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We’re just a few days away from the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Summer Games, and if you’re excited about the festivities, can you imagine how the Olympic athletes must feel? While in Los Angeles to attend the Gatorade Player of the Year Awards, we caught up with two female U.S. Olympians who have been training fiercely for this year’s Games.
Sydney McLaughlin, a 16-year-old high school senior from New Jersey, came in third during the trials for the women’s 400-meter hurdles, earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team for track and field. Though she ended up setting the world junior record in 54.15 seconds, she came close to backing out of the race due to nerves. “I was going through a lot of mental stuff. It’s a dream I’ve had since I was very young. But once you get there and you experience the atmosphere, the thousands of people watching, and you’re on TV, it was very hard,” she explains. “Getting 30 texts saying, ‘Good luck. You’ve got this’ — but then in your head, you’re like, ‘There are professional women that do this for a living, and I’m 16 and stepping on the track.” Fortunately, her coaches talked her off the ledge and she nailed her trial.
April Ross, a professional volleyball player who holds a silver medal from the 2012 London Olympics after coming in second to fellow Americans Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, is also ready to take on Rio. The 34-year-old is even teaming up with her former nemesis, Jennings, to try to bring home the gold for Team USA.
Check out our chat with the two Olympians below as they discuss freezing sperm, combatting Zika, the biggest misconceptions about female athletes, and what they love most about their bodies.
Yahoo Celebrity: Female athletes have spoken out in the past about how becoming strong for their sport has made them bulkier than what society deems as beautiful. Do you feel that you’ve sacrificed the ideal body type to be athletic?
Sydney McLaughlin: I don’t care. Track athletes, people are always like, “You know if you’re going to wear the two-piece, you have to have abs.” I don’t have abs, but I don’t think any of that matters when you’re running a race, as long as you’re doing what you have to do. And the same thing for looks. People take how they look very seriously when it comes to sports. But at the end of the day, if you’re not crossing the line with a certain time, I don’t think those things really matter.
April Ross: I have never believed there is an ideal female body. I think it’s all about what you have, owning what you have, finding strength and power and confidence in that. And then you exude that, and that comes off as beauty to me. I don’t feel like I’ve sacrificed anything as far as that goes. I love my body. I’m very thankful for it. And if someone doesn’t like it, then screw that!
So is strong the new sexy?
Ross: Strong has always been sexy. Treating your body right is the key. Feeding it well, exercising, making sure you are doing everything to stay healthy, that’s the sexiest thing to do.
What do you love most about your body?
McLaughlin: I’m very skinny. People associate track girls with having big butts because we are very strong and we have very strong hamstrings and strong legs. People always talk about how my butt is small. And I’m OK with that. I’m in the minority and I’m fine with that.
Ross: I love what it does for me in my career as a volleyball player. I have played for 20 years now, and I feel as good now as I ever have. The fact that it has put up with all those beatings and training year-round … and this year I didn’t even take any time off! I’m blown away by the fact that it has held up all this time and am superthankful for that. Resiliency. That’s my favorite thing about it.
What is the biggest misconception about female athletes?
McLaughlin: That we are not as strong as boys. And I’m not talking physical, I’m talking mental. I think girls have a lot more to go through because we have a lot more to take care of. We are very mentally strong, and I think sometimes people take that for granted and don’t appreciate that.
Ross: That we’re not as tough. But all the female athletes that I know are superaggressive, supercompetitive, even more so than the male athletes. I just don’t buy into the stereotypes. In my mind, male and female athletes are pretty equal.
What is your Olympic training routine looking like these days?
McLaughlin: Wake up at 10, train in the afternoon, hang out with my friends, and do it again. I don’t lift very much. Just mainly running.
Ross: Practice every day on the sand for two and a half hours. Then I do a really extensive warm-up activation with body movement and cardio and then heavy Olympic lifting. At the end of that, I do some more cardio, some more sprints. And then physical therapy three times a week just to make sure we stay healthy. In the last couple of months, I’ve been pushing myself really hard. I got a blood test [recently], and my glucose levels were completely whacked out. So apparently, I’ve been pushing myself a little bit too hard. So the remaining weeks leading up to the Olympics, I’ve focused on training really smart but trying to sharpen my skills before Rio and making sure that I’m in as good of shape as I possibly can be.
What about your diet?
McLaughlin: My parents tell me to eat healthy but I don’t. I’m the most unhealthy eater there is. I’ll be eating junk food the night before a race, before a race, after a race. Of course, there are times that I need to change that. Before my Rio races, I’ll probably be eating salads [laughs], but I love candy so I’m never going to change that.
Ross: I’ve tried so many crazy routines eating-wise, and the thing that I’ve just concluded is “everything in moderation” is the best way to go. And when I do experience those lulls of training when I push myself really hard, Gatorade is magic, so I’m always refueling with Gatorade. The extra electrolytes hit the spot!
When it comes to style, how do you bring your own essence into your competition look?
McLaughlin: In track and field, if you’re going to be stylish, it has to be [with] your face or if you wear a bow. We all wear the same uniforms. We don’t get to change it up at all. Or your spikes you can do… I always do have a twist in my hair. Always. It’s superstitious.
Ross: I do not care what I look like. I want everything to be efficient. I wear my hair in a braid so that it doesn’t get in my face. I wear a visor to keep the sun off my face. The one thing that we are doing for Rio is we got to design our own bikini tops. They are going to be a little bit unconventional. So that’s fun!
Several athletes have pulled out of the Olympics because of Zika, contaminated water, and safety issues. Do you have any concerns about heading to Rio?
McLaughlin: They’ve talked to us about it. There are ways to prevent yourself from getting it. I think as long as I am cautious about everything, I should be OK.
What extra precautions are you taking?
McLaughlin: No water, no open bottles, no ice cubes, only things provided by Team USA, wearing bug repellent with lots of DEET in it, constantly putting it on, long sleeves.
Ross: I’ve talked to friends who are nurses and doctors and know the latest from the CDC, and the consensus is that Zika is not a huge issue anymore down there. It’s going to be wintertime. Just in case, my husband did get his sperm frozen. They also send security down with us, so we feel pretty cared for.
April, you are in the sun for hours while playing on the sand. How does your skin still look so youthful?
Ross: I’m pretty old school. Lots and lots of sunscreen. There were a couple of years that I didn’t use a visor, and I do have some sun damage from those few years. But since then, I try to take care of my skin as much as possible. Sunscreen with zinc in it. I try to drink a ton of water, and I am always moisturizing my face — all day, every day.
Have you found a reliable cure for sun damage yet? If so, we need to hear about it!
Ross: It’s called makeup [laughs]. There are so many treatments out there. I’m going to pursue that when I’m done playing. I’m not going to get treatments while I’m still playing in the sun.
What is your mental strategy for going into this year’s games?
McLaughlin: My hardest part, I think, was just making the team. Getting to go there and getting the experience to run in the Olympics at such a young age, that’s the celebration part. I don’t have expectations. The races will come, the times will come, the places will come. But just experiencing it and enjoying it while I can, I think that’s the goal.
Ross: The key for me is to just stay in the moment, enjoy playing the sport, remember why I play, and to just try and focus on that. The only thing you can do is do your best, and that’s been my philosophy since I was a little kid. You just go out there with that intent and the determination to win and take it one match at a time. I try to trust myself and know that once I get into those situations, I’ll be prepared, I am prepared. So I’ve learned not to stress too much about it beforehand. I just focus on what I can do in this moment to prepare for the next.