MORE THAN ATHLETES

  • Share
  • Read Later
Baron Pierre De Coubertin, the French nobleman who revived the Olympic Games, was a firm believer in the ancient Greek ideal of exercising mind and body in harmony. The role of sport is "at once physical, moral and social," he wrote. "I have often noticed that those who find themselves first in physical exercises are also first in their studies. The serious commitment in one area promotes the desire to be first throughout."

More than a century later, Coubertin's image of a sound mind in a sound body continues to flourish. Competing with the millionaire basketball players and logo-laden runners will be fencers and rowers and shooters who have no major endorsements but who do have demanding careers as teachers, doctors, law-enforcement officers and lawyers. While they're not necessarily smarter or faster or more dedicated than other athletes, they can say that they have better balance.

Take Nancy Reno, for example. She is not only an Olympic hopeful in beach volleyball but a marine biologist as well. Or rower Ruth Davidon, who became the fastest single-sculler in the U.S. while pursuing a medical degree at Johns Hopkins and a doctorate at Harvard simultaneously. Or triple jumper Mike Conley, who happens to be a deputy sheriff in Washington County, Arkansas. And Americans aren't the only Olympic athletes with uncommon pursuits. Conley's rival in the triple jump, Britain's world-record holder Jonathan Edwards, worked in a genetics lab in Newcastle until recently.

They are all smart, yes, but they are also efficient managers of time who can maintain intense concentration and energy for long periods. In some cases, they need a helping hand. When Leslie Marx is asked how she is able to juggle her position as an assistant professor at the Simon school of business at the University of Rochester with her standing as the top U.S. epee fencer, she responds with a laugh, "A forgiving employer."

In fact, during the last winter quarter, Marx was able to get a teaching schedule that put her in the classroom three days a week but allowed her enough time to leave after her last class for weekend competitions in Europe. Even finishing school for the summer didn't free up much time for training or family--her husband Michael, a five-time Olympian, is her coach. In mid-June she flew to Iowa to present a paper in her area of research: games theory. "Fencing, actually, is a good application," she explains. "Fencers have to choose good strategies and try to influence the beliefs of their opponents." Even the stratagem of trying to make an Olympic team should be considered with some deliberation. "What if you put your spirit on the line and it doesn't work out?" she asks. "Should you not make the team, you have to believe that you are still a valuable person, that your friends will still love you and that your family will still be there for you. It takes that whole set of beliefs to enable you to expend all of the energy, time and emotion to try to reach that goal, knowing that it might--or might not--work out."

Kent Bostick is a groundwater hydrologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At 43, an age when most Olympic cyclists have long since retired, he's competing in his first Olympics. He has kept up a grueling 250-mile to 500-mile-per-week training schedule while working 35 hours a week disposing of contaminants. He does a little of both work and training by riding 20 miles to his office each day. His wife Carol Ann, a racer herself, and some friends often meet up with him after work for a three- to four-hour training ride in the hills. On weekends he spends six or seven hours a day on the bike.

Bostick attributes much of his athletic longevity to a nutritional diet that includes lots of fruits, fresh vegetables and nutritional supplements. But the real reason Bostick defeated favored competitors 15 years his junior to make the Olympic team had nothing to do with sustenance. "Kent might not have been the fastest rider, but he was the one who wanted it the most," says Frank Scioscia, director of Bostick's riding team, Shaklee--named for its health-food-company sponsor. "In athletics, desire is often the deciding factor."

Even if Dorothy ("Dot") Richardson hadn't made the Olympic softball team, her place in the sport's history would have been secure: a four-time All-American at UCLA, she has been acclaimed as the best shortstop ever. She entered medical school at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and planned to pursue a career as an orthopedic surgeon. Softball had not yet been added to the Olympic roster, but she continued playing anyway, joining the national champion Raybestos Brakettes in Stratford, Connecticut.

During the season, she would leave the hospital in Louisville at 5 p.m. on Friday. She often boarded the plane still dressed in her surgical scrubs and changed into her uniform on the flight to New York, where a fan or team rep would drive her to the game. Just as she was preparing to begin her residency at the University of Southern California Medical Center, the I.O.C. made softball an Olympic sport. She continued the commute until last summer, when she took a one-year leave of absence to play full-time with the national team. "It has been such an incredible experience," she says. "It feels bigger than life." And what a life. Two days after the gold-medal game, Doctor Dot will resume her residency.

Bill Roy actually leads several lives. As a skeet shooter, he is on target to win a gold medal at the Atlanta Games. As an Air Force major, he pilots an F4-E Phantom II jet. In a previous assignment, he was an instructor of American literature at the Air Force Academy, teaching such classics as Moby Dick. He is also a Sunday school teacher, the leader of a Boy Scout troop, a husband and the father of five daughters. Is he superhuman? Not really, says Roy: "I feel like I'm just an ordinary guy who can do extraordinary things, thanks to a lot of hard work and dedication."

Obviously, none of these athletes needs Atlanta to be considered a success. But the Games do help. Just ask the patron saint of Olympic dual careerists: Dr. Benjamin Spock. At the 1924 Paris Games, two decades before he wrote Baby and Child Care (which has sold more than 40 million copies), Dr. Spock was an oarsman on the gold medal-winning U.S. Eight. He says that while the Olympics had no direct impact on his career as a physician, it was important nonetheless. "I felt that I was inadequate athletically and socially," said the 93-year-old Spock from his home in Camden, Maine, last week. "I was timid, a mother's boy. But I wanted to be a regular guy. Making the varsity crew and winning the gold medal made a huge difference in my personality. I was much more self-assured, and that helps almost everybody in any field." The baron, no doubt, would have agreed.