By Claire Walla
You’re standing at the top of a three-tiered podium, wearing a tri-colored tracksuit, holding a bouquet of flowers with one arm and waving to a deafening crowd of ecstatic people with the other. Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for: you bend at the waist and a thick ribbon attached to a bright, shiny medallion is placed around your neck.
You’ve won the gold!
For most of us, this dream is confined to our inner-thoughts and the screens of our television sets. But for a select group of athletes, the hope of attaining Olympic gold is a dream that’s well within reach.
So, what separates the enthusiasts from the elites? We at The Express looked no further than our own backyard to find out.
“When I was qualifying, I thought about two words: London 2012,” explained sailor Amanda Clark, 29, a Shelter Island native who will be competing in this summer’s London Olympic Games for the second time as part of Team U.S.A.
Clark’s first Olympic appearance was at the 2008 games in Beijing, where she and teammate Sarah Mergenthaler Chin placed 12th overall.
“At that point it had been about eight years of Olympic campaigning,” Clark said. “So just qualifying [for the games] was special in itself.”
This year, after she and Mergenthaler Chin went their separate ways, Clark quickly teamed up with Floridian Sarah Lihan and went on to beat the favored U.S. team, once again finishing first in the U.S. Olympic trials—this time with a tie-breaking win.
As you might expect, Clark said her love of sailing began at a young age. She learned how to sail at 5, joined the junior program at Shelter Island Yacht Club when she was 7, and by age 15 she became the youngest female sailor to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials.
Ever since she was a “tween,” Clark said, sailing has been her life.
“It has really been intense for quite some time,” Clark said. “I spent long hours on the water as a kid. And now, we might spend less time on the water, but all the planning, traveling, training… it really has been a full-time job.”
This, according to Sag Harbor resident Lester Ware, is a big part of the equation.
“You’ve gotta have a fanatical work ethic,” explained Ware, who is also owns and operates Personal Best Fitness in Bridgehampton. “You gotta be able to just get up in the middle of the night sometimes and go for a run—because you’re worried, What’s that other guy doing?”
Ware knows from personal experience what it’s like to be in the thick of serious training. He won several international titles and, in 1984, he even qualified to be an alternate for the summer games in Los Angeles.
As a high school student in Southampton, Ware said once he got the wrestling bug he did whatever it took to make it to the top. When his father wasn’t able to drive him, Ware took the train or he hitched a ride to Nassau Community College for wrestling practice three times a week.
And when his college wrestling career came to a close, he took two years to train for the Olympic games, working out in the morning and then proceeding to lead three different practices before his day finally came to a close.
“To get to that level, you have to give yourself over to it,” Ware said of his training. “You have to completely surrender to it.”
It’s a concept 16-year-old Wainscott resident Brittni Svanberg knows well.
While she may not indulge in spontaneous nocturnal sprints (yet), Svanberg knows what it’s like to dedicate inordinate amounts of time to sport. The East Hampton High School sophomore and regional ice-skating champ is training to qualify for the U.S. Nationals competition this year, and has her sights set on the 2018 Olympic Games.
Her training includes waking up every Saturday morning at 4 a.m. for the one-hour drive to The Rinx skating rink in Happaugue, where she laces up and practices her triple jumps.
As an athlete whose sport is not accommodated here on the East End—the only local rink, at Buckskill in East Hampton, is only open seasonally—Svanberg said she makes this commute five times a week. And when she has access to the local rink, she doubles up on her practice time.
“It’s definitely hard to balance it with school,” she admitted. Svanberg also has does about six hours of training off-the-ice each week: “jumping, strengthening, stretching, plyometrics… a lot of core training!” she exclaimed. “I’m definitely willing to work for everything, but, yeah, when I started I didn’t know exactly all the commitment it would take.”
She said the road to gold is not easy, but that’s never stopped her. “I really like skating,” she continued. “So, it’s easy to keep going.”
Now that the 2012 Summer Olympic Games are only a few months away, Clark and her partner and completing their last round of training in Spain. At this point—with years of work-outs, fundraising and qualifying races under her belt—Clark said she and Lihan are focusing more on the mental aspects of competition.
This, according to Lester Ware, is exactly what separates athletes from Olympians.
“It’s much more in the mind than it is in the body,” he said. “It’s all about believing, or rather, not believing you have limits—I never had limits.”
Clark said she and her teammate work with a sports psychologist, and frequently run through meditation and visualization routines.
“As in every sport, everybody’s pushing to be the best they can be,” she continued. “For us right now, there are so many teams that are in this to win medals. And we’re actually a team that, if we start to sail closer to our full potential, we’re going to be the team that people look at and say, ‘Ahhh… How did they do that?!’”