Under intense pressure, U.S. favorites break down


Turin, Italy -- For the sake of historical accuracy, let's do a brief recap:

Skier Bode Miller caves to pre-Olympic hype and has missed on four tries for a medal. Skater Johnny Weir freezes mid-performance, abandons his routine and fails to medal. Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis forgets that she's in the Olympics, not a Mountain Dew commercial, and loses her gold. Skater Sasha Cohen gets spooked, falling in warm-ups and then twice in the first minute of her long program. Her gold becomes silver.

I know what you're thinking: These aren't the Winter Games. Let's call them what they are - the Mind Games. Entering the final day of competition, we've watched the American favorites constantly buckle under the mental pressure.

The only gold medalist from the Salt Lake Games to win anything in Turin is Apolo Ohno, who returns to the States with a new bronze. The theater of hype had many stars on its stage. They're all world-class physical specimens, each of whom can accomplish things the rest of us can barely do with a video-game controller.

If you go down their list of failures, it was mental mistakes that scarred their performances.

"They're operating under a heavy burden of expectation," said Dr. Sean McCann, the head sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic team. "You assume they've done it before, so they should be relaxed. But many of them are trying to avoid screwing up instead of just going after a good performance. I think we'll have to pay a little more attention to that in the future."

Mistakes don't surprise McCann. The Americans came heavily armed this time around to battle these mental miscues.

McCann is one of eight psychologists here working with American athletes. He estimates that more than half of the 211 U.S. Olympians have talked with one of the head docs at some point.

It illustrates a shift in competitive philosophy. Just a decade ago, sports psychologists were brought to the Games on a just-in-case basis. (The Americans had just one on hand at the 1992 Winter Games.) Now they're essential to any country that seriously wants to win medals.

Canadian Olympic officials publicly stated they wanted to raise their medal count from 17 in Salt Lake City to 25 in Italy. So they brought a dozen sports psychologists with them this time, five more than they used in 2002. (And Canada has 20 medals going into the final full day of competition.)

The U.S. team didn't bump its number of psychologists. In fact, they're using two fewer than the 2002 Games. I'm not suggesting there's a direct correlation, but the Americans might leave here with fewer than 25 medals, after winning 34 in Salt Lake City.

Unexpected athletes always find their way to the podium, but the United States would have a higher medal count if the favorites - the ones in commercials and on magazine covers - didn't bomb. So what's the deal?

Psychology isn't a blanket. The same motivational technique doesn't cover each athlete. McCann says in the future his staff might be a bit more pro-active and seek out the high-profile athletes.

"One of the mistakes a lot of coaches and teams make is they assume the athletes are fine because, hey, they've done it before; these are world-class athletes, right?" said McCann. "In the Games, though, it's a magnified pressure and weight they're competing under."

One thing McCann said he always notices is that the Olympics tend to bring other issues to the surface. The emotional blender triggers old memories, which can cloud the mind on competition day.

There are many examples on the U.S. roster.

Speed skater Chris Witty has battled depression and anxiety. She told a U.S. Olympic psychologist before the Salt Lake City Games that she was sexually abused when she was younger. Figure skater Jamie Silverstein has struggled with depression, anorexia and bulimia. It was so bad she left her sport for three years before returning.

And Jeret Peterson's sister was killed by a drunken driver when he was 5. The freestyle aerialist revealed three years ago that he'd been sexually abused. And in June, Peterson watched his close friend commit suicide, shooting himself in the head.

This doesn't even include the long list of athletes who've crashed, fallen and failed - and have had to search for the courage to get up and do it all again.

"At the Games, what we do is much more focused on performance," McCann said. "But what we've discovered is that everything is a performance issue. The emotions here are so strong that we talk about lots of other stuff, lots of family issues, things that didn't seem like a big deal until now. And suddenly something that was small is intruding and impacting on performance."

Miller is up on the mountain again today, his final shot at a medal. And Ohno is on the ice one final time. It'd be nice to say that it's just a man and a mountain, or a soul patch and some ice.

But here in Turin, the Olympics have never felt that simple for the Americans. They've competed against pressures, and they've competed against expectations.

All the while, they've competed against themselves. And one by one, we've watched the stars compete and lose.


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