Mind and Body

What it's like to be an Olympic athlete

Olympian Ryan Bailey

Olympian Ryan Bailey  (Reuters)

With the London games right around the corner, we caught up with Ryan Bailey, member of the U.S. Men's National Team for water polo, training now for his fourth and final Olympics. He told us about training for the Olympics, playing professionally in Moscow and Serbia, and OD'ing on coffee in the mergers and acquisitions department.

Q: Tell me about the decision to go from being a college athlete to being a professional. What a risk.
I’ve been on the national team for 16 years. This will be my fourth Olympics. It was my dream since I was a kid to make the Olympic team, so everything I did from the time I was 13 or 14 years oldit was a dream and it was out there. The 2000 Olympics was my goal. It was really weird because after I finally made the 2000 team, I had a terrible experience because I was so nervous. I’d been building it up, my whole life was in it. When I got home it was like, OK, what do I do now? It kind of became about refocusing and setting new goals. Instead of just going to the Olympics it was win an Olympic medal.

Q: Practically speaking, how do you make it as a pro? What sacrifices do you have to make?
The summer is the season for water polo. We stay with the national team about three months per year. The other nine months we live and play in professional leagues in Europe. I’ve played in Moscow, Russia, Athens, Greece, Serbia, which is a great water polo country but not that much fun to live in, and Croatia. It’s a full-time job: two practices per day and then games on weekends. There’s really no endorsements. The only country in the world that really has endorsements for water polo is Hungary. It’s their No. 1 national sport and those guys do pretty well.

Q:Was there anything about life as a professional athlete that surprised you?
When I first got done with college I was planning on going to one, maybe two, Olympics, and finishing when I was 20 years old and getting a job and being a normal person. It just kind of turned out that this is more fun than working. Living in Europe is a good time, and it was worth it to me to keep going and try to win that medal. The most surprising thing to me is that I’ve lived in Serbia and Russia, countries that Americans don’t usually go toin Serbia they burned down the American embassy when I was living there, there’s a long history with Russiabut the biggest surprise is wherever you go around the world, people are the same. We have the same conversations, everybody wants to take care of their family, be happyit’s just the same.


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Q: Do you travel with your family?
The last two years I’ve traveled with my wife and dog. We lived in Serbia for two years and Athens for one. That was awesome. It was the best thing for us. We lived in a 30 square meter apartment and were together pretty much 24 hours per day, and that was before we were married. So if we could handle that small apartment with really no windows, we knew we’d be fine.

Q:What does a typical day of training look like for you?
When you’re young you do morning workouts all the time. When you’re professional you go from about 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. on weights, five days per week, then 10:30 to 12:30 swimming and doing leg work. At night you’ll come back from 6:30 to 9:30 for water polo.

Q: How does training for the Olympics change that schedule?
You have to put your whole life on hold for this stuff. This is going to be my last Olympics, so I was working toward becoming a fireman. Once this really gets going, which started for us in January, you can’t do anything else. You have morning practice, you go home and eat lunch and take a nap, you come back and get done at 9:30 or 10. It’s all encompassing. You just have to keep your focus and do it. It’s a lot of funit’s better than digging ditchesso you when you’re in the middle of some really hard swim set where the coach is really trying to put it on you, you have to step back and remember, I’m doing what I love and I have a goal at the end of this.

Q: You’re going to be a firefighter?
I’ve been on a team my whole life. I’ve been on the national team for 16 years, before that I played in college, before that I was playing with the younger guys. To me, being a firefighter is teamwork and a team job. I like working with guys who like the same thing I do. I think it’d be a great career. Those guys have a great job. That’s why it’s such a hard job to get: so many people want to be a part of it.

Q: Have you ever had a regular job?
During my first Olympics I tried working in an office in mergers and acquisitions in Irvine. That was just the worst. I found myself OD'ing on coffee every dayI was only working half days. I’ve also done a lot of water polo things: coaching, putting on clinics, giving kids a chance to meet national team guys.

Q: Sometimes people with regular jobs wake up and just don’t want to work. What’s that like with such a physically demanding job?
There are those days, no doubt about it. Sometimes you count on the other guys to get you going. What works for me sometimes is just the physical challenge: Today I’m going to race you and kick your ass. The competition and practice, making smaller gains out of itnow I’m competing and having fun.

Q:What’s your social life like? Do you ever drink and stay out late—how do you handle that?
I’m 36, so my social life is go home, ice my bones and hang out with my wife. There’s a time and place for it. As you’re getting closer to the Olympics that kind of goes away.

Q: Tell me about how you’ve improved over time.
I wish there was some secret I could tell you about getting better or moving forward, but it just comes to putting in time and working hard; eventually it comes and you may not even notice it, but it happens.

Q: Any weird rituals?
A: Before the game you line up while they play the anthem, they’re introducing the guys, and I always try to joke around with the guys on both sides and keep everyone loose, let everyone know let’s have some fun today. Imagine training four years of your life and giving up a lot of things and then it comes down to a 32-minute game, and it could come down to one play or one bounce of the balland that’s pretty intense. That could be everything. Four years down to something very small.You have to just let that go, worry about it in practice and just remember to have a good time.