The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

August 15, 2008

Olympics Insider blog: Preparing to make the perfect shot

By Sam Sacksen

Thursday, Aug. 14

Hey there,

I realized the other day that maybe going briefly through what competition day is like for me might be a little entertaining.

First off, though, here’s a quick update on how things are going at the moment here as we get down to the wire in the training camp and get ready to go back to Beijing on Saturday.

The authorities here in Singapore are a little more stringent on the use of our equipment, so most of it was confiscated at the airport and taken to a secure place. I am very uncomfortable with this because I am very possessive of my things and having them under someone else’s control is not the most comfortable thing for me, but I have absolutely no say at all.

It makes me grateful to live in the U.S. though, that’s for sure.

We have had an average of three practices a day while we are here so the schedule is not nearly as packed as the normal days back home. All this extra time is actually a bit of a problem because boredom leads to too much thought about how things will go in the competition.

So I have been looking for absolutely anything to keep me occupied. We spent the last evening out and about for a few hours and saw some old buildings and such (I’m being intentionally vague here).

They also have a balloon that is cabled to the ground but can get up to 150 meters high, so we all decided to go for it. I love heights and was having a great time, but some others on the team were not so thrilled.

Me being me, I decided to torture them somewhat by jumping around and trying to shake the whole thing – which in hindsight may have been mean, but I never think too far ahead.

Anyway, that was the highlight of my evening. After that we had dinner at the ever-so-exotic Outback Steakhouse (I’m in Singapore, why not?) and caught a taxi back to the hotel.

Today, the training was even less, so I’m just watching the games on TV and trying to not breathe the wonderful smells of what a week’s worth of two people’s sweaty clothes will do to a hotel room.

I’m going to do the competition explanation as kind of a series, since the news is a little weak right now as you can see by my talking about a balloon.

So first off, the first phase of the day.

My day usually starts when it is still very dark, since I like to be fully awake by the time the first shot goes downrange.

I wander on down to get something to eat, usually looking for someone I know to eat with and share stupid jokes with.

I’m not going to lie, this is the part of the day where I am the most nervous. Try as hard as I can, I can not get certain thoughts out of my head, so I’ve found its best to not fight it and just get through it all.

The organizers will have several buses for everyone to ride to the first venue, and usually it’s a very quiet ride unless you have the bad luck to be sitting close to me. I am annoyingly friendly on the morning of a competition (usually), so while everyone is trying to get their game face on there I am doing the opposite. Don’t worry, it all changes once the bus stops.

The first order of business is a pre-competition test of the pressure required for the gun to go off. The minimum is 500 grams, so most people try to get relatively close to this while still maintaining a safe distance.

I have had some close calls in the past, so I’ve decided it wasn’t worth the stress and worry, so I have since set mine to about 750. Once this is completed, then it’s time to get serious. I usually will try to just be quiet and off by myself, but sometimes it works just as well to read or listen to music.

We are called to the line and given a few minutes to get our stuff unpacked before the 10-minute unlimited shot preparation period begins. The whole idea for this time is to get the sights on the gun set for that particular day. They can be somewhat finicky and subtle changes in the shooter’s muscle state, how they stand, or even their mental status all play into how a shot that goes straight down the middle one day could be going right, left, up or down the next day.

This only takes about five minutes, so I try to finish and sit down and try to focus.

Finally, we begin.

After the first shot is gone, all the nerves usually (hopefully) go away and I can focus completely on the basics, which is all that is required to execute a good shot.

It’s when I try to do too much that I get in trouble, so I’ve narrowed the things I have to do down to two: Set my hand in the grip the same every time I pick up the gun and focus completely on the front sights.

Everything else has hopefully become completely automated through repetition in practice (I would guess that I’ve fired almost 12,000 shots in the past three years).

Other than these basics, I just try to get in a mental rhythm and not pay attention to what is going on around me or how the score is shaping up. It’s best when I do one thing that I’ve done thousands of times and repeat it only 20 more times.

