the table. That work ethic carries on to wrestling." His days in Howells, Neb., started at 6:30 with feeding the horses before school. For his friends on larger farms, the alarm went off even earlier. Sacrifice is on every breakfast table in town, as obvious as the hash browns or butter.

Yet there is a part of Vering that wonders what he is doing, living in a tiny dorm room at the United States Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs, Colo., for weeks at a time. Competing on the global wrestling circuit makes it virtually impossible to get a job, yet promises only a small stipend. "I'm not asking for big bucks. I'm 26 and I'm just trying to get my life in order," says Vering by phone. "I've got my degree, and I can't use it. I'd like to get something going. I'd like to buy a house."

Then he recounts how some 400 people spontaneously showed up at his local high school for a send-off when they heard he was in town for the last time before the Olympics. He pins to his wall the two or three letters he gets a day - mostly from complete strangers - who tell him: "We're proud of you" and "You're in our prayers."

"Little things like that are what inspire me," Vering says.

Support without a 9-to-5 job

Inspiration can came from peculiar places. Gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj, deep in debt, held a raffle for herself. Former "Baywatch" actress and gymnastics enthusiast Pamela Anderson showed up and cut her a check for $25,000. Several companies have joined the US Olympic Committee's Olympic Job Opportunities Program, which allows those like Tucker to hold down a job with their peripatetic lives.

Synchronized swimmer Lauren McFall simply depends on her parents. With training from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. six days a week, the hope of a job is a myth. The idea of a social life, too. She has had six weeks off during the past four years. "I'd like to be able to go to dinner and a movie and not fall asleep during one of them," she laughs.

But now on the cusp of Athens, there's no question in her mind whether it has all been worth it. Success is not gold, silver, or bronze, she says. The judging in her sport is too subjective to allow dreams to take shape in metal. Rather, she says in a phone interview, it is companionship with her teammates - "the most amazing young women you will meet in your life." It is also the challenge: "It's natural to improve and grow, but that's what I'm doing every day," she says. "It's such an education."

And above all, it is the opportunity for that one perfect moment when thrashing legs and aching arms dissolve into the sublime. "If we can all truly believe and have no fear and no doubt," says McFall. "We've already done the work."

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