American Todd Wells isn't one of those Olympians who was raised eating, breathing and sleeping thoughts of the Olympic Games. Yet he is about to compete in his third Games as a mountain biker in London on Sunday, August 12.
"Growing up, I wasn't that into the Olympics. I would watch it, but I never thought I'd compete in it," said the 36-year-old Wells, who races for Specialized. "I raced BMX, but that wasn't in the Olympics at that time.
"I didn't grow up dreaming of going to the Olympics like a lot of people do. I was excited to go the first time, but I wasn't prepared for how big of a deal it would be. It wasn't something I had built up in my mind. Just that first time was really overwhelming in Athens [in 2004]."
Wells finished 19th in Athens.
"The second time in Beijing [in 2008], I had had my best season ever to that date internationally leading into it," he said. "I put a lot of pressure on myself and expected to have a good race, and I had a complete meltdown there. That was one of the worst races of my career." He finished 43rd out of 48 finishers.
Now the Durango, Colorado rider is ready for Olympics number three. "This time around, I have the experience, and I don't think it will be overwhelming. I'm not going to put any added pressure on myself. Of course, I want to do as well as I possibly can, but if I don't do well, it's not the end of the world. I feel like I have a good attitude."
It wasn't easy for Wells to make this year's US Olympic team. He crashed just prior to the start of the first World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa and had to sit that round out. For the next few rounds, all part of the qualifying process, his results were conspicuously not as strong as in previous years. Fortunately for Wells, the other American Olympic hopefuls were also struggling, and no men qualified automatically, leaving coaches to pick riders to fill both men's team spots.
"In one sense, the pressure is off to make the team, but in the other, the pressure is on. It was a goal to make the team, but now that I've made the team, I want to do well and show the guys that picked me that I am the right choice," said Wells. "This is the first time I haven't made it automatically. My inclusion was the decision of a selection panel."
The panel selected Wells for the team upon considering not only his results of this season, but also his proven record of competing internationally in recent years. For example, in September 2011, he was seventh at the cross country world championships in Champery, Switzerland.
Fortunately, for Wells, his form came around after he was named to the US team on June 15. "When I first made the team, I hadn't had any results yet this year, so I was nervous," he said. "I didn't want to make the team and then go there and suck. Now I feel like I'm getting some confidence back and my form has come around so now I'm more excited again to take part in my third Games."
Wells had his best-ever career World Cup finish in Windham, New York in late June, then followed up with a second place at the cross country national championship and a win in the short track national championship in early July.
"I don't know if I'd call it a blessing, but it might work out ok. I'm a firm believer that things happen for a reason. I would rather have had it go the way I'd hoped, but this is where I'm at and I'm only looking forward.
"Windham was a confidence booster. I'd switched some stuff up and went back to my old training plan over the past few months because the new one I had employed this year in an effort to do some more cross country specific training to maybe gain a percent or two wasn't really working out for me," he said. "I went back to my old training, and I figured I'd come around by Mont-Sainte-Anne, but I didn't think I'd be great there [he was 22nd]. I was worse than I thought I'd be and then I was worried, but Windham was confirmation that the hard work was starting to pay off."
De-emphasizing results at some of the major races is part of Wells' larger plan for success in London. "Over the years, I learned not to try to be as good as I could at all the races. A lot of times doing that I found myself mediocre all the time. In the hope of having an above average performance at the Olympics, I have to be willing to sacrifice some events."
Optimistic about his chances, he said, "Hopefully, it will all come together for the Olympics."