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17 Things You Learn When You Spend The Day With An Olympic Swimmer

Last week, I shadowed (and swam with) Olympian Jessica Hardy, a gold-medal swimmer, at her practice in Los Angeles. This is what I learned about what it takes to make it to the Games.

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1. Olympians swim a lot. Like, a lot a lot. (Duh.)

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Hardy, who won a gold and a bronze medal for her relay work at the 2012 London Olympics, was in the water for about two hours, which isn't a crazy amount of time. But when you start adding up how much she swims annually, and has swam in her 10-year national team career, you just might be blown out of the water (pun intended).

Hardy estimates that she averages about 3.7 miles in the pool daily, 1,252 miles annually, and just over 5,000 miles every Olympic cycle. Yeah, that's A LOT of swimming.

2. They also practice HARD.

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I got the chance to hop in the water for about 45 minutes with Trojan Swim Club, the team Hardy trains with, to get an idea of how fast they swim, and boy, did I eat their bubbles. But they didn't just move faster; obviously, they're Olympic-level, they should be crushing me. Everything they did was effortless. While I was struggling to not embarrass myself (and I swim with an adult team and captained my high school team), Hardy & Co. were going about business like they were auditioning for the live-action version of The Little Mermaid. All of this brings me to my next point...

3. It's all about technique.

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The 27-year-old Hardy said maintaining good technique is "the most important thing" in anything she does, and highlighted something she often says when she talks to younger athletes.

“I always tell kids when I start talking to them how important it is with their school backpack, if they have six books in them, not to have it sagging at their butt, thinking about your posture every day when you’re walking around doing anything else," she said. "[This] will help you be a better athlete because you’ll be more aware of your body.

4. And they get VERY few breaks from their discipline.

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Hardy rarely gets breaks from the pool — she mentioned she took a month off after the 2012 London Games and two weeks this year — and even when she is traveling for clinics and speeches, she'll hop in the pool. In total, she estimates she's spent less than three months away from the pool in her decade-long National Team career.

Hardy said she used to get more antsy about being away from the pool earlier in her career, but still doesn't like to lose the "feeling" of the sport.

“I hated it before," she said. "I just need to connect with the water. I don’t like to be out of shape either… I don’t want to diet. I want to work out and eat what I want.”

5. As an elite athlete, you need to eat a lot...

Jess Hardy

Hardy eats six to seven meals a day — "I'm always hungry, all day," she says — which is comprised of a first breakfast before practice, a second breakfast after practice, lunch, a pre-Pilates/dryland meal, a post-dryland meal, dinner, and then maybe another snack, altogether totaling about 3,500 calories daily. Avoiding satiating her sweet tooth is her "biggest challenge" and she's begun to spend more time in the kitchen preparing her own meals.

“I kind of have what I need figured out at this point," she said. "Sometimes I call [a nutritionist] for ideas on new recipes and snack ideas. And that’s fun. It’s fun to learn new tricks.”

6. ... and also, fuel up SMART.

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Avoiding sugar is Hardy's biggest tip for active people — “I’ve really noticed a difference — the less sugar I consume, the quicker I get over being sore," she says — and also emphasized eating a lot of small meals, prepping snacks ahead of time.

Hardy also talked about how she is incredibly careful about what she puts into her body after serving a one-year suspension after testing positive for a banned substance from what was determined to be a tainted supplement. This caused her to miss the 2008 Olympics, and after going through the "worst of the worst," Hardy doesn't take any chances and is "crazy obsessive" about what she eats and tries to stick to whole, natural foods.

7. You also need to bust your ass outside of the pool.

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What, you didn't think Hardy just spent two hours in the pool and then called it a day? NOPE. In addition to swimming, she jogs, spins, lifts weights, does yoga, plyometric work, and Pilates, which she says is her favorite. Rotating through so many dryland workouts helps keep her fresh AND benefits her swimming.

“I totally mix it up and I’m really open-minded to trying new things," she said. "It’s really tedious staring at the black line. For me, I’m really excited about trying new things and getting sore in different ways.

