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Editor's Note: Just how hard is it to make the U.S. Olympic team? Does it require a lifetime of training and devotion? Would an average person with an athletic background have any shot at all?
E-ticket will find out the answers over the next two years. We've tapped Kathryn Bertine, a former ice skater, professional triathlete and accomplished author, to see whether she can somehow find her way to Beijing in 2008. In what sport? Well, that's what she's trying to find out.
TUCSON, Ariz. Let's kick this article off with a pop quiz:
Which of these objects weighs 10,805 grams?
You're right, it's D. And my 10,805 grams o' leg does not even include the weight of the bones, just the muscle, fat and tissue of that one particular limb. My entire body? A whopping 59,431 grams of Olympic hopeful potential, baby. Which is far more interesting than saying I weigh 135 pounds.
I obtained my left leg's scientific information by way of:
D again! I could easily spend the rest of this column telling you about the body fat percentage of my fourth toe or the muscular circumference of my armpit, but I fear sharing such fascinating knowledge would cause the rest of your life to feel boring. And I don't want that. D, however, has a much more interesting story.
Elite athletes if I may be so bold as to include myself as one are pretty good when it comes to knowing their bodies. We're like big babies. We know when we're tired, hungry, cranky and need to be changed. Usually, we know how to meet these needs in the heat of competition. But medical technology has developed so much over the past few decades that "knowing the body" has been taken to a whole new level. For example, I always knew I needed to consume food during a long bike ride, but I had no idea I needed exactly 61 grams of carbohydrate, 200 mg of sodium, 210 calories and 36 ounces of electrolyte-enhanced fluid per hour for my particular 59,431 grams of self.
In November, I spent four jam-packed days at the peak performance center, willingly and gratefully getting poked, prodded and X-rayed by the best sports medical team in the country. After all, I figured, if I'm trying to be an Olympian, it's probably a good idea to see if I'm physically capable of such demands. Finding out I had some genetic lack of ability or some rare disease would definitely have been a bummer, but likely something I should know now rather than later. The athlete side of my brain was confident the tests would turn up good things. The creative writer lobe, however, envisioned ultrasounds showing alien gene mutations and large orbs of inexplicable debris clawing through my half-human blood stream. I'm not sure the International Olympic Committee allows extraterrestrials to compete at the Olympics, so you can understand my concern. In addition to my body getting physically examined, my ego was in need of an evaluation, too. After pentathlon, team handball, track cycling and the Ironman World Championships stuck their daggers into my athletic pride, I hoped a Canyon Ranch psychologist could cauterize some of the wounds.
Even though I live five miles away from Canyon Ranch which, in my mind, made me more of a commuter I was generously welcomed as a guest at the ultra lovely spa resort in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains. Not only did I get free meals and board, but I was allowed free cookies at the café anytime I wanted! (If you're new to my quest, I have a rather severe dessert addiction.) At the Peak Performance Center, Dr. Steven Brewer and Dr. Richard Gerhauser examined my blood, bones, muscles and organs. Hana Feeney, a registered dietitian, broke down my nutritional needs, and health therapist Peggy Holt bravely wandered into my psyche. Exercise physiologist Mike Siemens set me up with a cycling-specific weight training program. After eight years as a triathlete, my long-distance cycling experience seemed like the most logical Olympic path to follow. Finally, Teri Albertazzi, also an exercise physiologist, kindly translated all their data to me in slow-spoken, easy-to-understand words after I requested she explain things to me as if I were a 4 year old. ("Ventilatory threshold capacity" and numbers with decimal points are way over my head.) The doctors' stats basically measured how much athletic potential there is inside my muscles, heart and mind. It turns out I don't come from the planet Gixtharoog after all. Which is too bad, as that would have explained a lot.
"Actually, your bones are 25 percent more dense than most people your age," Dr. Brewer tells me. Not only can I officially take being dense as a compliment, but the knowledge of my super strong bones deposits some positive juju in my overdrawn ego account.
"So I'm kind of like Bruce Willis in 'Unbreakable'?" I ask.
Well, it's something to work toward. Olympics first, superhero later.
Next, I head into the nurse's office for a look-the-other-way-while-I stick-this-foot-long-needle-in-your-arm blood test. Usually, blood tests give stats on iron levels and red/white blood cell counts and whether someone partakes in various naughty activities. The Peak Performance test goes so far as to spit out three sheets of data filled with words like globo-oxy-oloride-ochine, measuring 67 different components of my blood and whether such things should be there at all. They even test for something called homocysteine, which could tell me if I'm at risk for cardiovascular diseases. Like my dense bones, my blood seems to be problem free and nothing unexpected has been found swimming among my cells. Just some good old DNA, platelets and plasma. And sugar.
