What to do when the Olympics aren't fun anymore

A gold medal performance is about more than health and skill. It also can be about having fun in the biggest moment of your life. But doing that can be hard, athletes say.

Mike Blake/Reuters/File
US decathlete Trey Hardee celebrates as he clears 5.0 meters in the decathlon pole vault at the US Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon in June.

Trey Hardee was on the infield of the Bird's Nest, surrounded by 80,000 fans at the 2008 Summer Olympics, when he realized that something was very wrong.

It was his first Olympic Games, and he was sitting in fourth place in one of the glamor events, the decathlon. But it was now the pole vault, and he had failed to make either of his first two attempts. A third miss would disqualify him from the competition, and as he pondered that possibility, "I woke up."

"You get in this fog," he said at a pre-Olympics media event in May, trying to explain his mental state on that Beijing night. "You think you know what you are doing."

He didn't. He missed again, and what had begun as a promising march toward a potential medal ended abruptly.

Four years later, he leaves no doubt as to what he has learned from that disappointment: "For me, I lost sight of the fact that the pole vault is fun."    

Beginning Friday, we will be regaled with countless stories of work, work, and then more work – of the Olympians who have taken the monastic oath of athletic asceticism in the hopes of achieving the extraordinary here. That they enjoy this life and the sports to which they give so much often seems to go without saying.

Perhaps it shouldn't.

From burnout to nerves to a simple desire to see what it's like not to train for six hours a day, Olympic athletes often battle against a foe more insidious than injury or opponent: the fact they they're not having any fun anymore. 

For Mr. Hardee, who is returning to London to set things right, it was a matter of going on autopilot in the worst sort of way. Emotionally unprepared the enormity of his Olympic moment, he became the deer in the Bird's Nest's spotlights, crashing through a bar he had no business knocking down. 

Ignoring the clock

For swimmer Brendan Hansen, it was a desire to be released from the unyielding tyranny of the stopwatch. 

"For so many years, I was just trying to trim hundredths of a second, trying to break world records, and it was like, 'Man, this isn't fun anymore,' " he said at the same media summit for US Olympic athletes.  

His solution, naturally, was to become a triathlete after Beijing. Not an Olympic triathlete, mind you, but one that would "finish a triathlon and say, 'That felt really good,' and then I'd go get a beer," he said. His times? He never even checked. The clock was a part of a different life.

He hated the cycling. But he loved the swimming – and not because he was an Olympic medalist in the breaststroke. But because, with his five-rings Olympic tattoo, he was a marked man. "I loved the uncontrolled environment of it," he said. "In open-water swimming, you get kicked, punched, blocked, your goggles ripped off."

At this point, he is smiling, as one might remembering a pleasant Fourth of July barbecue. And for Mr. Hansen, that is precisely what the triathlons were – a way to reconnect with something primal, the pull of competition that first made him want to be an Olympian.

"I enjoyed competing with the guy who had a nine-to five job and four kids," he said.

In London, Hansen will again be on the blocks in the 100 and 200 meter breaststroke, crediting the guy from accounting or the sales clerk who cuffed him on the side of the head during his triathlons with rekindling his Olympic fire.

Taking a different tack

Anna Tunnicliffe, it seems, just needed a few friends. Having become the first US woman to win a gold medal in sailing in 20 years, she was looking for something new. That turned out to be a crew. 

The laser radial class race she won in 2008 was a solo effort. If she wins on the Weymouth course in 2012, it will be with two teammates, Molly Vandemoer and Debbie Capozzi. "We do it for fun, and we have a blast doing it," said Ms. Tunnicliffe at the media event. 

For her part, Tunnicliffe still has that inner-drive thing down. "She's the driver in how hard we do our workout in the gym," Capozzi said of Tunnicliffe. Vandemoer handles the logistics.

And Capozzi herself? She is in charge of the boat's laugh track, apparently. "I do make Anna and Molly laugh a lot," she says.

So how would a gold medal with her crew compare with a solo one from China?

"When all three of us are working well together, it's hard to top," Tunnicliffe said. "If I did it with the two girls, it would be pretty cool." 

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