Coaches and staff do their best to prepare them, and former alternates often give them advice. They’ve heard the stories: autograph seekers pulling their pens away when they hear the word “alternate”; security guards barring them from locker rooms, fields, and athlete lounges. Then there’s the tale of the 2008 women’s gymnastics alternates who not only weren’t allowed to stay in the Beijing Olympic Village, they didn’t even stay in China, but instead found themselves in Tokyo due to visa complications. “We knew we had a really important role,” says gymnast Anna Li. “But we weren’t going to be treated the same.” Yet until they live it, they can’t really understand it.
It starts with smaller pills to swallow, like the swag. While less than half of the 2012 Olympians won medals, all 529 US athletes took home duffel bags full of corporate freebies that included an O.C. Tanner gold ring, Omega watch, and custom gear from Nike, Oakley, and Ralph Lauren. For most athletes, the booty isn’t about dollar value (though it’s a serious haul), but what it symbolizes. It is proof of how far they’ve come and what they’ve accomplished. Most Olympic athletes don’t have deep-pocketed sponsor deals. Their faces won’t be on Wheaties boxes. They don’t have a professional career waiting for them in synchronized swimming or rowing. This is the end goal, and a few bags full of swag means a lot. “We were actually told we were going to get the gear,” says Kintzer. “But when we got to the Village and all our teammates were getting ready to pick theirs up, one of the coaches came up to the alternates and said, ‘Oh, we made a mistake.’ I know it sounds materialistic but it’s not. We were just so excited.”
Then there’s the not-so-little issue of accommodations. The general rule? No alternates in the Olympic Village. That means Williams and all the Rio 2016 alternates will miss out on the 3,600 luxury apartments, rec rooms, spas, swimming pools, state-of-the-art gyms, private sections on Barra da Tijuca beach, buffets, friendships, and the festive sense of belonging that comes with an Olympic credential. “The Olympic Village was like Neverland compared to where we stayed,” says Morehouse. “I didn’t want to leave when I got there.” Yet he had to. Only able to visit on a guest pass, Morehouse had to relish his five hours in the Village.
There are exceptions. Kintzer lucked out and found herself sharing a Village apartment with two US divers and a whitewater rafter. Others, like soccer player Meghan Klingenberg, took matters into their own hands. “I was supposed to stay at some dorm somewhere,” she says. “I couldn’t do it. I lasted one night. So I called my teammate Becky and asked, ‘Do you have a couch?’ She did.”
Most, however, remain on the outside looking in, staying in places they call “the almost Olympic Village” or “my building of shame.” In 2012, the women’s gymnastic alternates resided and trained in Birmingham, 125 miles from London. “We only saw our teammates during their competition,” says Li. “And we never went to the Olympic Village at all.” The exclusion doesn’t only apply to two-legged alternates. In Athens, equestrian eventing alternate Will Faudree’s horse, Antigua, was permitted to board at the Markopoulo Olympic Equestrian Centre but instead was housed in temporary stabling at a nearby farm.
Occasionally the second-class-citizen treatment comes from unexpected sources. “There was definitely a different vibe between the team and the alternates,” says Li. “It was difficult to deal with some girls who’d made the team. They didn’t understand how much it meant to me to go to London and that I was actually proud to be an alternate.”
The sharpest daggers don’t always stem from the obvious slights. Sometimes it’s the smaller moments that appear innocuous but resonate long after the closing ceremonies. “The thing that hurt the most,” says Morehouse, is that “they took a team picture and didn’t allow us in it. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I trained four years and fell $30,000 in debt to make it there and they made a concerted effort not to have us in the picture. We understood we were separate and different, but removing us was a refusal to acknowledge how hard we’d worked.”
As an alternate, Williams could spend her time in Rio at the Copacabana Beach nightclub, but she won’t. She’s going to spend hours every day in the Maria Lenk pool, standing an arm’s length from teammates Koroleva and Alvarez. She’ll rehearse and master every second of their routine. She’s going to eat properly, get eight-plus hours of sleep, and keep a smile on her face. “Spares can’t have negative attitudes,” explains Teti. He’s witnessed how the wrong demeanor can create distractions for the team. “In ’96 one of the alternates kept talking to the press: ‘I should have been in the boat. I got screwed.’”
