You can probably guess how Olympic runners and swimmers trained. But what about badminton and handball players? Or equestrians, synchronized swimmers, and white water canoeists? How did they train?
We wondered the same. So we caught up with several present and former summer Olympians and coaches from the U.S. teams who shared their training routines.
Badminton players must demonstrate excellent speed, accuracy, flexibility and stamina, says Ardy Wiramata, head coach of the U.S. badminton team. To attain those qualities, badminton players trained six days a week twice a day, first in the morning and then in the evening. Morning sessions typically involved physical conditioning, such as plyometrics (a training technique that requires athletes to propel themselves into an explosive motion from a grounded position), running, footwork, and weight lifting to gain upper and lower body strength. Afternoon sessions focused on on-court training.
Because they spend long hours in the saddle, riders must possess endurance and strength. They also must exhibit extreme mental strength. "Riding is a thinking game and requires great powers of concentration and the ability to focus," says Jim Wolf, assistant executive director of the U.S. Equestrian Team.
In addition to working daily with horses, riders on the American team followed their own weekly fitness program.
To acclimate horses to the Australian climate and allow them time to get over jet lag, the U.S. team sent its horses to Australia in the first part of August. The riders joined the horses a little over a week later and spent time training and competing with the horses. Competition before the Olympics is crucial, Wolf says, to keep the horses focused.
If you think synchronized swimming is merely dancing in the water that anybody can do, think again. This may be one of the most physically demanding sports because athletes must be able to hold their bodies upright in water (their feet can't touch the pool floor during competition) and hold their breath for seconds at a time underwater.
To do that, synchronized swimmers need physical strength, flexibility, and well-trained aerobic and anaerobic cardiovascular systems, says Tammy Cleland-McGregor, a 2000 U.S. team member and gold medallist from the 1996 Games. They also must have a strong stage presence.
For the Sydney Games, the U.S. team trained six days a week, usually from 7:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Three times a week, the swimmers did plyometric training with eight to 15-pound weighted balls to build strength. They performed push-ups, squats and jumping exercises to build power for the water. The team also did dance twice a week to work on body movement, facial expressions, and flexibility, and gymnastics twice a week for flexibility. To help with their acting skills, the swimmers worked with a mime once a week.
Visualization also played a major role in their training. The team regularly pictured themselves in competition, imagining the color of the water and the tiles on the floor.
Because team handball draws elements from other sports, including basketball, soccer, hockey and water polo, handball players have to be overall good athletes, says Lisa Eagen, director of operations for the Southeast Team Handball Conference.
Athletes need balance and coordination to run and jump, physical strength to withstand direct contact, and flexibility for rolling, diving and positioning their bodies in unnatural ways. Their shoulders and torso must be especially strong.
Eagen, a 1996 Olympian for U.S. Team Handball, says handball conditioning imitates the training that soccer and basketball players undergo. During her training for the 1996 Olympics, Eagen spent much of her time establishing her aerobic foundation through endurance running. Plyometric training and foot drills were also a crucial part of training. She gained strength by working out frequently with weights. As the Olympics drew closer, her training focused more on power, speed, jumping and overall strength.
The United States did not qualify for this sport for the 2000 Games.
Imagine jumping into a canoe without knowing what lies ahead. That's what Olympic athletes face in white water canoeing.
"You have to learn to enjoy that zone of not knowing," says Joe Jacobi, first alternate in white water canoeing for the U.S. team in Sydney and a 1992 gold medallist in the sport.
During a hard training week, Jacobi completed 10 or 11 workout sessions in his boat, spending up to an hour and a half during each session. For half of those workouts, he practiced technical skills, running drills in white water situations. He spent the other half on flat water where he worked intervals and anaerobic training. Some weeks also included out-of-the-boat training sessions where Jacobi ran or did other activities that didn't tax his upper body.
In the earlier phase of training, Jacobi lifted weights mainly to prevent injuries, especially in the upper body. "White water canoeing is brutal on shoulders," he says, which explains why several U.S. team members have had shoulder surgeries.
Visualization also factors into a canoeist's training. Because no course is ever the same and because athletes in Sydney will never have run that specific course, canoeists spend lots of time thinking through each race. Although they don't know how the water will react on the day they race, they've already visualized dozens of strategies. By the time the race starts, they will have mentally paddled that course hundreds, if not thousands, of times.