Who Wants to Be a Gold Medalist?COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Olympic canoe and kayak coaches were intrigued by Athlete No. 214. After seeing his performance in speed, agility and endurance tests, they asked him to get on a specialized rowing machine and try to maneuver a high-tech kayak in the Olympic training pool.
There was only one issue: No. 214, a.k.a. Fabian Griffith, did not know how to kayak or canoe. He also did not know how to swim. Still, he gamely strapped on a life vest and jumped in.
Mr. Griffith was one of 89 athletes at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs who had agreed to perform a number of sportive tasks with the goal of being identified as an athlete with the ability to make an Olympic team. They had also agreed to be on television for a program that will air on NBCSN and NBC on Nov. 24 and 25.
“The Next Olympic Hopeful” scouting program — part flashy TV production, part grueling physical test — is the result of a need for fresh athletic talent in some Olympic sports and a pitch from Brian Gordon, the senior vice president and managing director for marketing and media at the U.S. Olympic Committee, and his colleagues Lisa Baird and Alan Ashley in 2016.
“He had us repeat the phrase, ‘You’re the next Olympic hopeful,’ a few times,” said Kelly Skinner, the vice president of sport performance at U.S.O.C., imitating Mr. Gordon in a singsong “Jeopardy” voice. The sports performance staff liked the sound of it.
“We have a TV show,” Mr. Gordon said.
One year later, the competition and TV show came into existence as the “American Idol” of American Olympics. Instead of winning a recording contract, competitors win the chance to train for a slot on an Olympic team, with financial support.
The idea of “talent transfer” — that a sprinter could become a bobsledder (Lolo Jones) or a gymnast could become a diver (the Galashan twins) — is not new. But in the “Olympic Hopeful” model, the athletes don’t come from professional sports backgrounds. Most are full-time students or hold full-time jobs.
Not everyone thought it would work, until Josh Williamson, then a 20-year-old lacrosse player, emerged as a winner in 2017. Within months, Mr. Williamson transformed into a world-class bobsledder, winning five international medals. He is expected to compete at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The 89 competitors selected this year would compete for slots in one of eight sports, up from four sports in 2017: weight lifting, rowing, rugby, canoe/kayak, cycling, skeleton, bobsled and boxing.
Athletes were flown to the U.S. Olympic Training Center and shuffled through the Gold Room, where anthropometric measurements were taken. The physicality of the amateur athletes — wingspans reminiscent of Michael Phelps, quads that could rip inseams and never-ending abdominal muscles — had some of the staff bug-eyed.
If the reality of the fierce competition began in the measurement room, the reality TV began in full upon entering orientation, where bright production lights and dozens of cameras hovered over athletes every angle. There were speeches with multiple takes, directors instructing athletes to cheer like this and walk like that, and a reminder that producers were granted permission to film everything everywhere.
Off camera, contractual and brand obligations were laid bare. Each athlete was provided three numbered shirts for the three days of competition. That was the required uniform. No non-Nike gear of any kind was permitted, with the exception of shoes. No iPhones either. Want to call home? A Samsung phone would be provided, the crew said.
Sylvia Hoffman was ready. She was asked to join the U.S. Bobsled team for a training camp in Lake Placid in 2015. But newly out of school, Ms. Hoffman was not in a position to fund her own Olympic path. The financial support awarded to Olympic hopefuls winners convinced her to apply.
“I don’t have time to waste,” said Ms. Hoffman, who is 29 and from Texas. Some of her competitors were as young as 15. “And I don’t want to waste my athleticism.”
All athletes had to go through a day and a half of general drills before dozens of coaches, producers and U.S.O.C. staff members. There were weighted pull-ups, squat tests, sprints (with and without rugby balls), rowing tests and agility tests.
Barf buckets lined the training centers and drone cameras flew overhead, catching every grunt, gasp and expletive, as well as one competitor exhaling after an endurance test to say “OHMYGOSH I JUST WANT A HAMBURGER.”
The two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields was on hand for a reality check. “This is no free trip. There is no ‘everything is going to be easy,’” she said. She reached into her backpack to take out her two Olympic gold medals. “There are levels to getting here.”
Furious nods followed. Many of the athletes expressed an unflappable conviction that they would one day win an Olympic medal, in a sport yet to be identified. At times, that confidence was so strong that a producer was overheard saying they were not capturing enough disappointment.
To their credit, most athletes, including Mr. Griffith and Ms. Hoffman, succeeded in advancing to the next level of testing where they would be asked to complete sport specific tests.
All but one sport in the program — bobsled, skeleton, boxing, canoe/kayak, cycling, rugby and weight lifting — wanted to see No. 319, Kayla Caldwell, test for their sport.
“I think I kayaked in a circle once,” she said as she attempted to fit as many tests as possible into her schedule, including riding a bike on a velodrome and getting in the boxing ring with Ms. Shields.
That’s the magic of the program, Mr. Skinner said. Level the playing field to identify existing talent, and put them through physical and mental tests to see who has the real drive.
But as the weekend winded down, reality sunk in: Becoming an Olympic athlete is neither glamorous nor lucrative, Jamie Staff, director of performance of BMX and sprint track, said.
Of the nine athlete tested in track cycling, only three had bike shoes. Their faces expressed a mix of fear, excitement and a bit of anxiety.
“You have to put your life on hold and go in at 100 percent, that’s what it demands at this level,” Mr. Staff told athletes after they finished riding the velodrome — slowly, as it was their first time.
He paused and looked at each athlete, each in borrowed helmets. “The next Olympics is in two years,” he said. “The chances of any of you making it are very, very slim. After that, who knows.”