TREY HARDEE | Decathlon
Height: 6’5” | Weight: 210-215 pounds
Born: Birmingham, Ala.
Lives: Austin, Texas
Previous Olympics: 2008 (He did not finish.)
Most Olympic athletes train for years to be the best in the world at one sport. Trey Hardee has trained to be the best at 10. But as an early favorite to outpoint the rest of the field in the 2012 decathlon, this humble Southerner is taking nothing for granted. Dually armed with the heartbreak of a disappointing international debut and the training acumen of a decades-older athlete, Hardee appears every bit worth the hype in the countdown to London.
Hardee’s march to London began in Beijing four years ago with his failure to finish the event. He was in fourth place and on course to medal at the 2008 Olympics, but after missing his height in the pole vault, Hardee fell out of contention. Though the experience was more an indicator of competitive maturity than ability, Hardee was crushed. “That was my first big international competition,” he says. “Physically, I was ready, but mentally and emotionally, I wasn’t prepared. But I’ve matured across the board. Because of that mental fortitude and emotional stability, you can train harder and more effectively with those moments in mind. I’m bigger and stronger and faster. Mentally, I’m a rock when it gets to the worst part of competition.”
Since Beijing, Hardee has channeled his inner phoenix, winning every meet in which he’s competed, save for one. That dominance is magnified when you consider the breadth of disciplines involved in the decathlon. Over the course of two days, decathletes compete in the 100, 400, 1500, 110 hurdles, high jump, pole vault, long jump, shot put, discus and javelin. By necessity, decathletes need to be strong, powerful and incredibly well-conditioned, not to mention technically masterful in a greatly diverse range of events. So how much training does that entail, exactly?
“It’s pretty much all day, every day,” Hardee says. “There’s strength and conditioning for a few hours, then you’re back out on the track for more physiological stuff — lots of technical practice, acceleration work. As we get closer to [the] season, it gets much more finely tuned and specific. We focus a lot on commonalities between events rather than being too event specific. We just try to train those systems and those connecting muscles to be powerful and synergistic.”
For Hardee and his teammates, weight work is crucial. Olympic lifts and their derivatives — think clean, snatch, hang clean, etc. — comprise the bulk of their time in the weight room. They also perform a variety of plyometrics and pressing movements, while occasionally (if minimally) incorporating isolation work for accessory muscles such as biceps, triceps and individual delt heads. For a decathlete, the moves that blast their hips, shoulders and core for optimal performance are foundational. But it’s all incredibly taxing, both on the mind and body. “We train the way we train so that the decathlon is the easiest part of what we do,” Hardee says. “It’s only two days.”
Because he doesn’t have much time to eat — or sleep or do anything else — Hardee prefers to keep his nutrition plan simple. “Eat often,” he says. “There’s no real trick. I eat as healthy as I can, organic when I can. I drink a ton of water. And I try to fix any holes I have in my diet with supplements.” Hardee throws back fish oil, B vitamins, calcium and vitamin E with breakfast, and he uses whey protein and glutamine to speed recovery between workouts. “Also, I don’t travel a lot of places without my sugar-free Red Bull,” Hardee says.
How does Hardee elevate his status as “gold-medal favorite” into “gold medalist” come this summer? Hard work, of course. But when pressed to divulge what he needs the most work on between now and London, the gregarious athlete is stumped. “My jumps, I guess,” he says, in an appeasing, almost questioning tone.
In the absence of ego, pragmatism rules.
Train hard? Then you need to take a page from the decathlete playbook to keep yourself performing consistently at a high level. Though they may seem superfluous, these pre-habilitative rituals reduce the risk of overtraining, catastrophic injury and mental fatigue and are therefore worth a closer look, Trey Hardee says.
1 WARM UP: “I think a good warm-up is probably one of the most overlooked, beneficial things that you can do,” Hardee says. “Sometimes my warm-up takes a half hour or more. Do band work with your hips or shoulders and elbows. Over time, these things become your strongest parts.”
2 THERAPY: “Everyone has their own methods, but for us, it means a lot of chiropractic, cold tubs, massage, acupuncture, stretching,” he says.
3 INJURY RECOGNITION: “If something is hurt, don’t try to train through it,” Hardee says. “Just let it be.”
4 WEIGHT MAINTENANCE: “Your body has a natural weight that it wants to be at,” Hardee says. “If you’re stressing your joints and muscles with extra weight, it’s going to let you know about it.”
Photo by Victah Sailer
NATALIE BURGENER | Weightlifting
Height: 5’3” | Weight: 138.9 pounds (competition)
Born: Protection, Kan.
Lives: Colorado Springs, Colo.
Previous Olympics: 2008 (12th, 63-kg. weight class)
Unlike other sports, in which intricacies abound, successfully completing an Olympic lift is a pure and uncomplicated feat. A heavy, plate-loaded barbell on the platform perfectly illustrates the struggle: athlete vs. gravity. On each attempt during competition, one wins … and one loses. Those who win earn Olympic gold — and membership in the rare and celebrated group that Natalie Burgener, 28, hopes to join this summer.
Though already one of the strongest women, pound for pound, in the world today — she holds the American records in the snatch, clean and jerk, and total poundage — Burgener is on a quest for more. A 12th-place finisher in her weight class (63 kg.) during the 2008 Olympics, Burgener is eyeing the London Games as the final chapter in an already-impressive career. But her road there will be littered with obstacles, not the least of which is qualifying for one of only two spots on the U.S. women’s weightlifting roster. “I know that it’s going to be extremely hard,” she says. “I know what numbers it’s going to take, and I have hit those numbers in the gym before, just not in a competition. It’s just a matter of doing them in competition and being healthy.”