Some alternates are used to helping their respective teams. When coaching at the Olympics, Teti would put alternates in boats every practice to give other rowers much-needed extra recovery. Klingenberg and her fellow alternates would pretend they were Japan or France during practices so the starting squad could prepare for their opponents’ specific styles of play. “Overall it felt like a business trip until the games began,” says Li.
“We had to help scout all the other field hockey games,” says Kintzer. That meant waking up at 6am, wolfing down breakfast and getting to the field. One alternate sat in the tower shooting video while the other parked themselves in the stands and punched an iPad to record every pass, turnover, shot, and score. That meant finding time for team meetings, team practice, more scouting, eating lunch, working out, even more scouting, downloading scouting reports, and eating dinner. “We wouldn’t get to bed until 11pm. Every night.”
Not to say alternates don't enjoy themselves. They do. “My goal was to have so much fun I’d rather be an alternate than in the boat,” says Teti. In Sydney, the US delegation took gymnast Tasha Schwikert and her fellow alternates on a trip that included parasailing, jet skiing, and swimming with dolphins. On a visit to Old Trafford soccer stadium, Klingenberg met Manchester United star Rio Ferdinand and played ping pong with Brazilian phenom Neymar. Kintzer had the best moment of all when her boyfriend Michael Briggs flew over from the States, dropped down on one knee, and proposed. “I went to the Olympic Village and told all my teammates,” she says.
Unlike the countless books that have been written about the Olympic Games and athletes alike, no such tomes exist about alternates. There is no list of names of Americans who have served as Olympic alternates (one notable exception: the organization Friends of Rowing History has compiled a list on their website of every oarsman—including alternates—who has gone to the Olympics). No estimated number. No real history at all. The only crumb resembling anything official came from Bill Mallon, founder of sportsreference.com and OlyMADmen, a group dedicated to chronicling Olympic history. “Alternates were at the first modern Olympics in 1896,” says Mallon.
Individual stories, however, exist. There have been alternates old and young. Thirty-six years after winning gold medals in the 100 and 200 meter sprints at the 1912 Stockholm Games, Ralph Craig, at age 59, was named an alternate to the US yachting team. Tasha Schwikert was a mere 15 years old at the 2000 Games. Many went on to fight for freedom, including Forester Clark, who was decorated nine times for valor in World War II, and received the Bronze Star from General Patton himself. Some, like Ute Gaehler, dared to find freedom. As an East German toboggan alternate at the 1964 Innsbruck Austria Games, Gaehler snuck out one night while her teammates were celebrating and fled to West Germany.
There have been alternate twins: rowers Ann and Marie Jonik at the 1976 Montreal Games. Lou Gellerman, an alternate rower in the 1960 Rome Olympics, went on to become the public address announcer for the Washington Huskies. Former equestrian alternate (1952 Games) turned restaurant executive Norman Brinker is credited with inventing the salad bar.
A handful of alternates went on to fame and varying degrees of fortune. One of the first was Hawaiian-born Duke Kahanamoku, who was named a water polo alternate at age 42. Kahanamoku was a surfing legend, famed waterman, five-time Olympic-medal winner in swimming (between 1912 and 1922), and movie star who appeared in 15 feature films, including Mr. Roberts opposite Jack Lemmon and Henry Fonda.
Boxer Joe Frazier, 1964 alternate, wound up with gold around his neck in Tokyo after Buster Mathis broke his thumb in training. By 1970, Smokin' Joe had become the heavyweight champion of the world—the following year he beat Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century. Two-time Greco-Roman wrestling alternate Randy Couture found superstardom in MMA. ‘The Natural’ has claimed three UFC heavyweight and two light-heavyweight titles, beating the likes of Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Vitor Belfort.
And then there is Erland Van Lidth De Jeude, the 1976 US wrestling alternate. The 6’6” 400-pounder with the bald, bullet-shaped head graduated from MIT, had a 160 IQ, and studied to be an opera singer. But Van Lidth De Jeude cemented his iconic status after going to Hollywood. Roles he played included Terror, the leader of the Fordham Baldies, the ’60s street gang in The Wanderers; the illuminated villain Dynamo in the Schwarzenegger pic Running Man; and Grossberger, the most notorious inmate of the Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder comedy classic Stir Crazy.