What Does a Gold Medal Cost?

“We’re gonna die,” my friend moaned as we shakily descended the stairs to the Dungeon. I put my arm around her shoulders. We punched through the invisible door of heat at the threshold and left the summer day behind us. Even the sun was too scared to enter this place. Inside, the rancid stench of others heavily hung in the air, clouding our nostrils and resting in the back of our throats. The cramped chamber was cluttered with machines specifically tailored to destroy us–to shred us from the inside out, rendering our bodies disabled. We knew this. And yet, there we were, willingly walking into “Hell Day”–or some name that suggested a slim chance of survival. They split us up, and as females, we knew this threatened our safety. I watched helplessly as my closest friends became victims of apparatuses, staring through squinted eyes as they winced and screamed.

Some claim Phelps didn’t train hard enough for the 2012 Games. His face–and his collection of medals–suggests differently.

“You’re fine! You’ve got it!” I managed to cry as they bellowed loudly for inner strength. We all knew I was a liar.

By the end of the day, our clothes were stained with sweat, rust, and for some, blood. Our taut ponytails now hung limply at odd angles. I raised my arms to re-tighten the hold and keep hair from falling in my defeated face–an act I had done millions of times throughout my life. My brain commanded my arms to rise; my lips even formed the words. But despite my desperate pleading, my limbs stopped moving halfway to my scalp. I gazed upon my non-responsive arms. I felt my fingers as I individually tested their mobility. They seemed fine. I stretched my hands out before me and again tried to lift them to my ponytail. Again they refused. Until that point, I had never lost control of motor function. When my brain said, “Lift the fork to your mouth,” my hands and arms lifted the fork to my mouth. When my brain said, “Sign your name,” the words quickly got scribbled in ink. And, when my brain said, “Tighten your ponytail,” my hands automatically reached up, grabbed a portion of hair and tugged. But this time they wouldn’t even obey the command to reach up. The past hour had left me temporarily immobilized. I knelt down on my knees and asked another partially paralyzed girl for help.

“Good work today, ladies,” our coach boomed. “Now go scrimmage.”

That was one of the first workouts of my four-year bout as a collegiate athlete. And I was merely training to compete against the best of the Missouri Valley. I reflect on that memory and wonder what these Olympians must have done to prepare for the summer of 2012. Spending the past four years–the length of my entire collegiate career–training to compete against the best in the world. And, unlike most athletes who get multiple opportunities for victory over the course of their career, Olympians get one chance–one moment–to prove they’re #1. So, how much does a gold medal cost in Rio? I’d say it costs every second of every day. Starting now.

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