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What It Takes to Be an Olympic Athlete

Olympic Dreams

Between now and February 26, we'll be glued to our television set watching as almost 2,500 athletes from around the world skate, ski, and slide their way toward an Olympic medal in Turin, Italy. If you're like us, you're marveling at the hard work, dedication, and pure athletic ability on display at this year's Games.

We had to know what it takes to get there, so we took a moment to talk with three female athletes — two Olympians and one aspiring Olympian — to find out how they trained, what they ate, and when they slept as they prepared for the Games. (Suddenly, working out three times a week doesn't seem like such a sacrifice anymore.) Read on to learn more about the training regimens of skeleton slider Katie Uhlaender, who makes her Olympic debut in Turin on Thursday, Summer Olympic veteran in cycling Kristin Armstrong, and 2008 Olympic hopeful in gymnastics Shawn Johnson.

Katie Uhlaender, Skeleton Slider

During her first season on the World Cup circuit in 2004-05, skeleton slider Katie Uhlaender competed with a broken foot and a partially fractured ankle. Since then, she's had two off-season surgeries. But this 21-year-old from Colorado isn't letting past adversity cramp her style in Turin. The three-time U.S. champion will compete in her first Olympic race on Thursday. She is the only American woman in the event.

"I feel like I've been through enough stuff and have enough experience that I feel like I should perform," Uhlaender said. Since arriving in Italy, her schedule has been packed and there's a lot of action going on around her, but Uhlaender keeps her eyes on her reason for being there.

"I've been pretty narrow-minded. There's one thing to focus on," Uhlaender said. She's been prepping her sled and her mind, walking the track and doing maintenance to keep her body fresh. A major part of this is eating right.

"I pay attention to what I eat, and when. It's about nutritional timing," Uhlaender said.

Skeleton is a sledding sport where sliders launch themselves headfirst down icy tracks on sleds that reach speeds of 80 mph. Sliders are in peak form when they maximize their weight while staying lean and explosive, Uhlaender said. Right now, she weighs about 150 pounds and is 14 percent body fat.

Uhlaender's breakfast usually consists of eight egg whites with spinach and cheese, oatmeal, or yogurt. She gives herself at least a half an hour to digest her breakfast before starting her training session. She packs on the carbs before workouts or just afterward, and during the day, she keeps the ratio between carbs and protein lower.

"It's mostly about balance," Uhlaender said. "I can't not eat carbs. That would take away energy and I won't feel good. I need energy to compete." She eats about every two to three hours because of her intense training regimen. She'll often have a salad with a chicken breast for lunch and she loves burgers. When she's really trying to put on weight, she'll have cottage cheese with protein powder at night.

During the summer, Uhlaender has a packed schedule. From about 9:30 until 12:30, she's at the track running sprints. Then she takes a break for lunch before hitting the weight room from 3 until 5:30. Afterward, she tends to her body by stretching and spending time in the cold tubs. By 7:00, she's eating dinner and by 8:00, she's studying the tracks and looking at past races.

"I'm completely focused on training and sport," Uhlaender said. "I did everything I could to know that when I walk into the Olympic stadium, I feel prepared."

Uhlaender said walking in the Opening Ceremonies last Friday was "indescribable."

"My cheeks were sore from smiling," she said. "It's special because I'm surrounded by the best in the world."

You can see Uhlaender's Olympic debut Thursday, February 16, on NBC.

Kristin Armstrong, Cyclist

Kristin Armstrong says she was born with a competitive game face.

"At Christmas, I'll play Dominoes with my family and friends, and they'll say they don't want to play with me because I'm so competitive," the 32-year-old Armstrong said. That competitive drive has led to impressive results on the bike. In the road race at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Armstrong finished eighth. A two-time member of the U.S. World Championship team, Armstrong was the 2005 U.S. national champion in the time trial. In 2001, Armstrong developed osteoarthritis, and the former triathlete was forced to give up running because of its impact on her hips. So she focused on cycling.

In a typical week, Armstrong rides for 20 to 25 hours. She trains in 10-day spurts before taking a day off, although she's found that an easy day can be just as beneficial as a day of rest. On some Mondays, she'll ride for about 45 minutes to an hour and a half on a flat course in an easy gear.

"It's not necessarily a day off, but mentally it's a day off," Armstrong said.

After the world championships in September, she usually abandons her bike for a month. She stays active by hiking with friends, but she doesn't participate in strenuous activity.

Now she's focusing on building her mileage base and strength training. Armstrong lowers the number of rotations per minute and shifts down, which creates more tension, and rides slowly up hills.

"There are a couple approaches to strength," Armstrong said. "My coach believes in building strength through the motion you need to do."

Armstrong has been working with her coach, Jim Miller, for about four years.

"One of the best things I did for myself was hire a coach," Armstrong said. "If you trust in your coach, it takes the pressure off you."

Hiring a coach or a trainer helped Armstrong focus on things she wasn't as good at, like taking time off.

"All athletes and exercise fanatics know how to work out well," Armstrong said. "Often you'll go workout after work for two hours and do the same things. We're creatures of habit. A coach is not so habitual."

Although training is essentially Armstrong's full time job, she values balance in her life. Fortunately, she was accepted into the Home Depot program, which allows her to work 20 hours per week with full time wages and benefits. Work is also a distraction.

"If I have an injury or something is wrong (in cycling), I'm not fixated on it," Armstrong said. Armstrong also cross-trains by skiing near her home in Boise, Idaho, and she practices yoga a couple of times per week.

Shawn Johnson, Gymnast

Fourteen-year-old Shawn Johnson started taking gymnastics lessons when she was 3 years old.

"When I was little, I just did it because I loved it," Johnson said. "When I started getting to the higher levels, I started thinking about making the elite. I put in more hours and learned more skills."

Johnson was named to the U.S. Junior National team in August 2005 and now she has her eyes set on Olympic Gold in the Beijing Summer Games in 2008.

The eighth-grader in West Des Moines, Iowa, attends a full day of school before heading to the gym for four-hour workouts. Johnson spends five hours in the gym on Saturdays and takes Sundays off.

Practice consists of at least 30 minutes of conditioning, stretching (she usually arrives a half an hour early for additional stretching) and endurance training, and about 50 minutes on each event. Johnson will complete extra tricks at the end of a routine during practice, and she runs to build endurance.

Her strength training relies on her own body weight and exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, squat jumps, and pull-ups. For exercises like sit-ups, she usually does as many reps as she can of each exercise in one minute. Usually she does about 30 pull-ups, although she revealed that she's done up to 100 at one time.

"We're not allowed to use weights," Johnson said. "It doesn't give gymnasts the right proportion."

Johnson says she pays attention to her diet to be a healthier gymnast, but she's not obsessive over it. Between school and practice she grabs a snack, usually some sort of protein or fruit, to prepare her body for the intense workout. During practices, she usually takes a 10-minute break and noshes on some fruit; her favorite is strawberries.

Johnson's favorite event is the 4-inch-wide balance beam that sits 4 feet off the ground. She is working on a sequence of two back-handsprings followed by a back layout full twist on the apparatus. Although new tricks still scare her even at this level, she's learned to manage her fears and trust her coaches.

"They're always telling me they wouldn't let me do anything if I wasn't ready or if I would get hurt," Johnson said. "They always know when I'm ready."

Right now, Johnson is using the Winter Olympics in Turin as inspiration for her own dreams of competing in 2008.

"I love the speed skating, ice skating, and skiing," Johnson said. "It's actually really scary that the next Olympics is the one I'm going for, but it pumps me up to want to work harder to get there."

Originally published on, February 2006.