The Road to Rio

Three Olympians talk about faith, training, wage equality —and winning medals.

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I have a confession. Even though I now write about sports, when I was a kid in Providence, Rhode Island — a city brimming with rabid Boston sports fans — I did not care much about professional sports. But I participated in tons of athletic activities, from horseback riding to hockey. When my family members would curse at the television as the Celtics lost a buzzer-beater, I would just observe, sometimes feigning enthusiasm, but ultimately I was detached.

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That is, until I discovered the Olympics. We lived near Brown University, and my parents recruited some of the school's women's ice-hockey players to babysit my little brother and me at times. When the 2002 Winter Olympics rolled around, our sitters invited us to a local bar to watch the United States play Canada. When we arrived, I realized the players had split up to watch the game in two separate rooms: Americans in one, Canadians in another. Someone explained to me it was so things wouldn't get too heated. These women were close friends, but it didn't matter — nothing would come between them and their countries. This fascinated me.

Those babysitters influenced me. Throughout my teens, I played ice hockey, and I eventually played in college. As the years passed, the players on the US National Team shifted from my role models to my peers. I watched them, some of whom were my former teammates, sacrifice years of their lives for a spot on that coveted Olympic roster. During the Sochi 2014 Games, my college teammates and I skipped class to huddle around our television and watch the team lose the gold-medal game to Canada in overtime. As the Americans received their silver medals, their faces hardened and streaked with tears, I realized the sting of losing — and conversely, the joy of winning — while representing your country is unlike any other.

I still struggle with the way the United States tends to idealize its athletic heroes as pillars of moral character. But I also maintain that when it comes to the Olympics, there's a real reason we're always drawn back into drama, the stakes, and the personal stories. And this summer, even amid a swirl of concerns around the Zika virus and water quality in Brazil, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games will be no exception. As we approach the start of the games, three American Olympians and hopefuls stuck out to me: Becky Sauerbrunn (soccer), Allyson Felix (track and field), and Ibtihaj Muhammad (fencing).

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Sauerbrunn, a captain of the US national women's soccer team, hopes to lead her team to a historic gold. If the USWNT wins, they'll be the first to clinch back-to-back World Cup and Olympic titles, which feels especially significant given that in March, five of the team's stars (including Sauerbrunn) filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the US Soccer Federation of wage discrimination. (In June, a federal judge ruled that the terms of the players' existing collective-bargaining agreement with the US Soccer Federation are still valid until the CBA expires in December. Though this ruling is separate from the wage-discrimination lawsuit, the CBA includes a no-strike provision — so, essentially, the players cannot go on strike before Rio.)

Felix aims to be historic in a different way. At the London games, the 30-year-old won a gold in the 200m. But in Rio, thanks to a schedule change, she'll be able to compete in the 200m and the 400m. If she wins both, she'll be the first woman to do so since France's Marie-José Peréc pulled it off at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

And as for Muhammad, the 30-year-old first-time Olympian has already made history by qualifying. She's set to become the first American athlete to compete at the Olympics wearing a hijab (head scarf), which feels especially resonant in light of Donald Trump's anti-Muslim comments during the 2016 presidential race.

I spoke to these three women about what drives them, how they deal with immense pressure, and the challenges they face as some of the world's best athletes.

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BECKY SAUERBRUNN, WOMEN'S SOCCER

Avery Stone: What is a moment in your career when you've been under the most pressure? How did you handle it?

Becky Sauerbrunn: The 2015 Women's World Cup. We had such high expectations for ourselves, and I think the country had such high expectations for us. Plus, we didn't start the tournament off as well as we wanted to. But we handled that pressure really well. And as the tournament went on, I thought we got better and better, until the final [when the US beat Japan 5-2], when everything, all of a sudden, was working well.

AS: What is your team's mentality going into Rio?

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BS: In the women's-soccer world, no one has won the World Cup and then followed it up the next year with an Olympic gold. That's the thing we're keeping in the back of our minds, just to give us that added motivation. We want to win everything. We do feel pressure going into Rio, but it's pressure that we welcome. I think we work better under that pressure.

