For many an athlete, there is no greater honor than representing your country in an Olympics.
And success at one of these events can be a life-changing experience, in the form of professional contracts (assuming they're still amateurs), commercial endorsements and universal respect. Some can even wind up set for life off their performance during one 17-day span.
, who will be competing in the 200m, 4x100m and 4x400m events at the
XXX Summer Olympics
in London beginning Monday, Aug. 6, on NBC and related platforms, recalls that it took several weeks for her to fully wrap her mind around the fact that she had won a silver in the 200m at the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece.
"I think especially at that age, being a teenager, that was definitely true," the 26-year-old Angeleno tells
. "I think it took even more than that. You know, you go through the whole experience, and it's not until you get away from it that you can put everything into perspective and realize what a blessing the whole thing has been. ...
"It was just exciting," the three-time Olympic medalist continues. "Everything was new, the whole Olympic experience. I just have really great memories of everything: You know, walking in the opening ceremonies, the people that I met that are still friends to this day, and I just think there's nothing like that first time."
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Natalie Coughlin, an 11-time medalist who made what could be her final Olympics appearance on July 28, agrees.
"It's very difficult to be present in the moment," the 29-year-old Californian says of her first podium experience in 2004, "because there are so many different things going on. And to train for years and years and years for one small event, something that's 58 seconds long, it's hard to be present mentally and to take it all in because there's so much going on, and the Olympics are very, very big, and there's a lot of attention on them, and there's a lot of craziness that surrounds them, so it's easy to get lost in the moment."
Getting to an Olympics can also mean acclimating to a whole new set of teammates and coaches, something
Tyson Chandler, who will be starting at center for the heavily favored U.S. basketball team all week in London, is getting good at.
After winning an NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, the 29-year-old Californian went to his fifth NBA team, the New York Knicks, in a sign-and-trade, where he had to familiarize himself with new teammates and Coach
Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo offense. But midway through the season, D'Antoni resigned and was replaced by the more defense-oriented
Mike Woodson. Now with Team USA, Chandler gets yet another set of new teammates and a new coach, Duke's
Mike Krzyzewski, but at least the offensive schemes, run by D'Antoni, will be familiar.
"It's all fun," Chandler, a veteran of 11 NBA seasons, says with a chuckle. "When you're a student of the game and you're into basketball, it's all great. Learning different things and different offenses are always fun to me. And the good thing about the USA team is Coach D'Antoni runs the offense a lot of the time, so it'll be a familiar system.
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"It's just another great opportunity," Chandler continues. "As an athlete, you grow up and dream you'll have an opportunity to play in the Olympics and be there to represent yourself and your family, so this definitely has to rank high."
Though he's making his Olympics debut in London, Chandler had a chance to represent his country at the 2010 FIBA World Cup in Turkey, where Team USA - dubbed the "B team" by the U.S. media because so many U.S. stars declined to participate - went undefeated in winning the tournament for the fourth time.
Chandler says without a hint of braggadocio that he expects no less from himself and his teammates this time around.
"I really, honestly think it's about us," he says. "When we played in 2010, I had an up-close-and-personal opportunity to play against a lot of great teams for that championship. And so I think as long as we come and we're focused and we get the system down and play off of one another, we'll be fine."
But not every Olympian finds instant fame after winning a medal. Felix - who recently found herself at the center of a controversy involving a proposed runoff with USA teammate
Jeneba Tarmoh - recalls her life in the show-business mecca of Los Angeles went quickly back to normal once she returned from Athens with her silver in '04.
"You know, living in L.A., it's a different world," she says. "So it was cool. I went right back to school. Everything went, really, back to normal. So I have my normal routine, and I don't feel like much changed at all."
All three athletes say they'd like to get back to the Olympics in 2016, and all three would like to go on as long as their bodies will let them, but Felix admits a lot can change between now and then.
"I think I definitely have one more Games in me," Felix says. "I think that would be a nice way to end it. But I think after this one, depending on how it goes, I'll just take it year by year, and if I'm still passionate about it and still enjoying it, then I'll continue on."