The Dream-Crushing Reality of the U.S. Olympic Trials

8 minute read

You’re a basketball player, growing up in the United States. Your dream, you tell anyone who will listen, is to make the NBA. Plain and simple. 

It’s a long shot. But every year, the NBA holds its draft—this year, it starts on June 26. The league welcomes some 60 new players into its ranks. Sure, draftees still have to make their team’s roster and earn playing time to say they’ve really achieved their dream. And American players must compete with international talent for spots; those players seem to improve every year.

But even if you’re not drafted, you can enter the league as a free agent, either right away or after playing overseas or in a minor league. During this past NBA season, 572 people played at least one game in the NBA. 

On the flip side, you’re a 100-m sprinter growing up in the United States. Your dream, you tell anyone who will listen, is to make the Olympics. Plan and simple.

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The process for qualifying for the U.S. Olympic track-and-field team, however, couldn’t be more cutthroat. Once every four years—it’s worth repeating, every four years—three 100-m sprinters make the United States Olympic team for the individual Olympic race. No 60-round draft for the Olympics. 

What’s more, the United States holds trials to build its Olympic roster; the track-and-field trials start on Friday in Eugene, Ore, and go through June 30. Doesn’t matter if you’re the reigning world champion or if you’ve been setting record times all season. Or if you’re feeling a little sick on the morning of your race. Either you finish in the top three, or your dreams are deferred. If not totally destroyed.

“The dream math is so unfair,” says U.S. hurdler Kristi Castlin, who won 100-m bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “That's why, every day you’re out there, you’ve just got to put your blood, sweat, and tears on the line. Because once you get to those Olympic trials, it’s like the Hunger Games.

Both this week and next, four of the most-watched sports on the Olympic program—diving, swimming, gymnastics, and track and field—are holding their quadrennial trials. “I’ve talked about it with friends in other sports, and they’re like, ‘That’s insane,’” says U.S. heptathlete Anna Hall, the reigning world silver medalist, referring to the trials system. In diving, athletes are competing for position through June 23 in Knoxville, Tenn.; in the swimming trials, which also run through June 23, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the math is even crueler. In most races the top two finishers, at most, make the Games.

The U.S gymnastics trials begin on June 27, in Minneapolis. Only five women and five men make it.

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Talk about pressure. “It’s mental warfare,” says Castlin, who did not make the finals at trials in 2012. “Physically, we’re all on the same level. It's the time walking from the warm-up track to where they stage you underneath the stadium till you walk out and then the gun goes off. That’s where the race is won or lost.”

In 2016, between the trials semifinal and final in Eugene, Castlin focused on fashion, in order to put her in a positive mind frame. “The first thing I did was change my clothes,” Castlin says, referring to her final outfit as her “Beyonce” uniform. “These folks are going to see you wearing this up on Hollywood Boulevard.” Feeling confident in her look, Castlin turned to visualizing her final race. It helped that she won her first round and semifinal. “I'm feeling good,” she says. “Negative thoughts couldn’t even enter my mind.” Castlin finished second, punching her ticket to Rio.

Track and field feeds off its tension. The runners line up in the blocks, and the packed stadium goes silent in the seconds before the gun goes off. Those moments build anticipation for the fans—and leave athletes vulnerable to counterproductive thinking. “We forget that in these types of sports, our bodies will tense up terribly,” says sports psychologist Shayne McGowan. “That just wrecks us.” Athletes need to find their way into a calm state, he says, when “you're relaxed, you're controlling the breathing, and as you’re standing there at that starting block, you’re looking down the line going, ‘I own this.’”

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American Justin Gatlin, the 100-m Olympic gold medalist at the 2004 Athens Games, competed in four Olympic trials. He made the team in 2004, 2012, and 2016, but missed out on Tokyo three years ago after aggravating an injury during the 100-m trials final. (He was serving a doping suspension in 2008, and earned bronze in London and silver in Rio, behind Usain Bolt.) Gatlin, who currently hosts a track-themed podcast, practiced competing in the Olympic trials before actually competing in the Olympic trials. “I would put myself in scenarios where I would take a couple of my training partners, and I would say, ‘Oh, in my mind you’re Tyson Gay,’” says Gatlin. “In my mind, you’re whoever else at that point in time who is running fast. And I would think about how I’m going to compete against them in the finals.”

At the trials, he says, control the variables you can control. In the popular 2020 ESPN documentary The Last Dance, Michael Jordan’s camp floated a theory that Utah Jazz fans tampered with a pizza delivered to his Park City hotel room before Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals. In the now-legendary “Flu Game,” Jordan got sick but still scored 38 points, leading Chicago to victory. “It was food poisoning,” Jordan said. 

While a Utah man, claiming he made the pizza, came forward and denied contaminating it—in fact, he said he was a Bulls fan—Gatlin says the point still holds. Get your food from trusted places. Try your best to stay out of public places, where you can catch a bug. 

“You're going to Oregon, there's a lot of trees,” says Gatlin of the track trials. “So there’s most likely going to be a lot of pollen. Make sure you pack Claritin, Zyrtec, or whatever you can.”

After all, every sniffle can cost you a millisecond—and an Olympic bid. 

Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do. Alysia Montaño entered the 2016 Olympic trials as a favorite to make her second consecutive U.S. Olympic team. But as she prepared her final charge in the 800-m final with some 75 meters to go, incidental contact with another runner sent her falling to the track, eliminating her chances altogether.

She did nothing to deserve to lose. But trials offer no do-over. 

“I think I still struggle with it every once in a while,” says Montaño, who crossed the finish line fifth in London, but was reallocated a bronze a dozen years later after a second Russian athlete who finished in front of her was stripped of a medal. Russia’s track-and-field athletes were barred from the Rio Games; that was Montaño's last best shot at a true podium finish.

She did, however, find a way to cope. She published a book, Feel Good Fitness, in 2020. She leaned into advocacy work for female athletes. Montaño, who ran in the U.S. championships while eight months pregnant in 2014, penned a 2019 op-ed in the New York Times criticizing Nike’s sponsorship policies for pregnant athletes. After a public outcry, Nike expanded its protections. “I poured energy into the things that I'm really good at, which is a lot more than just running,” says Montaño.

And despite all the stress, most Olympic athletes will tell you that the pursuit is worth it. “The Olympic trials changed my life,” says Castlin. “It just allowed me to have the fortitude and the drive to continue to press on and achieve history. It prepared me for life after sport.”

The athletes who fall short at trials—the overwhelming majority, in fact—should have no shame. “There’s going to be a day when you are going to be able to talk about that experience, sitting down with either your colleagues or your friends or your family, and say, ‘Yeah, I qualified for the Olympic trials,’” says Castlin. “And not many people can say that. Just getting there and competing is an accomplishment in itself that everyone should be proud of. Because the United States of America is the hardest team to make.” 

True words. But little solace, over these next few days, to those fourth-place finishers in Eugene. 

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