Competing in the Olympics is literally a once — OK, maybe twice, and we’re not counting Michael Phelps here — in-a-lifetime event. The early part of an Olympian’s life is spent training and dreaming, and the latter part is for looking back at their few days of competition.
Two Kern County members of that Olympian fraternity shared their memories during a recent live-streaming of swimming events in Rio held at Bakersfield’s Fox Theater.
“I grew up dreaming of going to the Olympics,” said Bakersfield’s Gabe Woodward, 37, who took home a bronze in the 400-meter freestyle relay in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. “It can happen.”
He said his dreams came true with a third-place finish, but for many competitors that still means room for improvement.
“We got third. That’s not always what we want,” Woodward told the crowd. “We always want to get better.”
And the next time, the American team did get better, although Woodward did not swim with it.
At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the men’s team took home a gold in the freestyle relay, with Jason Lezak of Irvine (who was also at the Fox) pulling ahead right at the end in one of swimming’s most exciting finishes in recent history.
Larsen Jensen, also of Bakersfield, was at the event to talk about his Olympic experience, too. In 2004, he won the silver in the 1,500-meter freestyle race and came in fourth in the 400-meter freestyle. In 2008, he came in fifth in the 1,500-meter freestyle and took home the bronze in the 400-meter freestyle.
“What took me and Jason and two friends to do, Larsen did all by himself,” Woodward said, comparing the 400 relay team to Larsen’s individual 400-meter.
Asked to compare the moments before a smaller meet and an Olympic race, Jensen, 30, said they’re actually alike.
“For me, it was almost like going on autopilot,” he said. “There was really no difference. It’s just putting myself in the zone to reach my peak performance.”
The Games were about more than the competition, however.
The Olympic village is “really interesting,” Jensen said. “It’s like going to the most diverse place in the world.”
Jensen recalled meeting athletes not only from different countries but of different physical sizes, from tall basketball players to small gymnasts — and swimmers like himself who fall somewhere in between.
Jensen later served as a Navy SEAL, until 2015. Around the time of the 2012 London Games, he was shipped to Afghanistan, making this year’s Olympics the first he’s watched from the comfort of his home since competing.
Jensen currently attends the Stanford Graduate School of Business, though his loyalty still lies with his alma mater, USC. As he told the crowd, there’s a reason his son is named Troy.
A few days later, The Californian caught up with Jimmy Watkins, who competed in track cycling during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
The now-Kern County Fire Department engineer said he’s since given up cycling. And while competing was a fun period of his life — and making the Olympics his biggest life achievement after having children — he doesn’t really miss it, Watkins said.
“I’m very happy with where I am now,” said Watkins, a father of two who prefers these days to spend time with his family and not travel.
What Olympic watchers don’t see, he also said, is all the hard work that goes into training and competing at that level.
Asked what he remembers most about London, Watkins said the roar of the crowd.
“Great Britain is a pretty big cycling nation,” he said. “It was unbelievable how loud the crowd was during events.”
Another Kern County resident, Kernville’s Eric Giddens, is a kayaker who has been to every Olympics since 1992. He competed in 1996 and coached his wife, Rebecca, in 2000 and 2004, when she won a silver medal. He’s now a color commentator for NBC’s kayaking coverage.
Giddens said the feeling at the Olympics has changed as they have become more commercial, but there’s still nothing like it.
“Being in an Olympic city during the Games is just a blast,” he said. “There's so much going on.
“You’ve got athletes walking around with medals, people with their country’s flags draped over themselves, just having a great time. And watching athletes who put so much into it — and usually not making any money — and they're putting it all out on the line, that’s great.”