Being an Olympic athlete is the experience of a lifetime. A new phalanx of men and women will discover that starting this week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

With the exception of Kevin Durant and his NBA cronies, the Olympics is probably as good as it will ever get.

Olympic athletes are the strongest, the fastest, the most skilled, the mentally toughest in the world. But they’re not gods living in a higher world. You might even know one.

“We’re talented individuals,” local Olympian Anthony Famiglietti told me in 2004, “but we’re the guy across the street. We’re your neighbor. We’re your friend, your uncle, your cousin.”

They’re your Vols. Famiglietti was a former UT athlete living in Knoxville off to Athens to run the steeplechase.

More than a dozen athletes with Knoxville connections will compete in Rio. In most cases, the connection is the University of Tennessee. One, soccer forward Hannah Wilkinson, plays Wednesday for her New Zealand team against the U.S. squad.

The Olympics last about two weeks in the world spotlight. However, the experience of being an Olympian can span years. It’s a process of striving, sacrifice, realization and, in the best cases, triumph and then reflection.

I looked back at talks I’ve had with a number of Olympic athletes through the years to walk me through the experience.

Tim Mack won a gold medal in the pole vault in 2004 in Athens. It was the culmination of years of sacrifice after his college career at UT ended.

This is what Mack said shortly after he got home: “There were times when I was like, ‘I’m 28, come on, I should have a house or a condo or whatever. What am I doing?’

“My dad was still sending me money. If I won a competition for 500 bucks, that was a lot of money.”

Spartan living is part of the bargain for most Olympic hopefuls. Famiglietti again:

“If I have to sacrifice my credit rating, if I need to sell my TV, I’m going to do it.

“I don’t think people realize it, but the Olympics is not about winning, not about the gold medal. It’s about what it takes to get there, all the sacrifices you have to make.”

Lawrence Johnson was an Olympic pole vaulter in 1996 but didn’t medal. He dug in for four more years and sacrificed some of the thrills in his life.

“We’ve let the motorcycle go, along with all kinds of reckless activities,” he said before leaving for Sydney in 2000. He came home with a silver medal.

Just making an Olympic team is instantly transforming. Aric Long went from anonymity to big man in town when he made the ’92 team as a decathlete.

“The phone starts ringing at 7 in the morning,” Long said, “and it doesn’t end until 10 at night. People wanting to know if I’ll wear this product or take this agent.

“I love it. I went in McDonald’s the other day and had to sign five autographs just because people recognized my face.”

Todd Williams also made the 1992 Games in Barcelona a year after his UT distance-running eligibility ended. Before leaving, he anticipated his pinch-me reality check.

“You always think of the opening ceremonies when you’re growing up,” Williams said. “I think of ’em coming in with those cowboy hats. Now, I’m part of that.

“It won’t sink in until I come walking in with Magic and Michael Jordan and Janet Evans and Matt Biondi.”

Then it’s time to perform. The moment of truth.

Tripp Schwenk was a former UT swimmer in 1996 in Atlanta.

“I’ve spent 20 years of my life gearing up for one moment,” he said. “And for that one moment I have to do the job.”

Schwenk rose to the moment. He won silver in the backstroke and gold on a relay.

Bill Schmidt, a Knoxville business consultant, also rose to his moment. He won a bronze medal in the javelin in Munich in 1972. Then, the spoils.

“I was invited to every beer hall in town,” Schmidt recalled a couple of years ago, “and I didn’t want to let anybody down. To say we did some damage is putting it mildly.”

In Athens in 2004, Mack, the pole-vaulter who had questioned his sanity for pursuing the Olympic dream for so long, delivered the goods. Facing staggering pressure, he popped an Olympic-record jump to clinch the gold medal. To say it changed his life is an understatement.

Twelve years later, Mack makes a living teaching aspiring vaulters. One of his clients, Kelsie Ahbe, is competing for Canada in Rio.

The Olympic experience doesn’t turn out for most the way it did for Mack. For him it wasn’t just about the sacrifice. It was also about the reward of a gold medal.

“Sometimes,” Mack said recently, “it’s hard to believe I actually did that.”


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