Eating like an Olympian
For athletes from Beijing to Vancouver, competition is a dish best served cold, hot and everywhere in-between
As the athletes of the 21st Winter Olympiad prepare for the sporting moments of their lives, one thing's for sure: They all need to eat. After winning two gold medals in the Beijing Olympics for swimming, I know firsthand what the athletes of Team USA are about to experience as they fuel their bodies to win gold in Vancouver.
Over the years, I'd heard stories of the mounds of food, huge seating areas, desserts in droves and strangely, McDonald's. So when I approached the dining hall of the Olympic village in Beijing for the first time, my heart began to pound harder and faster in anticipation. It was if I were witnessing the parting of the Red Sea when the hall's sliding doors opened. Eyes wide, I was in awe of the rainbow of color and commotion. One foot in front of the
other, I walked into this massive structure that seemed as big as two football fields.
Surrounding me were all the colors of the rainbow. At the Olympics, each country's perfectly tuned athletes are draped in clothes that feature the colors and insignias of their homeland. Forget deciphering where you were based solely on the language. There were too many to have any idea what you were listening to.
Fellow University of Texas swimmer and three-time Olympian Ian Crocker told me that when you first arrive in the Olympic village, you'll walk around completely on a high for the first couple days. He was right \u2026 at least on an emotional level.
But my purpose in Beijing jolted me back to reality like I'd been grabbed by an internal force with the power of Goliath. It told me, "Hey, buddy, you're here to take care of business, and you can't afford to expend this much emotional energy on the simple act of eating." Through my nose I inhaled a deep breath of surprisingly clean Beijing air, and as the carbon dioxide left my mouth, so did the excitement. Now my mind-set was right: I came to Beijing to win gold medals \u2026 no time for people-watching.
I began my search for the food my body required for maximum performance. The difficulty was where to begin. I turned on cruise control and began to peruse the massive dining hall. Cruise control? Think again. This was no open highway, but rather a New York City street during rush-hour traffic, much like the athletes in Vancouver will face in their own dining halls.
In Beijing, as athletes walked into the dining hall, there were two huge salad bars with various types of greens, beans, veggies, pasta salads, pickled veggies, nuts, cottage cheese, fruits, cereals, granolas, yogurts and more. In the same area was a large bakery pumping out muffins, scones, croissants, pretzels, five-grain breads and bagels. At the end of the salad bar and opposite the bakery was the dessert area, with a huge spread of cookies, cakes, parfaits, bread pudding and candy bars. Throughout the games, I stayed strong and didn't touch a dessert until my events were over. Trust me when I say I was not the norm.
The more substantive food was along the back wall. People waited in line at each food station, elbow-to-elbow with all sorts of famous athletes, from gold medal gymnast Shawn Johnson to Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki.
The aromas and flavors were all-encompassing. In keeping with the Olympic spirit, there was food from all around the world, including the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Asia, America and Italy (including a huge pizza bar) and a sushi bar. One section was dedicated solely to different preparations of duck (probably 15 to 20 per day). Depending on your desires and appetites, you could enjoy anything from baked salmon or chicken to curried lamb, blackened sea bass, chicken Parmesan, quinoa and black bean salad, mac and cheese, filet mignon, wild rice, sweet potato casserole and so much more.
After filling my tray for my first meal at the Olympics, I found a seat among fellow Team USA athletes. Generally, athletes from the same country sit together, but this isn't always true.
As I ate, I looked to my right. Lo and behold, who sat down literally five feet from me? Nothing short of the greatest tennis player in the world, Roger Federer. What a surreal experience. Not only was I taking in the Olympic experience for the first time on the first day, but I ended up sitting next to one of the greatest athletes of all time. Incredible. The real beauty was that for the most part, people left him alone.
Every diet's different
So what do the top athletes eat? Who decides the menu? Do they serve everything a world-class athlete needs?
Many athletes have strict diets both in and out of competition, but a surprising number gorge themselves on McDonald's and desserts. Some determine their diets based on calorie counts, protein content, carbohydrate levels and vitamins and minerals. Incredibly, each food item — from lasagna to raw broccoli — was individually labeled with nutrition content.
Each athlete's diet is different for several reasons, including the nature of the sport as well as the body type. Calorie counts and consumption vary widely.
The Beijing Olympics were the epitome of efficiency. The single dining hall streamed hot and nutritious food to more than 16,000 village residents 24 hours a day inside the hall, which could accommodate 5,000 people at any one time. With an estimated 5,500 athletes competing, the winter Olympics are somewhat smaller than the summer Olympics. Just like in Beijing, athletes train and compete at different times, so the Vancouver Olympians will be served around the clock as well, but in two dining halls — one in Vancouver and one in Whistler.
