By JULIE JAG
LONDON – For the past two weeks, Matt Charbot has enveloped himself in preparations for today’s Olympic men’s triathlon.
He’s put in extra long hours running, biking and swimming with his teammates at the Team USA training camp in Guildford, about an hour’s train ride from the city. He’s bypassed fish and chips for the healthy team food, attended team meetings and stayed sequestered in the team hotel. On Monday morning, he was even directed by his coaches to get mentally prepared to race.
Yet, when the starting gun goes off this morning, the new Aptos transplant will be on his own, abandoned to watch with the crowds on the other side of the barriers as his training partners Hunter Kemper and Miguel Huerta race around Hyde Park.
Such is the torturous reality of an alternate: all the work of an Olympic athlete, none of the glory.
“I’m not getting any experience. It’s just an awkward vacation,” said Charbot, 29. “It’s not even a vacation; it’s an awkward business trip.”
Every Olympics, hundreds of elite athletes find themselves in the same position as Charbot. They are the stop gap, brought over by their countries and asked to keep in top shape just in case an Olympic teammate can’t make it to the starting line.
For some, the reserve position provides the perfect opportunity to experience the Olympics without the pressure to perform. Then, ideally, they can use that experience to improve their chances if they actually get to the starting line four years later.
For others, it’s simply sadistic.
Team USA archer Jake Kaminski said filling in as an alternate for the Beijing Olympics helped steel him for his London 2012 campaign, where the men’s team took silver.
“It didn’t really bother me that much at that time. The full process was I went from last in trials and not even making the first cut to getting in and making the alternate spot,” Kaminski said last week. “That was a really a big achievement for me. I was in a lot different place in my training and a lot different mindset.”
For others, the process can be painful. At the start of the London 2012 Games, artistic gymnastics alternate Anna Li fell at the U.S. Olympic team’s training site in Birmingham and tore ligaments in her neck while training for an event she was never expected to compete in.
And that’s just physical pain. Emotionally, Charbot said, it’s the cruelest form of torture. He puts in the same training and can keep pace with Huerta and Kemper. Yet whereas they get the royalty treatment when it comes to gear, access to events and sponsorship deals, he gets left out in the cold.
“I think it’s tough,” said USA Triathlon high performance manager Andy Schmitz. “He’s an unofficial part of the delegation. He has no credentials, no access to the venues, he can’t [even] get into the athletes village as a resident. It takes a tough person to buck up and do it. Hopefully he’s getting a taste of what Olympics are all about and that serves as additional motivation for him.”
Charbot said the experience serves as more of a constant reminder of how close he came to becoming an actual Olympian. Charbot spent most of the last two years as the top American on the International Triathlon Union circuit and believed he had all but punched his ticket to the Games.
“If I was one of those guys who was a long shot for making the team and an alternate, I would be stoked, honored,” Charbot said. “But a year ago I envisioned I would be part of the Olympics — not hoping I would make the team, just kind of assuming I would make the team.”
For the first time since triathlon became an Olympic sport in 2000, though, the United States didn’t automatically qualify to send the maximum three competitors in the men’s race. Then, during the ITU San Diego race that served as the Team USA individual trials – where the top American and any U.S. finisher within the top nine would earn an Olympic spot — Charbot imploded with a 34th-place finish. Meanwhile, veteran Kemper sealed a spot on his fourth Olympic team by finishing fifth behind race winner and Olympic gold medal favorite Jonathan Brownlee. Huerta then came out of nowhere to finish ninth and seize the final qualifying berth.
A USA Triathlon discretionary committee later named Charbot the alternate.
Charbot said Kemper and Huerta turned down the option to race in another ITU event and possibly secure the U.S. a third Olympic berth, which may have been helpful in the 43-kilometer cycling portion of today’s draft-legal race, which also includes a 1.5k swim and a 10k run. While he thinks he would have been given that third spot, he doesn’t hold a grudge against his teammates.
“At the end of the day, it’s my fault. I didn’t make the team,” he said.
Still, he’s looking forward to getting past today’s race and focusing on the next time he’ll actually step up to the starting line. He says that will be at the ITU Sprint Championships in Stockholm on Aug. 26, where he’ll be joined by fellow Aptos-area triathlete Tommy Zaferes, a 2016 Olympic hopeful.
“I just want it to be over,” Charbot said. “I just want it to be next Monday.”