Olympians Have Greater Longevity

Linda Robertson

Posted May 22, 2012

DALLAS - Michael Phelps intends to make the 2012 London Games his third and final Olympics while gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson hope to be Olympians for the second time this summer. Shooter Kim Rhode will compete in her fifth dating to 1996.

Athlete longevity in the formerly amateur Olympic sports was a major topic of discussion at the three-day U.S. ?&,Olympic Committee Media Summit.

Even First Lady Michelle Obama, who made a special appearance with some of the 110 athletes in attendance, emphasized the importance of making sports a "lifelong habit."

Improved sophistication in sports science, better nutrition and greater financial compensation have enabled Olympians to prolong careers as full-time athletes. Triathlete Hunter Kemper, 36, qualified for his fourth Olympic Games as did taekwondo athlete Steven Lopez, 33. Bernard Lagat, 37, is running after his fourth Olympic berth.

"It's a profession," said Kemper. "There's so much more research on how to take care of your body. In your mid-30s you can actually get stronger in an endurance sport."

Swimmers used to have a short Olympic lifespan, but Natalie Coughlin, 29, and Brendan Hansen, 30, are aiming to go to their third Games - if they qualify at the U.S. trials June 25-July 2 in Omaha, Neb. Phelps' popularity has increased endorsement opportunities.

"Our sport has received more exposure through our stars, and with that attention comes money," Hansen said. "I remember Rowdy Gaines saying he was just getting started at 22 but couldn't make a living. Now we're able to stay in the sport. Experience will be a strength of our team in London."

Female gymnasts remain the exception to the trend. For those petite athletes, it's usually one-and-done when it comes to the Olympics. Liukin, 22, and Johnson, 20, stars of the 2008 U.S. team, are attempting comebacks and will have their work cut out for them against younger gymnasts at the Olympic trials June 29-July 1. Only five women make the team - it used to be six - so Liukin and Johnson are focusing on specialist roles rather than all-around slots.

"In 2008 I was 18 and I was considered old," said Liukin who won the all-around gold in Beijing, plus three silvers and a bronze. "Age is just a number - as long as your body can handle it.

"I needed a break after 2008. Then I felt like I still had something inside, and I could help the team. I didn't want to have a single regret."

Johnson, who won balance beam in 2008, left the sport, competed in Dancing With The Stars and blew out a knee in 2010 while skiing in Beaver Creek, Colo.

"I didn't like the person I had become," she said. "The skiing accident got me back on the right road. It flipped a switch in my mind: What if I can never do gymnastics again? I missed being an athlete. But there is a reason not many people make multiple runs in this sport - it's really hard the second time around."

Gymnast Larisa Latynina of Russia won 18 medals in four Olympics through 1964, back when grace was more important than complex skills and the small size necessary to execute them.

Phelps, who has won 16 Olympic medals, could break Latynina's record in London. He met Latynina recently at a photo shoot, and the medal she gave him from a U.S. vs. Russia meet was "probably one of the coolest things I've received," he said.

Phelps plans to attend the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games - as a spectator. His mother told 60 Minutes she would like him to keep competing through 2016.

"I've said I don't want to swim past the age of 30," said Phelps, who turns 27 in June. "This is my 20th year in the sport. I look forward to being on the other side of the fence."

Phelps, who won a record eight golds in 2008, has not specified which events he will swim this summer. But his races against Ryan Lochte promise to be taut. Lochte beat Phelps twice at the 2011 world championships. They will meet again at the trials.

Phelps said the rivalry with Lochte was one reason he rediscovered his passion for swimming after two years of post-Beijing letdown. "He was kind of rolling over me," Phelps said. "It wasn't fun to be on that end. It was very motivating for me. Last year is when I woke up."

Obama was promoting her "Let's Move!" campaign against childhood obesity by announcing a collaboration with the U.S. Olympic Committee to get 1.7 million children involved in sports in this Olympic year. She will attend Opening Ceremonies in London.

"When I'm sitting in the stadium in London, I'll be thinking about the power of the Games to inspire a generation," she said. "Sometimes all it takes is that first lesson or clinic or class to get a child excited about a new sport."



©2012 The Miami Herald Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.
 
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