Health is another matter entirely. Early in 2011, Burgener underwent surgery for a torn labrum in her hip — kind of an essential joint for life, much less Olympic weightlifting. Her prognosis was good, but her surgeon anticipated a year’s worth of recovery time. A few short months later, at the American Open, she totaled 198 kilos (105 in the clean and jerk, 93 in the snatch) to win her weight class. “That total would put me on the team right now,” she says. “I just have to continue to be smart with my training and recovery. My body is probably going to hurt, but I know that I’m only going to have one or hopefully two more competitions in my career.”
To get through those meets, Burgener adopts a mind-over-matter approach that starts long before competition. “Each lift is less than a second, so things can go wrong extremely quickly,” she says. “There are a lot of people who train to go to maximal effort very often, and they don’t care if they miss a lift. For me, what works best is to not miss. For every weight that I approach, I know that I’m going to make it.”
While the aim is simple — perfect lifts every time — each clean and jerk and snatch requires technical perfection and an almost poetic muscular synchronicity, neither of which is possible without total-body power and strength. And that starts with the squat. “We do a lot of full-depth squats,” Burgener says. “We receive everything in a full squat, so it’s really important that our legs are strong enough to stand up after we receive the bar. But we also do front squats, back squats and rack squats. We do a lot of hamstring work, like Romanian deadlifts and good mornings.”
Burgener, who lives and trains at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, tries to consume 40 percent of her daily calories from lean proteins like chicken, fish and lean red meats. She tries to consume most of her carbs from fruits and veggies and takes in plenty of healthy fats but prefers to stay gluten free. “I try not to eat a bunch of bread, pasta or rice unless I really need it,” she says. “If I’m really dragging, I’ll have a sweet potato.”
So will Burgener hoist some golden hardware along with 200-plus kilos in London? The veteran answers: “I’m a lot more confident stepping up to the bar at a competition than some people who have only been competing for a few years.”
An inside look at Natalie Burgener’s training supplementation plan.
KURT ANGLE | Freestyle Wrestling
5’10” | 211½ pounds (competition) | 245 pounds (offseason)
Born: Mount Lebanon, Pa.
Previous Olympics: 1996 (1st, men’s freestyle, 100 kg.)
When Kurt Angle stepped onto the mat for an Olympic gold-medal tussle against Iranian Abbas Jadidi, the gravitas of the moment was not lost on him. Nor was the opportunity squandered. Though the end of the match was marred in controversy, Angle emerged as the Olympic freestyle wrestling champ, capping off a meteoric rise through the ranks of a sport mostly dominated by athletes from countries across the pond.
That was in Atlanta … in 1996.
After that, Angle retired from the amateur scene and parlayed his success into a lucrative career in professional wrestling. In recent years, he has also moonlighted as an action star in a handful of low-budget films. But today, some 15 years later, a nostalgic yet incredibly fit 43-year-old Angle is back in the gym training for another shot at Olympic glory. Dismissed by some as an attempt to brighten his star among a fanatical wrestling community, Angle says this return to USA Wrestling is more genuine than anything he’s done in a long time. “This isn’t just a PR thing,” he says. “This is me trying to do what I want do, which is to be an Olympic athlete. I’ve really wanted to do it since 2004. I just feel healthy and good, younger and rejuvenated. I really missed it.”
Part of that rejuvenation is likely because of a reduced work schedule with TNA Impact Wrestling, for whom Angle is a headline attraction. By request, he now wrestles three to four times per month, down from the 15 to 18 matches he was slated for each month through last summer. This, combined with a better idea of what it takes to prepare for a gold-medal run, has allowed Angle to turn back the clock in the gym. “I’m about as strong as I was at my last Olympics,” he says. “But back then, I didn’t train smart. I’d go in the gym on leg day and do 125 reps on the squat with 135 pounds. Then 225 for 75 reps. Then 315 for 40 and 405 for around 30 reps. This was with no belt, no wraps and only about 90 seconds rest between sets. I wouldn’t even try that now, and I can’t comprehend why I did it back then. It was just stuff that I knew nobody else in the world was doing in my weight class. That was my mentality.”
A kinder, gentler Angle now favors more sport-specific training and a total-body strengthening program over the maniacal, eight-hour workouts of his youth. “When you get past 40, your body benefits more if you do your whole body in one day. So that’s what I do three days a week,” he says. “But my body cannot do more than three days a week on the mats, four days a week strength training, four days a week conditioning and three days of plyos. These vary, but it’s about 14 workouts a week, two-a-days.”
Angle isn’t shy about the challenges presented by his age. Knowing that he’ll be facing wrestlers half his age, he has become a huge fan of adequate nutrition, stretching and workout variability to keep his joints and metabolism in top condition. He attributes a particular product in his food line, Kurt Angle Foods’ Ultra Fiber, with helping him to restore his health and athleticism. “I was borderline diabetic, borderline hypercholesterolemic, and within three months of using it, I was healthy again,” he says. “I’ve lost nothing but body fat. It’s made me feel younger and recuperate faster.”
But will it be enough for Angle to reach the London Games? “Back then, I put so much pressure on myself to perform, but now the pressure’s off,” he says. “I’m having fun with it. I’m excited about it. I haven’t felt this good in a long time.”
In addition to his three to four strength workouts per week, Kurt Angle performs three plyometric workouts, like the one below, to improve speed, explosiveness and overall conditioning. “Strength is very important on the mat, but it’s really all about the conditioning,” he says.
Photo by Alan King