PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- It's one thing to see an athlete win an Olympic gold medal on television, but seeing it in person is totally different.
I'm the starting right guard for the Kansas City Chiefs and getting to the Olympics was on my bucket list. How I got to Pyeongchang, South Korea, was the definition of good timing. The Opening Ceremony was Feb. 9, and even if the Chiefs would have played in Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4, I was cleared to leave Minneapolis three days later. And with a little planning, I could easily fit my offseason workouts into my Olympic schedule. Plus, I'm a medical student and, go figure, my classes weren't in session during the three-week period of the games.
During our November bye week, I flew back to my hometown of Montreal, Quebec, to pitch a concept to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Canada's news organization and broadcaster of the Olympic Games). I wanted to use my sport and medicine perspective to explore how athletes optimize their performances. Every story would have a scientific angle: nutrition, hydration, sports science, mental preparation. This would explain the complex, multi-faceted aspect of each sport and put the spotlight on an athlete's support staff.
They liked the idea, so I booked my ticket to Pyeongchang as a reporter.
I went from playing games at Arrowhead Stadium to standing in the cold at the bottom of mogul hills to looking at snowboard jumps that start at 150 feet above ground. I was in figure skating venues stacked to the brim with fans and at sliding centers where athletes launch themselves on their skeleton sled down an ice track at 130 kilometers per hour (80 miles per hour).
Being here, I learned a lot about training while in competition. You don't realize it, but Olympic athletes are here for three weeks and compete anywhere from one to three or four times -- or even participate in full tournaments. They have to train in between events, and sometimes even the day after competing. Training (or not training) at the right level of intensity can optimize your performance, and I was able to relate a lot of it to football.
In addition to that balancing act, I also found a new appreciation for sports psychology. I think there is a little bit of a stigma in our sport regarding mental preparation, but here at the Olympics, there's a big emphasis on it. As athletes, we typically put most of our energy into physical preparation. However, your mind needs to be right, because over the course of a season, sometimes you do well and sometimes you don't -- and you can't blame that on physical performance, as you're the same athlete the entire season. A lot of these Olympians get only minutes to win their version of the Lombardi Trophy.
I took a chairlift ride up the mountain with Jean Francois Menard, the mental performance coach of 25-year-old Canadian Mikaël Kingsbury, the newest Olympic champion in men's moguls. He spoke about what athletes need to do in order to compete at the highest level of a sport, where even the smallest mistake can cost you a spot on the podium or get you seriously hurt. It was interesting to hear the little tricks Menard makes his athletes do so they can mentally step out of the way and allow their bodies to do their job. (It doesn't hurt to mention he also coaches ice dancers Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, who won gold in the team event, and snowboarder Max Parrot, who won silver in men's slopestyle. Those are just some of his successful clients.)
I couldn't help but think how mental strength must have boosted Parrot during the slopestyle final. Wind and cold made conditions less than perfect, and I watched him fall in his first two runs. A dream he'd been working toward for four years came down to his third and final run.
Before he took it, he watched his competitors go before him; some of them excelling, and some of them falling just as he had. To find the mental strength to be on top of a mountain and think, All right, this is it. I've worked four years for this and if I fall again, I go home with nothing. Instead of letting that thought scare him, he continued to watch and learn from others' mistakes to create the perfect run. Hitting his third run, Parrot won silver.
To me, that kind of mental strength is just amazing.
Being at the Olympics as a reporter also made me realize how challenging it can be to get access to the athletes. Everything is put in place to create a bubble around them to eliminate potential distractions and optimize their performances. It can honestly get frustrating as an athlete, but it's part of the game. And it will definitely help me put more emphasis on that aspect when I get back in the locker room next season.
The experience is definitely something I'll bring back with me to Kansas City. It was a great opportunity to be on the other side of the barrier and realize all over again what sports can do for people.