These can be killers to concentration and when the “I have to” voice starts going, it becomes twice as difficult.

This would happen in a perfect world where I am a robotic machine. I am not a robot, nor in a perfect world. I try to do all I said above, but at the same time just be aware that things will go wrong and not to get flustered when or if this happens.

Tomorrow will be fencing.



Sunday, Aug. 10

Neo hao.

It took so long to get this in because almost immediately after I returned from opening ceremonies I had to get ready to leave for the week-long training camp in Singapore so it was difficult to find time to write anything.

The travel itself was interesting because we had what could be kindly referred to as “difficulty.” Traveling in and out of China is difficult under normal circumstances but under the heightened security for the games it has become nothing more than hectic.

This is all normal and expected but when the plane that you are supposed to fly over water in for five and a half hours is not allowed to take off due to the ever-so-vague “technical difficulties” and you start to wonder. Allow me to translate what exactly technical difficulties means; it means you get to sit in a plane on the side of the runway with no air-conditioning for an hour and a half while they decide that the problem is not fixable, and then you get to return to the terminal. So after a total delay of almost six hours, we got a new plane and were off to the very nice city of Singapore, arriving at 2:30 in the morning.

Now for the opening ceremony story. I’m going to assume hopefully that most everyone was able to see most or at least some parts of the ceremony, because I really couldn’t tell you about the parts prior to the march. We were called to the buses at 5:15 p.m., which was way before we were even going to be close to the stadium - not to mention actually be inside.

We were all wondering about the reasons for this until we (the whole U.S. team) were taken to a separate venue for our "pre-staging staging." Mainly, we just milled around and took pictures with each other. But the high point was the visit from President Bush. He was actually introduced by Sheila, my teammate, and then gave a short pep talk before moving through the crowd - which had been organized by sport - and meeting everyone personally and doing team photos with each.

After this, we left that venue and walked down the street toward the National Indoor Stadium, where all the nations were waiting to be called into the tunnel. We had to wait for another two hours inside the stadium before we got our number (140 out of 205) called to head toward the Bird's Nest (the national stadium).

The order of countries was not done the traditional way where the alphabetical system is used to determine, because in this system we are always one of the last to march. In China, the organizers used the number of strokes required to write the country's name in Chinese - so we ended up at 140.

Once called out of the indoor stadium (which is where gymnastics will take place, incidentally), we went back outside for the final walk toward the Bird's Nest. It was still a good ways to get there, but nobody really minded because the whole route was lined with cheering Chinese who are so happy to see everyone and all seemed to have been taught the phrase “welcome to Beijing” because they said it over and over, that and shout for Kobe to look at them.

Shortly before walking into the tunnel, Lopez, our flag bearer ,was given the Stars and Stripes for us to march behind into the stadium.

There is no words that can describe the final few moments before leaving the tunnel and going inside so I’m not even going to try because I will make a fool of myself. But I will say that it is one of those once-in-a-lifetime, will-never-happen-again moments. It was only then that an overwhelming sense of pride for being blessed to be given the opportunity to walk in front of the world wearing the uniform of my country hit me, hard. I was unable to do anything except stumble along for a few moments and stare before time sped up again and I started to recognize things again.

Once we were in the middle of the stadium, our job was finished so all there was really to do was the same as before we met the President - mill around, talk, and take lots of pictures.

How awesome was that torch lighting? One of the things we had discussed while down on the infield was how they were going to light a torch that was almost 150 meters off the ground. When the final bearer was lifted off the ground and started to walk around the roof, nobody really knew what to say, we all just stared.

After the lighting, it was basically a free for all to get back to the village. I ended up just riding the bus back with a random collection of athletes, coaches and staff - all of whom were pretty tired, as most had been on their feet in the stiflingly hot and humid stadium and just eager to get back for the night.

For me, a quick stop at McDonald's was in order before heading back to the dorm.


