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.
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).
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.