In 2014 we discussed your Winter Olympics dreams and when you should let them die (short answer: already):
Remember watching the Olympics when you were a kid? There was a whole world of possibility! You could watch any sport and wonder whether maybe you had some innate gift for it and would be competing for your country in 20 years.
As you moved through your later childhood and teen years, your dreams had to die bit by bit. You’d realize that you weren’t even the best hockey player on your school’s team, or you’d fail to qualify for regionals in track. Maybe you shot up to a stocky 5’10 and realized you wouldn’t be much of a gymnast. Or maybe you didn’t get that far — maybe, by age 12 or so, you came to realize that you’re just … not athletic.
And yet, every two years – at the summer and winter Olympics – I start to get a little ahead of myself. Just like when I was five years old, I watch the events and wonder if maybe it’s not too late.
Well, friends, I’m here to kill those dreams. I’ve done a little research, and it looks like if you haven’t started most Winter Olympics events by a certain (usually young) age, you’ll never be using “next-level Tinder” in the Olympic village or wearing your country’s weird Cosby/teacher sweater in the Parade of Nations.
Obviously, there are exceptions to all of these. There really are savants who can take up a sport and be at a competitive level right away. There are also some people who are so preternaturally athletic that they’ll excel in any sport you throw at them. Of course, if you’re already skilled in a closely related sport, it’s also not that hard to take up a new one.
We figured it was time to kill our Summer Olympic dreams, too (I’m almost 30 years old and really more into exercise than athletics). In case you were wondering, here’s when you should turn your dream into a dream deferred, focusing on individual sports for practical purposes:
Maybe it’s time to dust off that bow that you impulse-bought back in 2012 when you were really into the Hunger Games. Archery has one of the longest age ranges of any Olympic sport, with competitors reaching into their 50s. Sure, it’ll take some time, but if you show natural aptitude for it and practice a lot … maybe!
I have a kayak and it’s a really fun and easy activity. Olympic canoeing is maybe a bit more intense than my local rivers and streams, though? It also looks like so much fun. Most competitors are in their mid-20s, but some are a bit older. It’s probably easier and more enjoyable to canoe or kayak just for the fun of it, but there’s no harm in researching the (fairly intense) qualification system if you’re really good.
Cycling seems like a sport that you could begin later. I mean, I’ve known how to ride a bike without training wheels since I was 4 and I think I can go pretty fast. It turns out I’m not quite wrong. Cycling is a sport that you can specialize in fairly late, and you can remain at an elite level throughout your 30s. The average age pro cycler is 28, but unlike some other sports many of the athletes weren’t competitive wunderkinds at age 15.
The great news is that cycling can be a lifelong activity and if your heart isn’t set on competing at the Olympics, there are road races for every skill level. I think an athletic, talented person could get a number of non-Olympic gold medals with the right drive and preparation. Go ahead. Hop on that bike and dream a little.
Here’s the thing about equestrian. You can keep doing it for a long time, but you also probably have to start fairly young, if only from a logistics standpoint. With all of the time, money and equipment involved, an adult simply is not going to start at learning how to hold onto the reins and work their way through the many competitive levels.
If you’re already good at riding horses, great! Don’t kill your dream – there are equestrian competitors in their 40s and 50s. If you’ve never been on a horse, maybe some amateur-level horseback riding classes and trail rides would be more fun.
Did you know that Simone Biles, inspiration to millions, gold medalist widely considered the best gymnast of all time, was actually a late starter to gymnastics?
She was six.
If you’re old enough to read this, say farewell to your Olympic dreams. And if you’re already in gymnastics but you aren’t in elite training and competition by your early teens, forget it.
There’s a specific body type that’s optimal for gymnastics – short, muscular, flexible, light – and even if you’re really dedicated and talented, you’ll probably stall out if you get too tall to fly through the air with the greatest of ease.
Good(ish) news! Marathon runners are thought to peak in their late 20s and early 30s, and since super long distances can have negative health implications for young teens, it’s not as though most competitors were running full marathons since they were 12 or anything. Let’s say you’re already a runner, maybe did cross-country for a while, make great times and are willing to train. There is the time and lifestyle thing, of course: if you’re in your 20s or 30s you might not be able to center your schedule around intense runs. But don’t let your age stop you – in Beijing, the US Women’s team was lead by two 35-year-olds.
Eventually your joints will probably fail you and your aerobic capacity will decrease. However, like cycling I’m going to say that this is a sport where it’s okay to dream a little. There are so many marathons and half-marathons out there that if you’re talented and hard-working, you might find yourself qualifying for some of the big-name races even if you’re in your late 20s, 30s or 40s. Remember, an 84-year-old qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon.
Maybe you’re a skilled hunter or live for your weekends at the shooting range. Are you Olympic-level good? Dream big, Annie Oakley. There are shooters in their 40s and 50s competing this year. Granted, it’s not incredibly easy to qualify – or easy at all – but if you measure yourself against the top shooters and can tell that you’re just as good, you might as well acquaint yourself with the International Shooting Sport Federation.
Want to swim? You have a tad longer than some other sports: most swimmers get their feet wet as elementary-school kids at the YMCA or JCC, but a number of competitive swimmers didn’t start swimming seriously until high school or even college. Talent will not always show itself until a swimmer is much older: USA Swimming cautions that a fast 10-year-old will not always be a fast 18-year-old (nor a slow 10-year-old a slow 18-year-old). While not all swimmers are tall, most of them are, so if you’re short with a small wingspan it’s a good idea to put your dream to sleep before it suffers too much.
You can start late as a swimmer if you’re naturally talented and athletic, but don’t expect to stay in the sport forever. Did you hear the NBC commentators marveling that Michael Phelps could hoist himself from the swimming pool between gold-medal races? That’s because a 31-year-old swimmer isn’t the norm. Well, partially. It’s mostly because the NBC commentators are terrible.
The great thing about tennis is that you can start playing as a tot and keep at it til you’re one of those old men with the tiny shorts on the public courts (seriously guys, why always such small shorts?). There are some anecdotal claims of college-level or competitive tennis players who started at age 11 or 15, so that’s heartening. Still, if you haven’t started some kind of training as a kid or teen, have fun on the courts but forget about the Olympics.
My personal love affair with the trampoline died around 1995, when I was doing that popcorn game where you sit down and let other kids bounce you … and I was the skinny kid … and I flew off the trampoline and broke my nose. I think a lot of trampoline dreams died the same way – backyard accidents before trampolines had all of the safety features they do now. If you somehow escaped broken limbs or stitches during your childhood and think Olympic trampolining is the life for you, I have some news you won’t like. Those fancy acrobatics are the result of years of gymnastics training, and the athletes cap out in their early 20s.
We kid about killing your dreams, of course — the only person who can kill your dreams is you. The great thing about most of these individual sports is that you can take them up at any age and even compete at a non-elite level. And if you want to motivate yourself by imagining Olympic glory while you practice? A little daydream never hurt anybody.