How do Olympic athletes mentally prepare for their event?
There is a particular point in a song that Nick Goepper has to hear right before dropping into the halfpipe for a run.
It cannot be a slow beginning. It cannot be tapering off. It must be right in the middle of the song. More specifically, nearing the chorus.
“Often times I will pause my music right until I’m about to drop and then start it sort of right at the chorus,” said Goepper, a slopestyle skier competing at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. “It’s got to be kind of ticking up.”
After spending 15-20 minutes visualizing his run in the athlete tent atop the slope, Goepper, who won bronze four years ago in Sochi, will say a short prayer and then shuffle through his preferred genre of the moment — thrash metal, EDM, classic rock, hip-hop — to find just the right tune. Then, he ditches the headphones and it’s down the slope he goes.
Athletes use various methods of mentally preparing themselves in the leadup to competition: music, prayer, phone calls to mom, going to the bathroom, dancing. Routines in the final minutes before competition can serve as a checkpoint, an indication to the mind and body that it is go time.
For Gus Kenworthy, who is competing in his second Winter Games after winning slopestyle silver in Sochi, visualization is a large part of how he centers himself in the minutes prior to a run.
“I’ll close my eyes and think about every bizarre, minute detail in the run, things that I need to do, how it’s going to feel coming into the jumps, how much speed I’m going to feel like I’m going to have, what it’s going to sound like, everything,” he said.
Then, in the moments before actually dropping in, Kenworthy turns his focus solely to his breath, much like in yoga practices. He admittedly can let the moment get away from him, thinking about what his score may be, about what he will say in post-run interviews, about “all the dumb things” that do not pertain to his task at hand.
But the breath — focusing on the breath clears the clutter.
“Trying to stay in the moment, grounded,” he said.
Bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor, a pilot competing in her third Olympics, tries to think of . . . nothing. “Absolutely nothing,” she said.
She prays upon arriving at the start line and then wipes her mind clean as much as she can.
“Really just allows me to let the back of my brain take over and drive down the track as fast as I can,” said Meyers Taylor, who is chasing her third Olympic medal and first gold.
“You can’t think and drive at the same time. It doesn’t work.”
Fellow bobsledder Aja Evans, a brakeman for pilot Jamie Greubel Poser for a second straight Games, has a couple of things she does before going down the track. First, she makes sure she uses the bathroom. (The G-forces created when a sled goes down the track can create . . . a problem.)
“You do not want to come out with a big wet spot,” Evans said with a laugh.
Then, no matter where she is, she always calls her mother, Sequocoria Mallory, who is an immense inspiration and source of motivation for Evans.
“I don’t care how much it costs, I’m on the phone calling her, and as soon as I call her, she knows what that means,” said Evans, a bronze medalist in Sochi.
The two pray — for Evans’s protection on the track, for a performance that exceeds expectations.
“So that’s pretty standard,” Mallory said. Then, Mallory will suss out if her daughter needs a proverbial kick in the butt.
“If she’s crying or if something’s gone wrong, I have to scream at her and tell her to snap out of it because you don’t want to have an ordinary day,” Mallory said. “If this is ordinary, then you’re gonna do ordinary.”
“She says some very encouraging words, and then literally it’s go time from there,” Evans added.
Nordic skier Liz Stephen has a few things she has to remember to get to the start line: her skis, her race bib, and herself.
“All of which are definitely things I’ve forgotten in the past,” Stephen said with a laugh. “There’s always a learning curve with everything, right?”
Other than that, the three-time Olympian said her pre-race routine tends to change — and it depends on her nerves. If her nerves are high, she turns inward, not even wanting to be nudged a bit too much. But her teammates have been able to pick up on this and help calm her anxiety. Jessie Diggins is good for a mini dance party to loosen up. Kikkan Randall is another ol’ reliable. And both are competing in PyeongChang with Stephen.
“I’m not a generally quiet person and so generally I do better when I’m acting the most like myself as I can,” Stephen said.
For mass starts, Stephen tries to minimize her time in the race pen before starting, sometimes cutting it a bit close.
“I’m like last-minute Nancy and just bowling in with five minutes to go, ripping off my warm-ups and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, where’s Liz? Where’s Liz?’ ” she said with a laugh.
Sadie Bjornsen, a fellow cross-country skier competing in her second Olympics, packs a bag to leave at the start line with a dry change of clothes for after the race. And for each race, she is sure to wear her lucky racing gloves and lucky sports bra.
“I pull them on just 10 minutes before the start, zip up my suit, and everything’s really tight and so you just feel like you’re not gonna catch any wind,” she said.
Once in the race pen, Bjornsen does not remain still. She runs around the start area, trying to burn off nervous energy. She will find her teammates for a final high-five or booty bump, as she calls it. Sometimes, she leans on her wax technician, Jean-Pascal Laurin, for his sense of humor. His jokes go a long way to soothing Bjornsen in the moments leading to a start.
“Enough to loosen me up and remember I’m here for fun,” Bjornsen said, “and the No. 1 thing is I’m prepared and I’m gonna have fun.”