In Vancouver just as it did in Beijing, an international food service company manages the dining hall. The menus are sent to the head dietitian and nutritionist at the U.S. Olympic Committee, then circulated to 14 other dietitians and nutritionists around the world.
Among the differences between the Beijing Olympics and the Vancouver Olympics — besides the cold weather, of course — are some of the higher altitudes. The menus were adapted to help the athletes deal with the environment.
Susie Parker-Simmons, a sports nutritionist at the U.S. Olympic Committee, said that feeding athletes at altitude presents special concerns.
First, there is the need for more calories as the body works harder to adapt. At altitude, men will burn more carbohydrates and women more fat, she said. Among the foods provided to counter that are nutritional oils, nuts, seeds and fish.
Parker-Simmons said that at high altitudes, athletes will also need foods rich in iron as their bodies try to build more red blood cells, which the body manufactures in greater numbers to help carry oxygen to muscles. Iron helps promote the building of these red blood cells.
Fed for success, the competitors of the 21st Winter Olympiad are ready to show the world what they and their countries are made of. The athletes know one thing for sure: All the proper nutrition is being provided for them. The moment of truth awaits. The only question now is whether they have what it takes to bring home gold.
Breakfast of champions
The swimming schedule in Beijing was organized so the finals would be played on live TV to the American viewing audience. This meant the swimmers would be doing something completely new: swimming finals in the morning.
This presented a bit of a different routine for the athletes. Breakfast turned into the meal that would not only help fuel us for the day but also gas up our bodies to win gold.
As an Olympic athlete, it's very important to stay true to your diet, your routine, and listen to your body. The Games are a time to mimic the same eating habits that got us to this level by eating similar foods, at similar times, before competition and monitoring how full we are. It's not a time for experimentation.
The morning of my first Olympic race - the dramatic 400-meter freestyle relay in which the U.S. beat the French and won gold - I stuck to my routine.
After waking up and swimming for a bit in the village pool, I headed to the dining hall. The breakfast and/or pre-race meal for me always contains high carbohydrates, some protein and some fruits.
My breakfast of champions was oatmeal with a banana, some almonds, dried cherries and cranberries, prunes, yogurt, orange juice and dried cereal with low-fat milk.
Part of eating is for comfort. I eat oatmeal a lot, and the warm flavors and textures make me feel at ease. On top of the nutritional benefit, it's important to eat things that help us stay grounded and relaxed.
On my walk from the dining hall to our dorm, I passed Michael Phelps and his coach, who were headed to breakfast. Michael said to me, "Did you hear what the French guys said in the paper this morning?" I said, "I don't even want to hear it. It doesn't matter. We're going to go to the pool and take care of business, and that's all that matters."
Take care of business is exactly what we did. Go, U.S.A.!
- Garrett Weber-Gale
GWG's Freestyle Granola
Granola is a passion of mine - it's a sweet, crunchy, satisfying breakfast and the perfect healthy portable snack. I've tried just about every brand in the supermarket. Once I realized how easy it is to make granola at home, I experimented until I came up with just the right blend of fruit, nuts, seeds and grain. You might want to double this recipe because a) it's addictive and b) you should be nice and share with your friends (or teammates).
3/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
1 Tbsp. pure vanilla extract
4 cups old-fashioned oats
4 oz. raw almonds, whole
4 oz. pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup nonfat dry milk powder (gives the granola a great crunch)
2 Tbsp. flax seeds
4 oz. dried apricots, chopped
4 oz. dried cranberries
Place the oven racks on the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 300 degrees.
In a small saucepan, combine the maple syrup, brown sugar and oil. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the brown sugar is dissolved. Stir in the vanilla.
In a large bowl, combine the oats, almonds, pepitas, wheat flour, dry milk powder and flax seeds. Pour the warm syrup mixture over the dry ingredients and use a rubber spatula to combine well.
Divide the moistened oats evenly on two baking sheets. Bake for 20 minutes, then stir with a metal spatula and rotate the sheets to opposite racks to ensure even baking. Bake another 20 minutes, then stir and switch pans again. Bake until the mixture has a fragrant, toasty aroma, about another 15 minutes. Cool the granola in the pan, breaking up any large clumps with a spatula. When the mixture is completely cool, mix in the dried apricots and cranberries and store in an airtight container.
- Garrett Weber-Gale
1 banana (rich in potassium)
1 cup frozen mango (25 percent of daily Vitamin A)
1 cup frozen peaches (200 percent of daily Vitamin C)
1 cup frozen cherries (25 percent of your daily Vitamin A and 10 percent of daily iron)
2 Tbsp. milled flax seed (high in dietary fiber, omega-3s and folate)
11/2 cups orange juice (high in Vitamin C)
Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth. For a more liquid consistency, you can add more orange juice or even some milk. Do not add sugar or mix in ice cream.
- Garrett Weber-Gale