AS: There's been a lot of roster turnover since the World Cup: Abby Wambach and Lauren Holiday's retirement, Megan Rapinoe's ACL injury, Sydney Leroux's pregnancy. What younger players will make an impact in Rio?

BS: I think the young phenom right now is Mallory Pugh — she's only 18! There's also a center back I've been getting to play with, Emily Sonnett, who plays older than her 22 years. And then there's Lindsey Horan. She's 21 and was asked to step in and be a starter right away after Holiday retired, and I think that's one of the most difficult positions on the field. You always worry about turnover, and we had one of the biggest turnovers in national-team history. We had a lot of spots to fill. But I think the girls who have come in have done wonderfully.

AS: Who is the most significant person you've met leading up to the Olympics?

BS: We meet fewer people because we don't live in the [Olympic] village with the other athletes. But in doing appearances leading up to Rio, I've met other Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, and Paralympic sprinter Richard Browne Jr. comes to mind. Talking with him and hearing about his drive and his dream, it's hard not to be inspired and motivated and moved by someone who took adversity and said, "I'm making the most of my chances and I'm running away with it."

AS: Do you think there are challenges that female Olympians face that male Olympians do not?

BS: I would say just the stereotypes, like, "Why would we watch women athletes? They're not stronger or faster!" It's that deep-seeded societal gender norm that we, for some reason, aren't elite athletes, when we are. We really are. I think we fight against that a bit.

AS: What's the best way to dispel those stereotypes?

BS: I think we have to keep putting women's sports in the limelight. I thought the Women's World Cup did a wonderful job of showing the quality of women's soccer. But we also need coverage and marketing and press and getting these female athletes to become household names.

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AS: Are there athletes who push you to be a better player?

BS: I could name any of my teammates! But also, I look at someone like Serena Williams, who's been so elite and powerful in her sport. Or Ronda Rousey, who took a hit in losing to Holly Holm but is fighting to come back. That takes a lot of resilience, especially when she was thought to be unbeatable. I'm really looking forward to seeing her return.

AS: Given concerns around water safety and the Zika virus, how do you feel about your personal safety in Rio?

BS: It's an absolute concern. Our health is the number-one priority. But I have faith that the International Olympic Committee will do what they can to make sure that everything is good by the time the Olympics start. I'm kind of taking it day by day and learning as much as I can.

AS: What's a typical day like when you're at the Olympics but not competing?

BS: Definitely a lazy morning — I love lazy mornings — with a big old cup of coffee. If there are soccer games on, I'll watch soccer. But other than that, I'll read, go for a walk, watch some shows. Really, off days for soccer players are just recovery days. You're trying to get off your feet as much as possible.

ALLYSON FELIX, TRACK AND FIELD

Avery Stone: Leading up to the Olympics, what does a normal training day look like for you?

Allyson Felix: I train for around five hours each day. I'll spend three hours on the track, warming up and doing a tempo workout or a speed workout. Then I'll head to the gym and I'll spend another two hours there, doing Olympic lifts, plyometrics, body-weight exercises.

AS: How is competing at the Olympics different than competing on any other stage?

AF: It's the pinnacle of your career. Everything is amplified, and you feel so proud to represent your country. You're there with athletes from all over the world. Everyone is coming together, putting differences aside.

AS: You play an individual sport, so when you're under pressure, it's all on you. What's a time when you've felt the most pressure?

AF: I would say either in Beijing 2008 or London 2012, standing on the starting line and realizing that there are expectations — your own expectations, other people's expectations — and managing those. Those are the heaviest moments. I come from team sports, I played basketball, but I think playing an individual sport is really different — you're out there by yourself.

AS: Who puts more pressure on you: other people, or yourself?

AF: I definitely think I put more pressure on myself. I can be hard on myself and super-critical and very rarely satisfied or happy. I am my biggest critic.

AS: What are you looking forward to the most about competing in Rio, specifically?

