Millions watch the Olympics from home, but only a select few experience the Games the way I did in Beijing. Here are six secrets from an athlete's perspective:
1. Meeting Team USA is a revealing affair.
Every U.S. athlete heads to the same connecting city for a "process" day before shipping off to the Games. That's where competitors are credentialed, drug-tested, provided Team USA apparel and debriefed about the dos and don'ts in representing America.
The best part is going from room to room filling up a HUGE shopping cart with free gear. It's quite a way to meet the other Team USA members; athletes strip to their skivvies for a mad dash to find the best-fitting sizes. Gymnasts are lucky: We're left with the extra-smalls.
2. Olympians don't fly first class.
Oh yes, Olympians sit in the back by the toilets just like everyone else. But it's not all fun and games: Halfway through the flight some gymnasts actually do small workouts down the aisles. It's a fun ride as the majority of the passengers are sporting the red, white and blue.
3. Athletes can be tested for drugs at ANY time.
You could be sleeping, eating, competing or chatting with Matt Lauer — and the World Anti-Doping Agency officials will just show up for a drug test. It's all chosen by a random draw, but I swear some people's names — like mine! — seem to pop up a few more times than others. It's quite a process, too. You have NO privacy during the testing process, and stage fright is the worst (I speak from experience). You can be stuck in the testing process for hours.
4. Dorms are nice, if a little plain.
Olympian housing is divided by countries. There's a cool tradition that you hang your nation's flag outside your room, making the village a neat place as everywhere you look there are different colors flying high. It's a different story inside the dorms, which are stark white when you arrive. Many athletes decorate them so they feel more like home. The apartments also include game rooms, salons and massage tables. There's also a media center to keep you connected to loved ones.
5. Cultures mix in the cafeteria.
Country barriers break down in the commissary. It's an awesome place. Picture an eatery that's as big as a football field with catered food that can accommodate every athlete. The most popular place in Beijing? McDonald's. The line spanned the entire cafeteria front to back every single day!
6. Gold isn't the only metal you compete to win.
Forget the events! There's a more prestigious competition happening between athletes and spectators: pin trading. You are constantly bargaining, bartering and begging for these coveted metals. And the stakes are high: Your rank among international athletes seemingly has nothing to do with your medal haul — but by your pins! And you're treated like royalty if you have a rare one.
Gymnast Shawn Johnson, TODAY.com's special correspondent, won a gold and a silver medal in Beijing.
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