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Olympic Alternates Face Challenges In Training To Possibly Compete


For athletes, being able to represent your country at the Olympics is a lifetime achievement. But there are some athletes at the Rio de Janeiro games who won't compete at all. They're alternates. As NPR's Russell Lewis reports, they train and prepare for the possibility they may replace a sick or injured teammate.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: To understand the highs and lows of being selected as an Olympic alternate, listen to these two gymnasts. Here's 15-year-old Ragan Smith just after she learned she was going to Rio but likely not to compete on the five-woman squad.

RAGAN SMITH: I'm just thrilled that I'm here and I'm an alternate for the team. And it's just been my dream since I've been a little girl. And I just can't believe I'm here.

LEWIS: And here's Donnell Whittenburg after his selection as 1 of 3 alternate gymnasts chosen to travel to Rio.

DONNELL WHITTENBURG: I mean it's definitely not the spot that I wanted, but you know, it's definitely a new role that I get to play. And you know, it's just something that you have to take it and, you know, hold it dear to yourself.

LEWIS: The alternate athletes for many sports are in Rio, but they don't get the true Olympic experience. They don't stay in the athletes village, don't get a medal if the team wins one and, like a spectator, must sit in the stands to watch the competition. And there's a narrow window of when they are eligible. Once the sport gets underway, they are no longer able to compete. So if an Olympian is injured during the event, they can't be replaced.

It's not easy being an alternate. Raj Bhavsar remembers the day well in 2004 when he was selected as an alternate to the U.S. men's Olympic gymnastics team.

RAJ BHAVSAR: I had invested so much of my self-worth into that team selection that when that news hit me, I was devastated. I couldn't believe it.

LEWIS: Bhavsar ended up sitting in the stands, watching his teammates in Athens, Greece. He tried out for the 2008 Olympic team in Beijing, again chosen as an alternate.

BHAVSAR: It's a challenge to go to the gym every day and stay Olympic-level ready and find the motivation to do so kind of with this looming unknown in the air. Like, am I going to compete? Am I not going to compete?

LEWIS: It's an odd position for them all. They want to be in the Olympics but not at the expense of an injured teammate. Two days before departing for Beijing, Bhavsar learned he would compete after all. Paul Hamm was injured. Bhavsar ended up winning a bronze medal. He says being an alternate is difficult because it's less about the sport and more about life.

BHAVSAR: Every alternate has to take this emotional roller coaster which really tries them there at their human spirit. But because of that, you learn some of the greatest lessons.

LEWIS: Bhavsar says the lesson for him was to learn perseverance and belief in himself. Russell Lewis, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.