After my blood and bones are tested, I meet up with Siemens and Albertazzi to determine my physical strengths and weaknesses in a muscle function assessment session. I flash back to my team handball experience, wondering whether Mike and Teri are going to make me do manly-man pull-ups or attack me with fat calipers. Instead, they put me on a leg-press machine, which is hooked up to a computer.
"We're going to do three tests," Mike informs me. "The first is a four-second leg strength output drill."
Four seconds? My kind of test!
Mike has me push the computerized leg-press machine with all my super-dense might for four seconds, one leg at a time. The machine goes nowhere, but a little line on the computer screen chart dips and climbs with every molecule of effort. After just four seconds, each leg is exhausted. Naturally, we do it over and over again.
Then comes more blunt force trauma in drill No. 2, where I'm asked to do 20 leg press repetitions of 60 pounds as fast as I possibly can. This time the machine moves like a regular leg press. The weight blocks zoom up and down, and the computer displays colorful zigzaggy data and shiny numerical outputs that are hard to comprehend but somehow visually stimulating. Sixty pounds is not all that heavy. But doing it in time to the frenzied pace of Richard Simmons on crack proves rather exhausting. Of course, we do this again. And again.
The best test, however, is the one that measures my muscular coordination. On the computer screen is an image similar to the old Atari game "Breakout." A little ball bounces up to the top of the screen, then down again, and my job is to move the little dash mark beneath the ball so that it bounces back up again. But this is no hand-eye coordination test I have to move the dash mark by pushing one foot against the leg-press platform. Like video games for my thighs! After Breakout, we do two more coordination tests similar to Frogger and Q*Bert, and it is soon obvious that my right quadriceps can easily outplay my left quadriceps. Actually, my left leg really tanks.
I ask Mike what the normal difference is for left/right strength and coordination.
"Most people have about 10 percent discrepancy between their right and left leg strength. Elite athletes usually have between a 3 to 5 percent difference," he says.
"What is mine?"
"Your right leg is 13 percent stronger than your left." Instant ego bank withdrawal.
"Thirteen percent?! I'm that abnormal?" Must have been my 15-year figure skating career, with all that g-force from a million right-leg landings. And two million crash landings.
"Yeah, but we'll fix it."
I envision myself carrying a brick in my left pocket for a year. Or cycling with one leg. Mike assures me I'll even out on a weight training program. He gives me a sheet of graph paper on which is written various weights I'll lift every other day for the next two years; bench press, calf raises, squats, lats, bis, tris, back, abs, hips and flexibility intervals. My eyes feel stronger just looking at it.
"OK, Peggy, so there I am, on the bike at the Hawaii Ironman. It is very hot and my stomach is not tolerating food or drink. I fear my run will be a disaster. Then, all of a sudden, a deafening screech echoes through the sky! I look up, and a griffin half-eagle, half-lion is barreling toward me just like it did toward brave Prometheus in 'Clash of The Titans.' The griffin claws my stomach out with its sharp talons and drops my entire intestinal track onto the hot, Hawaiian lava rocks adjacent to the bike lane. My intestines sizzle. But the gaping hole in my torso magically heals! And I haven't stopped pedaling once during my entire disembowelment! The griffin gives me a high five (with its wing, not its talon), and I head into the transition area, cruise to a victorious marathon, and my newly grown stomach never, ever bothers me again. The end."
Peggy looks at me for a moment, then says, "Next session, let's try some hypnotherapy."
"OK!" I agree. That should turn up some fun stuff. But she'll never get my griffin. He lives very deep inside my mental happy place.
"This'll tell you how much oxygen can be absorbed into your blood and thus utilized by your muscles," Dr. Gerhauser tells me.
"Your VO2 max will tell us whether you've got the horsepower of a Ferrari or a Pinto," he clarifies. I thank him for the metaphor.
To find my VO2 information, Dr. Gerhauser gives me a cardiometabolic stress test, which sounds about as much fun as it is. After the nurse sticks six electrodes onto various locations about my torso, I climb on a stationary bike that is pre-programmed to record watts, heart rate, revolutions per minute and other medical/cycling data.
"Every minute," Dr. Gerhauser says, "I will increase the wattage of the bike, making it harder for you to pedal. Keep going until you can no longer keep the pedals moving above 60 revolutions per minute."
Finally, a fitness test with no horses, swords, balls or push-ups! I'm beyond psyched.
"The nurse will take your heart rate and blood pressure every minute. I will hold up a chart and you will point to your perceived exertion." Dr. Gerhauser shows me the chart with its block-printed categories: VERY EASY, EASY, MODERATE, DIFFICULT, VERY DIFFICULT and EXTREMELY DIFFICULT.
