Some of the athletes I met at the Olympic Training Center competed this year at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. When I left my internship at Lake Placid, New York, four years ago to start medical school, I felt that the athletes and I were chasing dreams in parallel. Though the nature of our training is completely different, and Olympic hopefuls endure far fewer guarantees, we both possess the grit it takes to endure years of training.
There are deep, hidden struggles behind the glowing broadcast anthems and advertisements at the Olympics. There are also hidden struggles behind the starched, ill-fitting white coats and the aura of confidence students try to convey on the medical wards. Both Olympic hopefuls and physicians-in-training interpret the long journey in different ways. I remember some athletes carrying themselves in their daily lives with stoic determination while others were among the most warm and entertaining people I have ever met. I found a similar pattern in medical school with some highly-disciplined classmates who would study material before the next academic block even started, while the rest of us mortals would resign ourselves to pimp sessions over pizza or sushi.
I started working at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center after graduating from college. In the sports medicine clinic, I helped with whatever I could as a humble intern, including tasks such as scheduling, preparing for World Cup competitions, testing for concussion baseline symptoms and assisting with research projects. I lived at the training center along with the athletes housed in a nice dorm room overlooking the parking lot and push track which was completely covered in snow by mid-October. Lake Placid is currently home to the sliding sports, including bobsled, skeleton and luge, as well as freestyle aerial skiing and biathlon.
The number of athletes in Lake Placid was small compared to the other training sites in Colorado Springs and Chula Vista. This was, perhaps, one reason why it was easy to feel at home as a newcomer to this quiet historic village in the heart of the Adirondacks. No one felt anonymous there. On my first day I sat in the cafeteria at a small table, and, soon enough, other athletes and interns joined me. As a twenty-two year old recent college graduate, I did not know what to expect when meeting an Olympian. I wondered if they would expect me to treat them differently; however, I felt more welcomed than I had ever expected. We would talk about training, discuss television shows and joke about the latest pre-workout routines and protein intake trends.
The Winter Olympic and Paralympic sports combine a diverse group of athletes from all over the world. Watching the crescendo of world events leading up to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi was an amazing experience. I saw the progression of the season from training to team trials all the way to national and World Cup competitions. I learned more about Winter Olympic sports than I ever knew before. Whenever I talk about my experience to others, I almost always have to explain what each sport involves. For example, skeleton slides down the track headfirst whereas luge slides feet-first. Biathlon involves cross-country skiing in addition to using a rifle to shoot a target, a sport that was likely inspired historically by Norwegian military ski patrol exercises.
These winter sports waiver on the fringes of media attention in the United States for most non-Olympic years, but it is in the fringes where Olympic caliber is made. It is not built in the post-game interview or press conference. Olympic hopefuls often have to self-finance their housing, training and travel costs. Many athletes representing the United States receive minimal compensation for their sport. Several of the athletes I had met worked other jobs in order to support themselves if they did not have lucrative sponsors.
It takes a great deal of patience to pursue a dream one day at a time for years on end. It is difficult to fathom how someone can train years for an event that lasts minutes or even seconds. These athletes spend their lives on the icy curves of a track, perfecting turns on the edge of their skis or in the perfect rotation of an airborne jump. In medicine, we also endure repetitive daily training in order to perfect the art of diagnosis, treatment and procedures. I have come to find the repetition that many deem mundane is actually the pathway to brilliance.
The pathway to brilliance also comes with the occasional mistakes. Olympic athletes and medical students have a period of training allocated to learn, but there is actually very little room to take risks, and certain mistakes can be a detrimental to Olympic hopefuls and residency match applicants. Our dreams rest on ultimatums and frequently the opinions of others. If medical students want to join certain specialties, they need certain board scores. If medical students have moments of doubt about their specialty choices, they are not considered to be serious about their careers. Though most people can understand the goals that future physicians are trying to achieve, the array of numerical measures by which they are labeled does not always make sense to others. As we advance in our training, we also isolate ourselves in a niche that only a few people can understand.
Though our perceived failures are more private than those of Olympic athletes and hopefuls, we endure the same palpable silence of our friends, family, classmates and mentors as they observe our setbacks seemingly from afar. The stalwart definitions of success that we have–doing well in medical school, matching into a choice residency program, getting a great job or fellowship–are strong motivators with steep cliffs to climb and deep ravines in which to fall. Like Olympic athletes, the ardent pursuit of a goals with high expectations can leave us vulnerable to the unforgiving pressures. We all have to support each other through this journey because no one can succeed entirely on their own.
For Olympic hopefuls and future doctors, success is all about believing that the improbable is possible. The Olympics exude the pure intention of sport. It is something that is hard to describe but easy to feel. When people watch the Olympic Games, they tap into an exaggerated version of their own ambitions. I remember this feeling from when I was nine years old watching my first Olympic Games. As I got older, it was through participating in cross country and track that I learned to visualize myself achieving something I wanted. I would create a picture in my mind down to the most mundane of details just to make the prize seem attainable. Every time I envisioned myself winning, it was like doing another rep. From my experience in Lake Placid, I realized there was no better way to continue training this perception than by watching something as exhilarating as Erin Hamlin succeed as the first American to win an Olympic singles luge medal or to see Gloria Beim, MD, support Team USA at the Olympic Games as the Chief Medical Officer in the 2014 Olympic and 2018 Paralympic Winter Games. This is the inspiration we all can use to refocus when we feel that our neatly sewn plans are fraying at the seams.