Thursday, Aug. 7:

I’m a little whacked out from the time change, so please bear with me if things are a little jumbled or I start to ramble on.

I woke up the morning after arriving at the village at about 3 a.m. because I was convinced it was actually 3 in the afternoon – but I was off by a little. I was able to force myself back to sleep until about 5, but finally gave up.

I went down to the dining hall – which is massive. I think it has the ability to serve 6,000 people at the same time or something. I will get some pictures at some point to try to give it some scale. Anyway, they have all kinds of food from all the different regions of the world there, so no one feels left out or discriminated for sure.

But the best part by far is the free McDonalds.

McDonalds is one of the biggest Olympic sponsors and they have a restaurant set up where (I kid you not!) you can take two food trays up to the counter and ask them to fill one with McNuggets and the other with fries and they won’t even blink. I haven’t done it yet but I will (after my competition).

The village is really amazing.

If you just walk around and think for a second about how many people are here from so many countries ... it gets a little overwhelming. It’s such a different experience from anything else and I am just trying to absorb and enjoy.

The rooms have closed-circuit television in them, so we will get live streaming coverage of all events as they happen. The only thing on right now is the soccer preliminaries, but you’ll be glad to hear that the US men won 1-0 over Japan tonight so we were all glad to see this. Unfortunately the women fell to Norway 0-2 yesterday so they aren’t off to as great a start.

Once the opening is over tomorrow, things will start in earnest and it will get very exciting around here.

I rode on the bus back from training today with Tyson Gay. You may have heard how he ran 9.68 seconds (the fastest all-time but no world record because of the wind) for the 100 meter dash earlier this year in the U.S. trials. He strained his hamstring in the 200 so will only compete in the 100 here. I wanted to ask him how things were going but couldn’t overcome his headphones plus he looked as tired as me so I thought it best to leave him be.

It was very neat though to be so up close and personal with all these people you’ve seen on TV before. I talked a little bit with the open water swimmer who also trains in Colorado Springs, but unfortunately we compete the same day so we won’t see each other’s events.

Tomorrow will be the opening ceremonies. Even thought they don’t start until 8 p.m. and we probably won’t march until way after that, we have to get to the buses and start to get organized at 5.

Since the whole program goes until almost midnight, we can expect to be standing for almost three hours.

Because of this, many athletes who have events starting in the few days after the ceremony will not march because it really is tiring and they need to be at their best.

Don’t even bother looking for Michael Phelps girls, he won’t be there. He swims in the 400 IM the next day and will probably have his toughest test by his competition then, so the last thing he needs is to be awake until midnight.

Shortly before we go in, we get to meet the President.

As a consolation prize for Sheila, who was the last person out in the vote by team captains on who gets to carry the flag for the team (which is a great honor), she will get to introduce the President.

I will take as many pictures as I can and maybe I will try to get some words from Lopez Lomong (the flag bearer) too. His story is incredible. If you get a second, Google him and read about how he got where he is today. It easily makes the hardest times I’ve ever faced look like nothing.


Wednesday, Aug. 6:

We are halfway through the flight and so far it’s going pretty well because of the general buzz of excitement all through the plane. One of the guys who will be running the 10K – Jorge Torres – hasn’t sat down yet I think.

There are card games going on with some of the other groups of athletes. I think after I finish writing this I will go join in.

Its really starting to build now. Pretty soon (five hours from now) we will land in China and the journey will really begin. Tonight I will get to stay in the Olympic Village.

I’m not sure what the exact feeling is but I will do my best to describe it when I get there but I don't know if I will be able to.

Sheila (Sheila Taormina – his best friend on the team) and I got seats next to each other which is actually lucky if you think about it because this very rarely happens.

I’m glad though because I’ve taken the opportunity to pick her brain on the general experience and how she deals with all the hustle and bustle that goes on. Since this is her fourth go around she is what you could call experienced so having her input is invaluable to me and I’m taking advantage of it.

