Aug 4, 2016

Interviewer: A lot a dedication, good genes and maybe a bit a luck: what it takes to be an Olympic athlete, coming up next.

Announcer: Health tips, medical news, research and more for a happier, healthier life. From University of Utah Health Sciences, this is The Scope.

Interviewer: I'm here with Dr. Willick. He is a sports medicine physician at the U. He has actually worked with the International Olympic and Paralympic medical communities in the past. And we're here to talk about, Dr. Willick, what does it take for an athlete to be at their tip-top performance when they're going into the Olympics?

Dr. Willick: An athlete needs to take care of a lot of different things in the lead-up to the games and during the games. First of all, you have to be a little bit lucky and choose your parents well and get good athletic genes. Second of all, you've got to be really, really dedicated and focused on training and focused on your sport. You have to work hard on strength training. You have to work hard on flexibility training. You have to work hard on motor skills training. You have to work hard on making sure you get adequate sleep and adequate nutrition.

These are critically important components to being well prepared to perform at your best. The psychological aspects of training and competition are really important, and if you're part of a team, of course, the team interactions are really important. And then when you get to the Games, it takes a little bit of luck as well. You have to travel well, and travel smartly, and you have to wash your hands a lot and make sure you don't get sick in the Olympic or the Paralympic village.

Interviewer: All right. I guess it's kind of surprising for me, as someone outside of this type of world, to hear that luck plays into this. We usually hear the same narrative over and over again. They work hard, they eat five meals every hour or something like that, or something ridiculous. But you said "luck."

Dr. Willick: Well, here are some examples. You can be a great, great athlete with extraordinary skills, very high V02 max, terrific strength, unbelievable speed, but if you get an upper respiratory infection a few days before your biggest competition, well, that's really bad luck. Or if you have an injury a few weeks before your competition, that can be really bad luck and can really affect your ability to perform at your best.

Interviewer: What about actually . . . you said parents were also a part of this luck, how big of a factor is genetics into actually becoming an athlete of this caliber?

Dr. Willick: The importance of genetics cannot be quantified. In some cases, you can have the best athletic genes in the world, but not perform well when it comes to competition either because of life circumstances or because you're in the wrong place at the wrong time or you may have great skiing genes, for example, but you may live in a city and not close to big mountains. So lots of things go into it. Genetics is certainly an important component, but being in a place where you can pursue the sport that you're built to pursue is important, and also having the desire and the motivation and dedication to train hard is very important also. There are a lot of great athletes out there who really don't have the desire to put in all the effort that's necessary. So it takes more than just great genes to be a great athlete.

Interviewer: What would ski genes be? What kind of physical things make you like really good at skiing?

Dr. Willick: Well, there are different attributes that are good for different sports. So, for example, if you're a weight lifter, you need to tremendous strength. You need tremendous strength of bone, muscle, tendon and ligaments. To be a great sprinter, obviously, you need great speed, but you don't need fine hand control skills or you don't need the very best hand-eye coordination. To be a great archer, you need the best hand-eye coordination and the best focus, but you don't need the best speed and you don't need the best strength. Skiing, in particular, you need a combination of great strength, great balance, great quickness, great mental focus, in addition to the other things we talked about, like terrific training techniques, proper nutrition, proper sleep, and good psychology for your sport.

Interviewer: So it takes a lot more than just hard work to become an Olympic athlete, is that what you're saying? Or is it . . .

Dr. Willick: It takes hard work on a lot of different levels and it takes good genes. Sometimes, it takes money. Sometimes it takes time. It takes a lot of support from people around you, including teammates, coaches, other members of the team, like the nutritionist and the psychologist. It takes a lot a support from family and friends. You can imagine an 18- or 19-year-old who has been training very hard for years and has difficulty maintaining a normal school schedule, has difficulty maintaining normal social life that you and I might have, has difficulty maintaining normal family relations you and I might have because they're training and traveling so much. So it takes a lot a support from everyone around the athlete, including the fans back home. And then it takes a little bit of luck.

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