TeamLB 2016

Usually when I see the calendar flip over to the month of August, a knot begins to build in the pit of my stomach because I can feel summer coming to a close. But this year was different. This year that fear turned into anticipation because the sports fan inside me knew that this was an Olympic year.

For two weeks out of four years the Olympics is able to unite countries through sport. And for sports fans like me, it’s a chance to relax on the couch, surf through channels and watch some interesting sports that don’t get a lot of ink here in America.

I don’t know much about sports like team handball or archery, but when these sports take center stage at the Olympics, I’m a casual USA fan and root for some kind of medal, particularly gold.

It’s easy for a sports fan to just assume that these athletes are elite and they’re good at what they do, so that’s why they’re able to represent our country in Rio. But while we watch for our enjoyment, these athletes are fulfilling lifelong dreams on the world’s biggest stage, under the brightest spotlight.

Last week at the opening ceremonies the camera consistently focused on legendary Long Beach water polo player Tony Azevedo, who is competing in his record fifth Olympic games for the United States. Azevedo is arguably the greatest American water polo player in history, and as a sports fan in Long Beach, that’s just something that I knew. So for me, I wasn’t overly surprised when I saw he was competing in his fifth Olympics.

Current Long Beach State and former USA men’s volleyball coach Alan Knipe reminded me of how special the accomplishment really is. Knipe went through the Olympic process in 2012 as the U.S. men’s indoor coach and knows exactly how much effort athletes must put in to reach their goals.

“These athletes sacrifice so much of their lives to get to this level and I know how much stress goes into qualifying,” he said. “So many things have to come together at the right time and it’s awesome to see the relief on their faces at the opening ceremonies.”

“In two weeks these athletes go from no names to overnight sensations,” he added. “Sometimes the hard work that they’ve put in is overlooked.”

Current and former Olympic athletes understand this. So when they watch Olympic coverage, they get a bit of different feeling compared to an average Joe and for good reason. All of the feelings and emotions that a regular person might feel watching the games in Rio are amplified for current and former athletes because they’ve been there and done that.

Long Beach native and Olympic gold medalist Jessica Hardy told me that she gets very emotional during the games and television does an incredible job of capturing the intensity of the Olympics.

“I’ve been blown way at how awesome it is to watch the games at home. It’s even more exciting than actually being there,” she said. “The way they capture emotion just gives you a different feeling.”

The swimming events have always been a favorite of mine and I tried to compare my emotions to Hardy’s when the U.S. men’s freestyle relay team took back the gold medal from France on Sunday. Being an Olympic swimmer and having raced in some of those pressure packed events and heats, Hardy’s experience watching the race was much more nerve racking.

“My hands were shaking and my heart rate was through the roof,” she said. “I’m more than a normal fan. The Olympics have been my life and I’m totally invested in it.”

Since chatting with Knipe and Hardy about their experiences, I’ve viewed the Olympic games a little differently. I’ve become completely emotionally invested while watching team USA and now have somewhat of a grasp of the magnitude of the moment.

So when our men’s gymnastics team is competing on the pommel horse or Azevedo is in the pool competing against a European power, I’ll be making sure that the “USA” chants will be in full force.

I’m not saying, I’ll be a diehard Fencing or Equestrian fan when the Olympics are over in a few weeks, but I’m definitely going to appreciate the effort and talents of the athletes in Rio and back them every step of the way.

And when the games are over and I’ll have to wait another four years, my calendar will be circled again, waiting in anticipation for the 2020 Olympic games in Japan.

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