8. And sometimes that means getting creative when it comes to working out!

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Hardy doesn't shy away from trying new workouts — "I've tried 'em all," she says — both in and out of the pool. She noted Trojan Swim Club coach Dave Salo often has them do crazy workouts, including throwing lawn chairs into the pool and having the swimmers pull them back up to the surface.

She also said she has trained with fellow Olympian and three-time beach volleyball gold medalist Misty May-Treanor and her plyometrics coach.

“I’m super competitive and couldn’t keep up at first, but it’s a great challenge," she said.

9. Whether they're in the pool or on a court, elite athletes are wired similarly.

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What do all elite athletes have in common? It seems to boil down to competitive drive and dedication, Hardy said.

“We’re all really competitive people, so we’re going to want to out-perform each other,” she said.

“We are also very dedicated and we sacrifice a lot in our lives. You kind of have to have a screw loose to be this dedicated to something and want to do it all day, every day.

10. The right mindset and motivation about your game are everything.

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What happens when you're burnt out? You've got to dig deep and reset your mentality, Hardy says.

“I have really bad days, rough times where I’m not positive and I don’t want to do it," she said. "But that makes me take a step back and realize what my real problem is and why I’m upset, and finding something positive.”

It also helps to back up and look at what you're really shooting for.

The bigger picture goals definitely keep me motivated when it gets hard like that," Hardy said.

11. And that includes staying relaxed, especially before big races.

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When you're an Olympic swimmer, your big races come every four years. That isn't to say there isn't important stuff in between — far from it — but the pressure is on when you step up to the blocks. Hardy says she immediately redirects any negative energy "before, during, and after a race" by reconsidering what got here in the first place.

"[I think] 'I am qualified, I am where I am supposed to be, I am prepared as best as I can possibly be,' and that immediately calms my heart rate, and gives me confidence to move forward," she said.

12. Being an elite-level athlete comes with sacrifice.

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Hardy said she aims for a "well-rounded" social life, but family and friends have to understand the level of commitment that comes with being an elite-level athlete — perhaps it should come as no surprise that she's married to fellow Olympian Dominik Meichtry, a Swiss swimmer. This means not staying out late and drinking because of daily morning practice, but also finding a "good balance to make sure we're happy in our lives."

13. Your coach is your biggest weapon.

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Hardy credits a lot of her success to coach Salo and says athletes owe a lot to their coaches as they "[sacrifice] their life to make you the best athlete you can be."

"I can’t push myself as far as my coach can push myself; I’m going to stop when I feel pain, and they’re going to expect something more," she said.

14. And it helps to practice with the competition.

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Hardy trains with an elite group of swimmers — she said there were at least five medalists from the London games at the practice I attended — and said training with a tight-knit crew helps keep her focused, as they allow her to "laugh with and joke and stay in the moment."

“It’s a great combination of making each other better and having fun while we’re doing it," she said.

15. And this camaraderie carries over, even to the Olympic level.

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Even at an elite-level practice, the swimmers seemed to be having fun. Before they hopped in the pool, they were cracking jokes with one another, and Salo was bellowing at the swimmers — good-naturedly — to get in the pool faster when practice started. Hardy cited this bond as "genuine."

"We're big huge rivals when we race, but as soon as it's over, and even up to the second before, when we're stretching and laughing behind the blocks, it's genuine," she said. "We love each other."

16. The Olympics are insane, but they're also just another sporting event.

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With all the pageantry and thousands of athletes from all over the world, the Olympics can seem like a "big party," but when you step back, it's just the same thing you've been doing your whole life, Hardy said.

“It’s the same swim meet," she said. "When I get to the pool, it’s the same exercise I’ve done every day since I was 5 years old. It’s important to stay in the moment and enjoy the race.”

17. And most important, you've got to want to WIN.

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Hardy says that she's become a more relaxed person through the years, but one thing hasn't changed at all.

“I still hate to lose," she said. "When it’s race time, no mercy. I’m there to win.

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