"How long do these tests usually take?" I ask, thinking I'll be on the bike for an hour or two.
"About 14 minutes, maybe 15," the doctor says.
Ha! You think I'm going to exhaust myself after 15 minutes?! Hellooo, I'm an endurance athlete, Doc!
Clearly my ego has learned nothing from pentathlon, handball and the flying 500-meter sprints of track cycling. Everything that sounds simplistic turns out to be the devil's wrath bestowed upon me.
Before getting on the bike, I'm given a breathing test, in which I have to exhale as hard as possible into a little white tube. I do as I'm told, and instantly find a new respect for breathing. It is a lot harder to do when people stand over you and take notes. I am then outfitted with something that resembles a jockstrap worn over the face. The plastic seal around my mouth and nose are to ensure I breathe directly into the machine that calculates my oxygen usage. The test begins. I pedal. My brain comes along for the ride.
Minute 1: Easy squeezy! Feels like they haven't even turned the bike on. I point to VERY EASY on the clipboard.
Minute 2: Are you kidding me? I could do this with one leg. VERY EASY.
Minute 3: I wonder if Letterman will want to interview me? VERY EASY.
Minute 4: I'm going to blow these doctors away, yo. VERY EASY.
Minute 5: Finally, a little resistance to the pedal. Still, too much leg flailing. VERY EASY.
Minute 6: OK, this is my three-hour pace. Nooo problem. EASY.
Minute 7: "It's the eye of the tiger/it's the thrill of the fight/it's " EASY.
Minute 8: And in first place, from the United States, Kaaaaathryn Bertiiiiiiiine EASY.
Minute 9: I wonder if Oprah will want to interview me, too. Why should Letterman have all the fun? EASY.
Minute 10: Yeah! OK! I was wondering when the sweat would start. MODERATE.
Minute 11: Whoa, did he just triple the watts?! MODERATE.
Minute 12: I will not point to "DIFFICULT." MODERATE.
Minute 13: Wih nu poi tu dificuh. MODERATE.
Minute 14: Ghunhhh ghunhhh ghunhhh You want me to try to lift a finger and point to that freaking clipboard? Are you out of your extremely intelligent mind, Dr. Jekyll?
Minute 15:30.2: EXTREMELY FREAKIN' DIFFICULT. VERY FREAKIN' FINISHED.
I slouch over the handlebars, heaving whatever oxygen I can get into my strappy little jock mask. Nine minutes later, my pulse which reached 190 settles to 108 and drops slowly from there. I'm spent. Exhausted. Toast for the rest of the day. Later, in Dr. Gerhauser's office, he presents me with the evidence.
"Most women your age [31, if you're scoring at home] have a VO2 max of about 30 " Dr. Gerhauser says.
I shudder. Memories of high school math teachers flood my brain. Most students in this class average about 85. You average 30, Miss Bertine. Great. My VO2 max is about to go for the jugular of my Olympic dream.
" your VO2 max is 71."
"Seventy-one? So that's like a C-minus?"
"No, it means you have the lung capacity of two and a half women."
What? Really? "Seventy-one is good?!
Dr. Gerhauser proceeds to list a few Olympic medal-winning women with VO2 maxes in the low 70s Grete Waitz, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Mary Decker Slaney.
"Lance Armstrong has a VO2 of 85, but as a man he's got more height and mass than you, so comparatively you're not all that far off," he says. I get the happy shivers.
"Steve, both our dreams have come true I'm 2½ women!"
"And a griffin tore out my stomach!"
"Right then, well done!"
"And I get to come back to Canyon Ranch once a month for psychological evaluations!"
Steve is very supportive. And very British. I like him even more than dessert.
VO2 tests, blood samples, body scans and thigh games. At the end of my Canyon Ranch stay, I feel 10 times more confident of my abilities as an athlete, and pretty darn psyched about writing my first ESPN story in which I don't end up losing, falling or sucking at my given task.
Despite my inability to throw, block, swordfight, sprint or steer horses, it turns out I do have potential as a high-performance athlete. I just needed to get my horsepower in the right vehicle, and it's looking like that'll be a bike. So, I'm going to take all of my 59,431 grams of flesh, my heavyweight bones and my oxygen-happy lungs out for a training ride and see if that gets me one step closer to my Olympic dreams.
NEXT: Kathryn hits the road (literally and figuratively) as a cyclist as she tries to qualify for the Olympic team in the time trial and road race events.
Kathryn will race in 2007 representing SportBeans/NTTC, Trisports.com and Trek Bicycles.
Got a question or comment for Kathryn? She'll be answering e-mails in an upcoming column. You can reach her at ESPNOlympian@aol.com.