Our Campus: UBC athletes prepare for the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics

Gordon Johnston, fourth-year engineering student at UBC, grew up watching field hockey from the sidelines as his two older sisters played and his mom occasionally coached. The first time he played was when one of his sister’s teams was missing a goalie, so he stepped in. He is now on the national men’s field hockey team and is hoping to make the cut to attend the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

UBC athletes have a long tradition of competing at the Olympic Games. In UBC’s history, 241 athletes have competed in total with 13 during the last summer games alone. Despite this track record, it is only recently that the athletics department — as well as the AMS and the Calendar — have started attempting to brand UBC as a “sports school.” Student athletes are gaining enhanced recognition on campus, advertised through banners in The Nest or even billboards in Kitsilano which feature faces of football and basketball players. For some of UBC’s athletes, particularly the Olympic hopefuls, attending university while also living up to the standard that they set for themselves in sports is like living a double life.

“A typical week has about 20 hours in the pool, three hours in the gym and five hours doing dryland on deck,” said Keegan Zanatta, a fifth-year arts student and swimmer who tried to qualify for the Rio Olympics. “So early mornings, 5:15 a.m. on deck, swim for two hours, come home, eat, have a short nap before going to class, train again every night, repeat.”

“I think the last Olympic year, I went to two weeks total of class,” he said. “This year’s been a little gentler on me, but still I think I missed three weeks of class so far this semester.”

Tera van Beilen, a kinesiology student and swimmer who was at the London Olympics in 2012 but did not qualify again this year, also said she swims upwards of 30 hours a week with dryland training, massage sessions and physiotherapy in additon.

Lifelong dreams

With the Olympic trials approaching, training schedules for the swimmers will taper, described by van Beilen as “a happy time.” Although, with less training comes more pressure. For some of UBC’s Olympic hopefuls, the games have been a lifelong dream.

“When I was 10, even though I was really really terrible at swimming, [the Olympics were] always the main goal. As my swimming progressed and I started to realize that I actually had the ability ... I latched onto it,” explained Erika Seltenreich-Hodgson, a third-year arts student and former junior worlds champion swimmer who will be competing in Rio. “Since then, that’s eight years that I’ve been investing my training into this end goal, which is a huge, insane thing to think about.”Like Seltenreich-Hodgson, other athletes held the Olympics as a distant and unrealistic goal that slowly became more realistic as they progressed through the sport.

“Making the junior national team you kind of think, ‘Hey, this could happen someday,’ and then when you get called up to play on the senior team you think, ‘Hey, now I’m actually training for it. Now I’m going for it,’”explained Matthew Sarmento, a second-year kinesiology student and national men’s field hockey team member.

The athletes have come up with several ways of dealing with the pressure that comes with getting closer to these dreams and staying motivated. Van Beilen said she has just learned to live with it over the years and believes it can push her to perform better.

“There’s no way to avoid that stress that you feel before a race and the more I’m nervous, the better I perform because there’s more on the line,” said van Beilen. “I like being nervous, but there is an optimal level [and] I feel like a couple times I’ve gone over that.”

For Seltenreich-Hodgson, it comes down to keeping the goals in mind.

“I know I’m working towards something. Even the hardest workouts, you leave them feeling accomplished, even if everything about it sucked. Even if you cried, you’re leaving that workout knowing that you did everything you could have done,” said Seltenreich-Hodgson. “There’s something about knowing that every day you’re putting your absolute all into something. Even if that day isn’t having the outcome that you wanted it to be, you’re still working towards something greater than every day is.”

For Johnston, part of the motivation comes from being on the national team.

“It’s so cliché, there’s so much pride in playing for your country. This is not something that everybody has the opportunity to do in their lives and we have an opportunity to do it every day,” said Johnston. “ I think it’s easy to get up and look at yourself in the mirror and say ... ‘I’m going to be the best that I can today because my country [and] my teammates are counting on me.’”

The stress of competition

For the swimmers, competing at the Olympic trials — which will determine if the athletes qualify — will be different than the Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) competitions mainly in how members of national teams interact with each other. Unlike UBC’s team, they do not train together on a regular basis, so there is not the same degree of familiarity or camaraderie. Zanatta explained that many of the national competitions involve a lot of “getting to know each other.”

“The team itself has gotten pretty good at dealing with grudges, for lack of a better word. It’s kind of nice getting to know them better as people instead of the person you see three times a year at a race,” said Zanatta.

Members of the national men’s field hockey team, on the other hand, train as a team all year long and frequently travel to competitions together. This presents a new set of challenges as the team members that they have played with for years are suddenly their competition.

“A lot of us have grown up playing together [and] it’s a really good group of guys,” explained Paul Wharton, a fourth-year arts student vying for a spot on the Olympic field hockey team. “You have some of your best friends on the team, but suddenly you’re competing for a spot to go to the Olympics, which is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

The different vibe between the athletes makes for more stress than the athletes are used to at varsity competitions

“Everything is just a little more elevated in terms of your expectations [and] you have different goals,” explained van Beilen. “It’s more individual and less team. Being on a varsity team, you do everything to collect points collectively to try and win a team banner. At nationals, the team aspect doesn’t really matter. You’re racing for yourself and trying to get a spot on the national team or the Olympic team this summer and that creates a different kind of stress because it’s on you.”

What is after the Olympics?

The Olympics this summer represents the end of a long journey for these athletes and is something that they will not have the opportunity to attempt again for another four years, begging the question, what comes next?

“You know, I’ve put a lot of thought into it and I haven’t come out with any conclusive results,” said Seltenreich-Hodgson. “I’m really excited for the day when I don’t have to wake up at early ridiculous times to go jump in a cold pool most of my mornings. But other than the excitement of the unknown and that potential future that is ahead of me, I don’t know a whole lot of what I’m going to do in it.”

Wharton, Johnston and Sarmento all agreed that while they were also not sure what they wanted to do in the future, they all wanted to continue to play or coach field hockey on some level.

Regardless of the outcome this summer and what they do next, the athletes all agreed that while the Olympics would be a dream come true, the goal of competing on that level is not the only reason they persevered in their sport.

“I think regardless, I’ll come back next year and I wouldn’t really see it as a waste if I didn’t make it," Zanatta said. "It still brought me to where I am today and helped me grow as a person, so [I’ll] keep going with it, give back to the team a little bit next year and just enjoy my last year.”

Sophie Sutcliffe is a varsity rugby athlete.