It is getting so close to the day when I will walk into the stadium with the United States Team in front of the world’s eyes.


Monday, Aug. 4:

I have just completed the processing here in San Jose State University. The USOC decided to base it here because most flights heading to Beijing depart from nearby San Fransisco, so it’s very convenient to bring everyone in and do the final prep right before we get on the direct (12-hour) flight to Beijing on Tuesday.

Processing consists of several parts: There is a medical check to make sure we don’t die while competing over there, a photo for the Web site, and finally the best part … the stuff!!!

They set up an entire ballroom with all the apparel and various other items that we receive and have a very organized way of distribution.

I was given a filled-out list with all my sizes on it that I had completed earlier in the year and a shopping cart from The Home Depot and sent on my way around the circuit.

There were about 20 stations set up and manned by very helpful volunteers who knew their jobs and made sure I didn’t screw anything up (which I often do). They let me try everything on before giving it to me and letting me move on.

After I had received all 48 items that I was supposed to get there was a checkout-style system which was fun because I’ve never gone through a checkout where I didn’t have to pay for anything.

There were a few pants and shirts that were giant on me and had to be brought in a little but they had tailors on site to do this for me.

That was everything for Sunday so we just went back and started sorting through everything, deciding which to take and what can be sent home because there are certain things that are required such as the opening and closing ceremony uniforms and (God willing) the podium attire.

Everything else is voluntary, but its very neat stuff and the decisions can be difficult sometimes. The USOC gives us one box to send the items we don’t want home, which I had to take advantage of because it was just too much.

Today (Monday) is our last day here and also the last phase of processing.

There is a seminar called the Olympic Ambassador program as well as a briefing for the games. The ambassador program is fun in a strange, really long way. It goes over the basic guidelines for behavior that is acceptable while in the country and teaches us some basic Mandarin (Chinese) words and phrases which I’ve already forgotten completely.

There are many rules about how we are supposed to do things, and since if you cross too many boundaries you can get sent home immediately it is well worth the time to pay attention to what is said.

Our team went through with the tennis team. I don’t know who really follows tennis that closely, but you may recognize some of these names: Serena and Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, James Blake. They were all there in the same room with us, which was very cool.

The briefing is short compared to the seminar and addresses the environment which we can expect once we hit the ground in Beijing. It gives some tips for dealing with the media, dos and don’ts for posting on the Internet (blogs etc.) as there are so many ways to mess this up and the repercussions as I mentioned before can be severe so they really like to hit these things hard.

That was the end of processing so all we had the rest of the day was some training sessions and finish packing our bags and we are off to Beijing (Tuesday) morning.

Thanks for reading.


Friday, Aug. 1:

Hey there! This will be the first in a series that I will be writing to keep everyone “in the loop” on the travels and activities over the next three weeks.

It is almost three weeks exactly to the day that I will be competing in the Olympic Games (Aug. 21), so I think it will be fun to share the experiences that I will be encountering during this time.

As I said, it’s only three weeks away and the excitement is starting to build for sure.

I will be leaving for San Francisco for the team processing on Sunday, and then leave the country on the Tuesday.

It will be a very new and exciting experience, that is for certain. And I’m sure I will have many funny stories that will come out of it.

There will be more to come in the next few days as things are starting to happen very quickly and I go through the final stages of preparation.

I have set up an email that people can write to if they want:

Jennifer Sacksen, Sam’s mother, wrote:

“It is all very exciting and we really can not believe that it is happening! It is a dream!

“For three years Sam has been at the Olympic Training Center, not knowing that he would qualify of course.

“And he has watched the big clock counting down the days to the Olympics.

“Eight is a very special number for the Chinese and so the Olympics begin with the opening ceremony in the eighth month on the eighth day and the eighth hour.”

Sam Sacksen of Somerset will be competing in the modern pentathlon at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. He is writing a regular column/blog for The Tribune-Democrat and