Most eventually abandon this dream and pave more realistic lives for themselves. How many actually get to live out that dream of being among the best in the world?
"I've always wanted to do it … but just to be able to actually make it a reality, it's just great," said Carly Piper, one of two current UW swimmers making their Olympic visions tangible.
Both soon-to-be seniors on the Wisconsin swimming team, Piper and Mania will join the ranks of the top athletes in the world in Athens, competing on the highest level on a global stage.
Not bad for two 20-year-olds.
Not bad for the Badgers, who sent 10 current and former UW athletes to Long Beach, Calif., among the most of any team at the Olympic Swimming Trials, according to head coach Eric Hansen. Three current or former Badgers entered the finals in five events. Already a powerhouse in swimming, this will no doubt improve Wisconsin's reputation and could impact recruiting down the road.
Not bad for Poland, the team for which Mania will compete. Mania has dual citizenship in the United States and Poland and had made the Polish National Team in June after winning the 50- and the 100-meter backstroke. The Polish trials win in the 100 back, combined with achieving an Olympic "A" qualifying standard, sent Mania to the Olympics in that event. He has a "B" qualifying standard in the 50 back and can only qualify for the Olympics if he improves to an "A" by July 21.
Mania opted not to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials because he did not want to risk his Olympic eligibility with the Polish team. The United States houses the top backstrokers in the world and the odds were against Mania placing in the top two.
"When you have dual citizenship, at some point you need to commit to one federation," Hansen said. "They gray area came in the sense that he had already made his ‘A' standard at the Polish trials and was definitely leaning towards representing Poland and the question was, if he competed in the trials, did that make him initially ineligible if he were to compete in other Olympic trials. … If there was a question, we weren't going to do it."
With Piper, the questions were minimal. In most events, the top two finishers qualify for the Olympics. But in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle events, the top four finishers are guaranteed a spot on a relay team and oftentimes two are added to serve as alternates. Piper finished fifth in the 200-meter freestyle July 10 in a time of 1:59.99, essentially guaranteeing her a spot on the relay roster. But it was not a lock and she formally found out she qualified for the Games July 13. Olympic standards allow the United States to take 26 male and 26 female athletes and several athletes qualify in multiple events, freeing up the roster for additional athletes in the 100 and 200 free events who did not place first or second to participate in relays.
"I [was] nervous that they wouldn't take an extra person but knowing that there would probably be some doubles, people doubling in, and just running over and giving the coaches a hug, it was so much fun," Piper said.
The top two qualifiers in the 200 freestyle—in this case, Dana Vollmer and Lindsay Benko—are automatic locks for the relay team. The four who placed third through sixth, Kaitlin Sandeno, Rhi Jeffrey, Piper and Rachel Komisarz, will swim in the preliminaries and the two with the fastest times will compete in the finals. The two who are alternates will still receive medals if the team places.
Not bad for Piper, especially given that the 800 freestyle relay team won the gold in Sydney in 2000.
Piper and Mania have Olympic fever but many around them are more skeptical of what August could bring. There's been talk of the venues not being ready. There's talk of terrorist activities and possible hostility toward American athletes. The blackout that occurred Monday in southern Greece, leaving millions of people sweltering, has many concerned the same could happen during the Olympics and serves as yet another sign that Greece may not be ready to welcome two million people to Athens in less than a month. There are several NBA superstars who won't show their faces for various reasons; some are nursing injuries and don't think a gold medal is worth toughing out the pain; others are concerned about their personal security and don't feel safe making the trip.
Piper and Mania? They don't care. They're living out their dreams and hanging out with athletes they grew up idolizing.
"If you've dreamt of something for so long, there's nothing that's going to stop you, no matter what it is," Mania said. "They can strap a bullet-proof suit on me and I can jump in the water. It doesn't matter. … You just have to go."
"I'm just excited to go and actually train with people that I have been watching for so long, just really be able to say, ‘Hi, I'm Carly Piper' and just meet them and … realize that I've been watching them for so long and I'm just really excited to be there with them and compete with them."
Not a bad deal for two 20-year-olds.