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AF: I've never run the 200m and the 400m. I'm excited to branch out and take risks and push myself. For me, this time around will be a new experience. I'm looking to take it all on.

AS: When you tore your hamstring at the 2013 World Championships, you said it was the low point of your career. Mentally, what helped you overcome your injury?

AF: Whenever you have an injury, you start to have doubts about if you can get back to where you were, or if you can be better than where you were. Right after my injury happened, I was so disappointed. I felt like things weren't coming together. Just getting into the rehab, all the doctor's appointments — it was a bit overwhelming. What really helped me was surrounding myself with people like my family, my coach Bob Kersee, and others who believed in me. I kept my eyes on the big picture: I knew that recovery wasn't going to happen overnight, but as long as I was willing to work as hard as I could, I'd be able to fight back.

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AS: What are some challenges that female Olympians face that male Olympians do not?

AF: As a female athlete, you're always fighting to be on a level playing field with your male counterparts. But I believe the Olympics is great for young girls; they get to be exposed to so many different sports and to these really strong women. It's an opportunity to showcase what we do, which is something that men get the opportunity to do on a pretty regular basis.

AS: Who do you think is the most dominant athlete right now?

AF: Serena Williams. To be her age and to be so dominant and to have accomplished so much — she's doing incredible things.

IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, FENCING

Avery Stone: You've already made history by qualifying for Rio — you'll be the first US Muslim woman to compete wearing a hijab. What does this mean to you?

Ibtihaj Muhammad: It's important to me that youth everywhere, no matter their race, religion, or gender, know that anything is possible with perseverance.

AS: What is a moment in your athletic career when you've been under the most pressure? How did you handle it?

IM: Qualifying for this Olympic team has been the most stressful experience of my athletic career. It has taught me so much about myself and how to handle high-pressure moments. I've learned to become my own biggest cheerleader, always feeding myself positive thoughts, visualizing myself winning, and most importantly focusing on each individual point.

AS: What are you most looking forward to about competing in Rio?

IM: I'm most looking forward to the Opening Ceremonies, the moment when I'll officially feel like an Olympian. I'm also excited to be on Team Visa Rio 2016. Qualifying for the Olympics was a dream come true, but to have such a prestigious sponsor recognize my achievements and the importance of diversity when representing Team USA to the world means a lot to me.

AS: How did you become involved in fencing?

IM: As a Muslim youth, though I played a variety of sports growing up in New Jersey, my parents were in search of a sport for me to play where I could be fully covered and not have to modify the uniform. Fencing provided a unique opportunity where I could fulfill my desire to participate in sport, wear the same uniform as my teammates, and adhere to the tenets of my faith to cover my body.

AS: What stereotyping do you experience as an elite female athlete who is Muslim?

IM: People are always shocked to hear I'm an athlete by profession and even more shocked when they hear I'm a fencer from the United States. I challenge the stereotype that Muslim women are oppressed and that a Muslim can be American by birth. It's amazing how many assumptions people make, but I embrace the opportunity to use this Olympic platform to educate.

AS: What is the most difficult part of balancing your faith with your high-level athleticism? What's the most rewarding part?

IM: The most difficult part is training and competing while observing the holy month of Ramadan, which involves fasting. The most rewarding part of being a Muslim athlete is my faith in God paired with my faith in myself. I approach every match with positivity and the belief that I can beat anyone on any given day. And in the face of defeat, I am able to learn from my mistakes and work on my weaknesses to prepare for next time.

AS: What advice would you give young Muslim women who want to become high-level athletes?

IM: There will always be people who challenge the idea that you belong, but it's important to work hard, to focus on yourself, and prove that you belong in this space of high-level athletics.

AS: In 2014, you founded an online clothing company, Louella. How has business been since its launch?

IM: Business has been great! It has been such an exciting journey to see something I have built grow so quickly. The US market needed affordable, fashionable, modest clothing options, and it has been really fulfilling to challenge my creative side to fill that need.

These interviews have been condensed and edited.

Avery Stone is a writer and reporter living in New York City.

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