Hilary Caldwell remembers her first Olympics, in London in 2012.
“It’s definitely an overwhelming experience,” said the Canadian swimmer. The Olympic village is “like nowhere else in the world and you’re surrounded by the best athletes in the world.”
Canada’s swim team in particular has a lot of young, first-time Olympians. Although many of them have been to international competitions and stayed in athletes’ villages at the Pan Am Games or elsewhere, the Olympics are different, according to coach Ryan Mallette.
“Everything is amplified. There is more going on. There are so many other sports,” he said.
“I think once you get there, you’re more worried about the rookies getting caught up in the moment or getting a bit distracted and that’s why the veterans do a great job of preparing them for that.”
Sydney Pickrem is heading to her first Olympics at 19 years old and she knows it will be different than any other event. “It’s not just your normal swim meet,” she said. “But at the same time you have to kind of look back at it and go okay it’s just another swim and not try and get too over your head about it.”
That’s where veterans like Caldwell come in, with advice on managing the craziness.
“I think the cliché is to treat it like any other swim meet, but that’s sort of true,” she said.
“You can treat it as the Olympics second and a swim meet first. You get that part done and then you can enjoy the grander Olympic experience.”
She warned the younger athletes that some things are out of their control. For example, the late-night swim schedule at Rio means that the swimmers will want to sleep in – but other athletes might be up early and moving around.
“No, you’re not in your own bed and it’s not going to be quiet when you want it to be quiet and dark when you want it to be dark. You’re going to have to manage all these things that are beyond your control and how to not let it get to you because it’s not always going to go perfectly,” said Caldwell.
Pickrem said that Caldwell also urged her to appreciate how special the experience is.
“Make sure you appreciate the moments because they can go by faster than you think,” she said Caldwell told her. “And take each swim as just the proper protocol that you’ve always done and don’t look at it any different than just another swim. But also, don’t forget that it is the OIympics and appreciate every moment of that race because it could be gone before you know it.”
Contradictory advice maybe, but realistic when the whole world is watching.
For her part, Caldwell will be watching the rookies. “I think when we get there, to see their awe of the whole experience and the genuine amazement of being at the Olympic Games for the first time — you can’t get that back. You can’t get that excitement of going for the first time back so I think to see it in all the rookies is going to be cool because I remember how excited I was to go to my first Olympic Games. It’s what you dream of your whole life, so it’s a pretty cool thing to watch other people go through as well.”
The Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympics is on Friday.