2012 OLYMPICS | Being replacement athlete at Olympics a tough gig
August 6, 2012
LONDON (AP) – You’re an athlete at the Olympics. You get to train with your team, are issued special credentials, and spend a couple weeks around the world’s best.
A sweet deal – except you almost certainly won’t get to compete.
And that means you won’t be officially be considered an Olympian.
Such is life as an Olympic “replacement athlete,” where it’s more about mettle than medals. There were 17 in various sports from the U.S. at the London Games, most of them knowing before flying over that they were pretty much coming along for the ride, chosen to help support and prepare those on the real roster more than anything else.
“I’m happier to be here,” U.S. women’s soccer replacement player Lori Lindsey said, “than not be here at all.”
It’s not all bad. Replacement athletes in London have gotten to stay in the athletes village, which wasn’t allowed in Beijing. They get the coveted “fork and knife” stamp on their accreditation, which means they can eat whatever they want in the village, whenever they want, for free. And there’s still a few perks to the deal, such as access at various sponsor events and other not-open-to-the-public gathering spots.
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Earlier this week, Doris Willette got to load up a duffel bag half as big as she was with Olympic goodies that only athletes can receive. When she came to London, the bag was off-limits, since she was a replacement athlete. But when she got subbed into a U.S. fencing match in London, Willette’s status changed.
Swag was just one of the rewards.
“It’s not just about going home and finally being able to see my parents and saying, ‘I’m a real Olympian now,'” said Willette, who identifies herself as a two-time Olympian on her resume. “It’s about just having had the experience of being out on that strip and fencing and kind of showing yourself, your family and the world that you are an Olympian. You’ve been training this whole time. You want that opportunity to fight and to compete.”
Willette came to London worried about reliving her Beijing nightmare.
A replacement athlete in 2008, Willette thought she deserved the chance to be promoted to the competing roster, especially after the U.S. clinched a team medal in fencing there. National team coach Mike Pederson didn’t make the roster switch, so not only did Willette not get to fence in Beijing, she watched as teammates got to leave with silver medals.
“It was just a really complicated situation where I think the coach was maybe a little afraid,” Willette said. “He was my personal coach at the time, and I think he didn’t want to look biased. He didn’t put me in and he kind of left it up to the athletes. I left him in the end because I felt like that meant he didn’t believe in me and he didn’t think I would be able to make a difference on the team.
“I spent a long time trying to recover from that,” Willette added.
In London, there was no medal for her, but a better memory, at least.
“To me, the biggest difference was the way that people treat you,” Willette said. “Not people that know fencing and not the other athletes, they don’t really view you difference. It’s a lot of the people working. They just don’t know, so they’re like, ‘Oh, alternate athlete? Sorry, you’re not allowed here.’ They like to push you around a little. It is what it is.”
Sometimes, the replacement athletes get promoted when others get injured, as was the case with the cycling team.
Brooke Crain wasn’t expecting to be part of the BMX competition in London. But on the last day of training for the U.S. team last month in Chula Vista, Calif., medal hopeful Arielle Martin crashed and suffered serious injuries – considered life-threatening, at first – including a severe laceration to her liver and a collapsed right lung. Martin needed surgery and is recovering, her family said.
Crain saw no reason to celebrate, of course.
“I’m devastated for my teammate (at)AMV15,” Crain wrote on Twitter, referencing Martin’s name on the site. “She deserves to be here more than anyone. I will represent her, my country & live my olympic dream.”
Lindsey said she’s doing the same.
When U.S. coach Pia Sundhage announced the soccer roster for the London Games, she summoned Lindsey for a one-on-one meeting to deliver the word – a proverbial good-news, bad-news moment.
“That’s exactly how she presented it,” said Lindsey, who cannot be in the locker room on game day, but otherwise has basically the same access as everyone else on the roster. “‘I have some good news and some bad news.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m not seeing any good news here.’ But I am excited to be here.”
Willette is sticking around for the rest of the Olympics. She’s going to watch some events, and before heading home, she’ll pick up one more souvenir: A new credential, one that doesn’t say the words “replacement athlete.”
“It’s not in my nature to be bad-spirited,” Willette said. “I was still thankful to be here. I was definitely sad before. There is no denying that. But there’s a lot of positives, too. I could have not made it at all. For all the alternate athletes, it’s tough. You’re part of it, despite the fact that you might not get to compete here. You’ve still helped them get to where they are. You’ve done everything that you could.”
AP Sports Writer Joseph White contributed to this report.
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