Are the Olympics Easier the Second Time Around?

Are the Olympics Easier the Second Time Around?

By Phil Whitten//Guest Blogger  | Monday, March 27, 2017

A bit more than 70 years ago, famed song writer Sammy Cahn penned a little tune called “The Second Time Around.”  Recorded by Bing Crosby – the Michael Bublé of the crooning era – the song shot straight to the top of the charts.  A few years later, Justin Bieber role model, Frank Sinatra, did an almost identical version, which also rocketed to No. 1 on “Your Hit Parade.”

Love is Easier
The song celebrates the virtues of a second relationship or a second marriage, claiming “love is easier the second time around.”  In a first relationship, you  try to hold your partner, and often yourself, to unrealistic, romanticized standards of behavior that have very little to do with the real world. You want so much for your relationship to be “perfect,” you almost write the script that ensures its failure.  

Is swimming easier?
And that got me thinking. Not about love, but about swimming, of course.  I thought about Sammy’s thesis and wondered, “is swimming – specifically, Olympic swimming – really easier the second time around? Or, are the pressures on a two-time Olympian even greater than those experienced by a first-timer?” 

To find out the answer, I asked several first-time and several multi-time Olympic swimmers how they experienced the pressure. Were they able fully to take in, appreciate and savor the Olympic experience?  Or was a natatorium, overflowing with twenty thousand slavering, rabid fanatics – almost none of them rooting for you – combined with a global television audience of more than two billion people simply too overwhelming?  After conducting extensive interviews with several American Olympians, including some of this nation’s most decorated Olympians ever, I can say definitively, and with complete confidence … It depends.

A Tale of Two Champions
On what does it depend? Consider the very different paths followed by two of the greatest female swimmers ever: Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky.

Swimming used to be a sport for the very young.  This was especially true for women, as there were no athletic scholarships at all for the fair sex and only a handful of colleges offered watered down, low-level programs.  So, female swimmers routinely gave up the sport upon graduating from high school.

Things have changed.  The passage of Title IX, which wreaked havoc among all collegiate men’s sports except football and basketball, was a godsend for women.  But with opportunity came the need to make tough decisions. For Missy, the confident, smiling, 17 year-old sweetheart of the 2012 Games, the first decision was the toughest: “Should I accept the full, four-year-ride the University of California was offering?  Or should I turn pro where, according to several sports agents I talked to, I could earn around $5 million for appearances and endorsements?”  
She could not do both.  The NCAA, with its antiquated rules, does not allow a college athlete to profit from his or her athletic prowess. 

Nonetheless, Missy managed to concoct a Solomonic compromise. She opted to swim collegiately for two years, then to turn pro while earning her college degree. That, she figured, would give her the best of both options.
It was a thoughtful, intelligent plan, created and developed with significant input from Missy’s long-time coach, Todd Schmitz, and her parents, Dick and D.A. But Missy continued to be besieged by demands on her time: to make one more visit to that children’s hospital, or that inner-city swim team. Inevitably, these appearances took their toll and played havoc with her preparation for Rio.  Then she injured her back.  By the time the Trials rolled around, the writing was on the wall. For Missy, the second time around was much tougher.  Sometimes, the swimmer who just can’t say “no” can be her own worst enemy. 

Thus far, distance phenom Katie Ledecky has managed to avoid becoming over- committed.  Katie was at the London Games in 2012, and concedes she was awe-stricken by the sheer magnitude of Olympic pomp and hoopla.  At 15, she was the youngest American athlete in London, but when she upset a stellar field in the 800-meter freestyle, clocking the second fastest time in history for the event, her achievement went largely unnoticed by all but the swimming media. Four years later, in Rio, she emerged as the most decorated female athlete of the Games, taking four gold medals and a silver. Her experience in 2012 actually worked to Katie’s advantage, as she was able to finish high school and enroll at Stanford to kick off her collegiate career, with a minimum of media hysteria.

Ledecky attributes her calm at the center of the powerful winds of fame and fortune swirling all about her to her “walk-through” four years earlier. Others note that that is simply Katie: calm, cool and confident.

Staying Power
Josh Davis and Dara Torres are among a handful of super-athletes who seem to be able to ignore both the aging process and Olympic pressure.  Davis, 44, and a two-time Olympian, and Torres, 49, a five-timer, look as if they could go on forever if they chose to do so.  

Davis is a motivational speaker, promoter of faith-based sports and a newly-minted Division II college coach. He is also a proud dad. After five girls, he and his wife, Shantel, have recently welcomed their first son into the family.
 Davis had his peak performance at the 1996 Games in Atlanta – his first Olympics – where he set a world record in the 200-meter free, leading off the USA’s 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay. In fact, he was the only male athlete in the ’96 Games to win three gold medals. Four years later, in Sydney, he was elected captain of the U.S. men’s team, and swam on two silver medal-winning relay squads.

Forty-nine year-old Torres, who dominated the women’s 50 freestyle for nearly four decades, is arguably the USA’s most successful female Olympian of all time.  She swam in a record five Olympiads. Dara set her first American and world record in 1984, when she was just 16 and her final American mark an amazing 24 years later. That swim – 24.06 seconds for the 50 free – still stands as the American record, and is now the second-oldest mark in the record book. As for Olympic medals, she has earned 12 of the coveted baubles, four of each flavor.  Dara, who turns 50 in April, believes that swimming in the Olympics the second and subsequent times, does, indeed get easier, as you know what to expect and learn to take everything you encounter in stride.

But the last word – actually, two words – carries us back to where we started: “….It depends.

Yes, it depends. But it depends much less on what happens to you than on how you deal with what happens to you. The same injury or barrier – physical, mental or emotional – that stops one athlete dead in his tracks, will serve another as motivation, or even inspiration. 

How will you deal with disappointment and adversity? 


It depends – on you!



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